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Surprised by the politics in shows like Shen Yun?

ShenYun12(2) (Small)

At Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Chinese performnace troupe Shen Yun featured drummers, dancers and propaganda that surprised some audiences. Some were OK with the message, but some were offended.

In the days since Shen Yun Performing Arts, the Chinese drum and dance troupe, left Atlanta to move onto the next stop on its perpetual tour, conversation continued to rumble about the shows they’d performed at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Some loved the performance, but commenters on Inside Access were upset by the Falun Gong politics of the show, “subtle as a taser shot to the noggin,” the AJC review said. It’s not that commenters necessarily disagree or deny that persecution has taken place in China. They were surprised to see it — especially a few violent scenes,  one involving a taser and another where a mother and child are beaten — in a show promoted as a music-and-acrobatic spectacular

Wrote Marilee Coughlin:

While the dancers are fabulous, and the costumes are gorgeous, I felt like I was at a revival or brain-washing session. … it was billed as a family show, but I question whether children should see a show where a mother and child are beaten by black-shirted men and the mother dragged off stage, apparently dead – then on the garish screen, she can be seen “ascending” accompanied by monks. Creepy sums up parts of the show quite well.

Local Falun Gong groups sponsored the show, but people I’ve heard from said it wasn’t adequate warning that politics might enter into a performance touted as family friendly. The show has taken a drubbing in international press, but AJCer Howard Pousner talked with several audience members who weren’t offended by the message, but they weren’t expecting it either. (You can read his entire story, “Many Atlantans OK with Chinese dance trouple’s politics.”) Several said they were fine with it: they wanted to know the other side of the story.

Here’s what another commenter, KJ, had to say:

My recommendation for the show’s creators.. [sic] If you want to focus on the message and political struggle, do it. The world would write rave reviews about a play or show that took an issue straight on. You probably couldn’t do the show in China or that would be the last show, but I believe the rest of the world prefers an “in your face” approach. State your message and stir it up.

I asked for a response from the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre’s PR agency, and received this statement from J. Barkley Russell on behalf of the local presenting organizations, not Cobb Energy Centre itself:

On behalf of the presenting organizations, we acknowledge the concerns expressed by some attendees at the Shen Yun performances regarding the sensitive content in certain sections of the show. As in years past, our brochures, window posters, website and press releases disclosed the show’s presenting organizations, New Times Cultural and Education Center, Inc. (NTCEC) and the Southeast US Falun Dafa Association—they have presented the show since it began appearing in Atlanta, four years ago.

In the future we will consider adding information to our materials that references the show’s content. We hope this has addressed your concerns.

I didn’t see this show, but in the commercials, billboards, and even the press materials, I didn’t see anything explicit about the show’s point of view, except for a passing reference about Chinese traditions before Communism.

On my own, I would have stayed to watch. Reporterly curiosity means I sit through a lot of things the surprise me, whether they delight or horrify. But it’s entirely different to see a show for work than to see a show with friends or family.

I wonder how common an experience this is. The closest situation I can recall is an early screening of “Million Dollar Baby.” The the mood in the theater changed as the movie became less about boxing and more about — surprise! — assisted suicide.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience on this. Have you been surprised or offended by an unexpected political message in art, whether on stage, in the movies or elsewhere? What responsibility do organizations and venues have to tell audiences beforehand? Should audiences be expected to do their own digging?

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

79 comments Add your comment


February 3rd, 2010
9:13 am

If it is about politics, I would rather the news was as entertaining to watch.
If it is about propaganda, this is still better than most of the Hollywood patriotic BS action flick that they churn. Ohh, America is best – that’s why we win all our fights -be it against aliens maruaders (war of the worlds, independence day), racing cars (Tokyo Drift – has to be an american in an american muscle car that wins) etc. and yes, the guy always has to get the girl in the end. ¬_¬


January 31st, 2010
12:55 am

All ancient cultures have a spiritual content and message. For example, if you learn Shaolin kungfu, there is a Buddhist tradition and message imbued in the movements. If you learn Tai Chi, there is a message of yin/yang balance and the principles of the great ultimate and Tao as you practice the slow and gentle movements. Ancient Europe and Christianity were inseparable and in those days, many people do fear being ex-communicated (by church and society). It is only modern times when traditional cultures and beliefs are separated. Even modern movies like “Lord of the Rings” try to portray a conflict of good and evil (with the image of ancient Europe), but minus the religious factor. People have latched onto this distortion and think that that is the way it is suppose to be and have forgotten that ancient cultures and beliefs were always together. A good example is the people of Tibet. These mountain dwellers live their lives with spirituality and follow the Dalai Lama. They’ve always kept to themselves yet they too (amongst many other groups including Falun Gong) are brave enough to continue their beliefs in spite of the evil government attacking them physically. It is precisely because this evil government is cowardly (completely opposite of “brave”) that it resorts to silly language like “sensitive”, “politics”, “inconvenient”, “anti-China”, “propaganda”, etc. to hide themselves from the truth of their evil-doing. It is too bad that some people are easily fooled by modern evilness and have forgotten ancient traditional values.

Go Jags

January 31st, 2010
12:16 am

Didn’t see the show in Atlanta, but read this thread. I happened to be in Jacksonville Florida this weekend, so I decided to invite a family friend to the show on Saturday night.

Folks, it is an unbelievable performance. My advise to everyone: Don’t listen to those guys who said negative things about Shen Yun – you have to see it to make your own judgement. We certainly enjoyed every program in the show.

M. Teri

January 30th, 2010
10:01 pm

Actually, to me, Shen Yun’s shows reflect the spiritual history of China, of which Falun Gong is part of. I understand from the Shen Yun literature that this is the reason for their inclusion of content pertaining to Falun Gong’s persecution – which they consider part of China’s modern story. The Communists suppress traditional cultures and spiritual traditions – this is an undeniable fact about China’s current regime. Also, there are commonalities between these suppressed traditions. For instance, the songs’ lyrics are similar to what MANY spiritual traditions are talking about in terms of “end times.” You do a Google search for “prophecies” and you will find MANY sites devoted to the MANY spiritual traditions worldwide that believe these times we live in as “significant”. There’s a lack of understanding about Shen Yun shows on many levels – about Falun Gong and it’s place in China’s spiritual history, about the Communist regime, and about China’s 5000 year history that only survived due to the strength of its spiritual practices. The people I’ve spoken to who have seen the shows, who come from other spiritual and cultural backgrounds, all talk about the UNIVERSALITY of the themes presented in Shen Yun. How can something be “propagandistic” if it’s recognized and appreciated by people from different cultural backgrounds?

The people who are offended by the so-called propaganda of Falun Gong do not understand the true spiritual nature of China’s traditions, nor do they understand that Falun Gong is also a part of the same traditions. This is the real problem with the some of negative postings here and elsewhere. And this legitimizes all the more, the importance and brilliance of the Shen Yun shows. They effectively present the spiritual history of China – something no one else has ever done before in the history of entertainment. For that, I am grateful to them. As a 2nd generation Chinese-American.

Sandra Cummins

January 30th, 2010
5:06 pm

We saw the show on Friday and it was incredible!! So sorry for not sending a Thank You until now. We enjoyed each of the performances and were impressed with the incredible costumes and dancing!

The performances that depicted the oppression of the Chinese government were impactful, my daugter, husband and I talked about it all the way home. I would like to see it again next year and would recommend it to other people. I actually did recommend it to a colleague and his wife on Saturday morning, they were visiting in Atlanta this past weekend.

Thanks Again, Sandra Cummins


January 30th, 2010
1:36 pm

When I first saw ShenYun a few years ago, I must admit that I felt worried that some people might react to the Falun Gong and persecution shows. But then, something happened which made me fundamentally change my thoughts.

I remembered back to all of the photos I had seen on the Internet of Falun Gong practitioners gathering in the tens of thousands throughout China, at that time with full support of the Chinese government. I remembered the photos of all the awards presented to Mr Li by government organizations, and I remembered all the stories of the benefits that Falun Gong brought, not just to individuals, but to the entire Chinese society.

Before the persecution began, one in every thirteen people were practicing Falun Gong in China, a total of 100 million. Now, as a result of persecution, it has become the catalyst that has triggered the concern and attention of governments, organizations and people throughout the world, not just for Falun Gong practitioners, but for all those who are suffering at the hand of the brutal Communist regime.

When I thought of all of these things, I realized that Chinese culture, can no longer be separated from Falun Gong, and it never will be again in the future.

I also realized something else which shocked me deeply.

Right now, the only people that are still trying to deny the benefit, the impact and even the existence of Falun Gong are Chinese Communists, trying to cover-up and legitimize their crimes, or those who have been silenced by pressure, bought out, or misled. The fact that I, one who has directly benefited from practicing Falun Gong, could question it being in ShenYun, shows how far the lies have spread, and how much they have affected our ability to judge things rationally.

If not for the CCP’s persecution, Falun Gong would still be in its rightful place in China, as the largest, and most impacting spiritual movement in Chinese history. It would be loved by those that practice it, and respected by those that don’t – this was the state of the society before the persecution, besides a couple of power-hungry people at the top level of the government. There wouldn’t be one question in our minds about whether or not Falun Gong would be referenced in a show about Chinese culture.

Before I sign off, I have to say that I have seen ShenYun no less than 10 times now, and I have shed tears every single time. These people are so beautiful and peaceful, and I admire their courage to speak it when so many others remain silent. They have given me the deepest respect for the Chinese people & culture, as has Falun Gong!


January 30th, 2010
9:56 am

@David K.

Nice job of selectively mentioning the two or three dances which did not espouse any ideology. As I stated previously, the Tibetan dance was one of very few bright spots in the show.

Why don’t you try to explain the songs sung by the soprano and tenor at different parts of the show extolling the virtues of Falun Gong. Let’s see, I believe some of the lyrics said, “The life-saving Way is spread / And the Red Fiend’s lies crumble / Truth dispels confusion / The saved escape catastrophe / Intent to cultivate Dafa.” No intent to indoctrinate there, eh?

Have said this at least three times already, but, since you missed it, I will repeat: virtually the entire show was imbued with Falun Gong ideology– a fact of which I am sure you are aware.

Given the continual resorting to this tactic of persistently down-playing the purpose and content of the show, one is left to wonder if the practice of deception is one of the tenets of Falun Gong. I think not, but it certainly is a characteristic of Shen Yun.

David K.

January 30th, 2010
12:20 am

Having seen Shen Yun, I believe Million Dollar Baby is a poor comparison. The film started out as a boxing movie, but then it turned into a right-to-die movie, no more boxing. Shen Yun had traditional dances throughout, and it appears that most people, as the article mentions with a link, didn’t seem to mind the two dances depicting the plight of Falun Gong practitioners. And I seem to recall that in those ones they were still dancing Chinese dance.

I take issue with some of the comments here, in particular that deception was being used. For instance, I saw Avatar in theatres, and didn’t care for it because of some of the political themes brought out in the dialogue. Regardless, the film is pretty popular. I didn’t like it, that’s my opinion, and I seem to be in the minority. But was I deceived? Of course not.

When I saw the show, it had 2 dances about the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in China, 3 songs, an instrumental solo, and about 15 other dances. The whole show was Chinese content, and over 3/4 was traditional dance, which is what the show was billed as. Will some people not like the show? Of course. But deception?

I question RJ’s comment that Shen Yun promoted Falun Gong ideology. Was it one of the Fan dances? The Tibetan dance? The one with the tiger? Maybe we saw a different show. From what I took in, the two dances in question were depicting their current oppression, not soliciting their ideology. I had no problem with it. Were this a Chinese dance production put on by Tibetan Buddhists, with a dance or two about the current plight of Tibetans, neither would I have had a problem (assuming it was tastefully done). I can understand how someone might not enjoy it. But deception? There were another 15 Chinese dances in the show! I’ve felt cheated by some movies/shows in the past, but Shen Yun certainly wasn’t one of them.



January 29th, 2010
10:59 am


Welcome to the discussion. It is unfortunate you evidently haven’t had time to read my many posts.

I do not take issue with Shen Yun promoting Falun Gong ideology. I do, however, take umbrage at the fact that there is a concerted effort to disguise the purpose of the show. One expects to see a celebration of Chinese culture, but, unfortunately, is subjected to something akin to an indoctrination session.

The problem is not the message, per se, but the deception that precedes it.


January 29th, 2010
3:54 am

Many paintings in the Palace of Versailles shows the persecution of Christians. Why don’t those paintings surprise anyone? Why are those paintings being cherished so much? Because there is important messages in those paintings: differentiate good from evil, and the power of belief. This is the value of life, the value of what we are living for. And this value is now presented by Shen Yun. Additionally, the Falun Gong practitioners in China are showing this value with their lives. I respect them, and respect Shen Yun for what they are giving to us.