Posters, traditional Chinese dancing, and a political prisoner: investigating Shen Yun’s religious connections

You’ve seen the ads. For most San Franciscans, the words “Shen Yun” summon images of the inescapable pastel posters. This year’s advertisements, which feature a serene woman leaping with arms outstretched set against a glaring lavender background, seem to be on every bus, train, telephone pole, and storefront. But what really is Shen Yun?

“Everybody at least has some idea of what [Shen Yun] is because everybody’s seen the advertisements,” said history teacher Kristjiana Gong. “Only in the last few years, after I moved to San Francisco, did I realize that they were religiously affiliated.” The Chinese government has repeatedly accused the Shen Yun performances of being religious propaganda for Falun Gong.

While the extent of Shen Yun’s religious affiliation is disputed, those who simply see the posters on public transportation may miss a key piece of Shen Yun’s history: the Shen Yun touring group grew out of the dancers’ shared religion of Falun Gong, otherwise known as Falun Dafa. Falun Gong is a Chinese religious spiritual practice.

I tried to talk to somebody from Shen Yun to learn more about the link between it and Falun Gong. Only after reaching out to multiple Shen Yun sources with no response was I able to contact a local representative for Falun Gong, Berkeley-based David Huang, who offered to host a group phone call with a few fellow practitioners.   

Huang explained that Falun Gong “[teaches] people to follow the principle of truth-finding, compassion, and forbearance to be a better person.” The members practice a series of rituals that are meant to improve the condition of both the mind and body. “For the mind part, [practitioners] follow specific Truthfulness-Compassion-Tolerance principles. For the body part, there are standing and sitting exercises with meditation,” Huang said

“The practice was introduced to the public in China in 1992, [and] after several years there were around 100 million people in China who [participated]…including government officials,” Huang said. The Chinese government places the estimate at closer to 70 million. At this point, Falun Gong seminars were held in Chinese embassies across the world. The spiritual religion was one of many qigong or tai chi, groups registered with and approved by the government. But in 1996, the organization requested autonomy from the Communist party’s influence. “And then the party leader…starts the persecution of Falun Gong,” Huang said. Critical articles began to appear in China’s state-run media, and practitioners were surveilled and harassed by the state police. Falun Gong was then outlawed in China. The government also used alleged self-immolation (suicide by lighting oneself on fire) incident in Tiananmen Square to disparage the practice, but independent journalists were never able to confirm that the victims practiced Falun Gong, despite what state-run media reported.

During my phone call with Huang, he insisted that I speak with former political prisoner Ming, whose name has been changed to preserve his anonymity. “The only reason I was imprisoned was because of my spiritual beliefs,” Ming said. Altogether, Ming was illegally imprisoned for 12 years and said that his only offense was his practice of Falun Gong. While imprisoned, he was brutally tortured. According to Ming, his story is not uncommon. “If you practice Falun Gong, they force your wife to divorce you, they destroy you mentally, physically, …and financially,” he said.

The Chinese government strives to combat Falun Gong’s influence outside of China by targeting Shen Yun. The Chinese embassy website warns that “the so-called ‘Shen Yun’ performance is a tool of the cult [Falun Gong] and [is] anti-China propaganda,” and angrily chastises Shen Yun for including anti-Communist sentiments in its show. During one portion of the performance, for example, a simulated tsunami with Chairman Mao’s face on it destroys an entire city. At another point, the dancers create a politically charged scene that shows Red Guards brutally beating meditating Falun Gong practitioners, according to Nicholas Hune-Brown of the Guardian who saw the show.

Though the show does include some blatant anti-government messages, Huang maintains that Falun Gong is not officially linked with Shen Yun. “I wouldn’t call Shen Yun a Falun Gong Performing Arts just because most of the artists practice Falun Gong,” said Huang. “It’s really a separate organization, and I don’t think they have any money left…to give to Falun Gong if they have to hire so many people to dance.” According to public tax records, Shen Yun generated a revenue of $22.5 million in 2016, the most recent year for which records are available.

Throughout our phone call, I noticed that Huang would attempt to redirect the conversation when asked about Shen Yun. Huang isn’t the only practitioner that minimizes Falun Gong’s connection to the performance group; in fact, there is a widespread effort within the group to intentionally do so. In one speech, Li Hongzhi, the spiritual leader and founder of Falun Gong, encouraged his followers to downplay Falun Gong’s connection to Shen Yun. “You needn’t insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it,” he told them.