- Posters for Shen Yun are so ubiquitous that they’ve become a meme. But what is it, anyway?
- The show, organized by Chinese religious minority Falun Gong which is opposed to the Chinese government, carries a strong political message.
- It’s shockingly profitable, according to public financial filings. The Shen Yun organization made $22.5 million in 2016.
- Falun Gong is controversial for its bigoted beliefs, and is also harshly persecuted within China.
- Shen Yun is a way Falun Gong communicates the story of its persecution.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
If you’ve walked around in literally any city lately, you’ve probably seen a poster for Shen Yun.
The cryptic advertisements usually feature a woman serenely gliding through the air in front of a lavender background. They bear the enigmatic slogan "5,000 years of civilization reborn." It seems to be an ad for a dance performance.
But Shen Yun, as it turns out, isn’t just a dance show. It’s also part of an elaborate messaging strategy for Falun Gong — also known as Falun Dafa — a Chinese religious and political group persecuted within China that opposes the country’s ruling party.
So how, exactly, did a dissident Chinese political-and-religious organization start a dance show that became a meme and marketing juggernaut in the US? And what does any of this have to do with harvesting organs?
Well, we’ll explain.
OK, so what exactly is Shen Yun?
According to people who’ve seen the show, it’s a series of colorful dance vignettes, each one presenting a historical anecdote or ideological belief from Falun Gong.
The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino describes it as "religious-political propaganda … an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime."
There are a few different troupes that tour the world. Dancers are trained at the Fei Tan Academy of the Arts, which is part of a 427-acre refuge for Falun Gong adherents in upstate New York. Profits from Shen Yun shows go towards maintaining the academy. The dance companies also, unusually, have a mixture of paid and unpaid performers, according to Hazlitt.
Shen Yun has a wide reach. It’s playing in 94 different American cities this year, and has dozens of other shows in Canada, Mexico, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand — but not, as you can imagine, China.
So it’s basically propaganda?
Well, it depends who you ask. But yes, the show definitely has a specific ideological bent. The purpose of Shen Yun is to demonstrate the evils of China’s communist party and its beliefs. The show is fervently anti-atheist, anti-evolution, anti-Mao Zedong, and anti-Karl Marx.
Shen Yun also highlights specific examples of China’s communist party persecuting Falun Gong. The show includes a "dance with the organ harvesting," according to the New Yorker. We’ll explain the organ harvesting thing in a bit.
How do they afford all those posters?
Since Shen Yun is an arm of Falun Gong, it relies on Falun Gong members to help spread the word. Those Shen Yun posters everywhere? The ubiquity is the result of hardworking volunteers on the ground, distributing flyers and arranging the shows with venues in exchange for just a couple of tickets to the show.
Aside from that, the show actually has enormous demand. The ticket prices vary by city and venue, but they can go into the hundreds of dollars. Wen Chen, a Falun Gong organizer in California, told the Los Angeles Times he gave away his own tickets to a show in Los Angeles when the waitlist was more than 100 people long.
The money made from shows, according to the Los Angeles Times, goes back to the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, which can then train more Shen Yun players. The organization has its own budget, which is publicly published, and appears to be financially independent from the rest of Falun Gong.
It’s quite profitable: Shen Yun made $22.5 million in revenue in 2016, the latest year where public filings are available, and spent only $7.3 million in expenses. The Shen Yun organization had more than $75 million in total assets, according to the filing.
But because Shen Yun is part of Falun Gong, the advertising isn’t just about selling tickets, and the show isn’t just about making money. As Business Journal pointed out, the show also functionally spreads the word of Falun Gong, and offers a view of China that differs from the Communist party line. The marketing helps makes what would otherwise be a fringe event — a politically infused dance show — into a legitimate and significant cultural force.
Uh, OK. So is the show any good?
Most people think the dancer’s acrobatic performances are pretty cool, even if the show’s messages are confusing.
On Yelp, the reviews are mixed. A lot of people express feeling cheated for not realizing that the show promotes Falun Gong.
Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images
"Some of the dancing was pretty, an occasional skit was amusing, one of the musical numbers with the Chinese two-stringed instrument was very nice, but mostly it was repetitive and schlocky," Ruth N. wrote about a performance in San Francisco. "AND, definitely filled with proselytizing of the very bizarre Falun Gong cult."
Others were impressed by the athleticism, costume design, and storytelling, including Cate Blanchett. The actress said the show was "an extraordinary experience for us and the children" and that "the level of skill, but also the power of the archetypes and the narratives were startling."
In fact, Shen Yun’s advertising campaign is a long list of apparent endorsements from celebrities and politicians They’re touted on its website and included in a lot of ad campaigns. Even presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar put out a statement supporting the show.
Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images
But it’s not clear how these statements were obtained and why they’ve been issued. Klobuchar’s team told the Star Tribune in 2015 that her statement was meant to be categorized as a "diplomatic gesture" in support of an international cultural group.
A representative for Blanchett didn’t immediately respond to INSIDER’s request for comment. Shen Yun didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
What’s the deal with Falun Gong?
Falun Gong is a religious and political group from China with beliefs related to Buddhism and Taoism. It focuses on the human body through the lens of an idea and practice called qigong, which is meant to achieve enlightenment.
Didn’t the founder of Falun Gong say something about aliens awhile back?
Yes. Li outlined some of his more eyebrow-raising beliefs in an interview with Time magazine in 1992. He said that David Copperfield can really levitate off the ground, that qigong can cure illness, and that aliens introduce science in the world so that they could use human bodies.
HENNY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images
"Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens," Li said. "The ultimate purpose is to replace humans … The human body is the most perfect in the universe. It is the most perfect form. The aliens want the human body."
What’s China’s beef with them?
Falun Gong grew quickly in the 1990s. By 1999, the group had between 70 million and 100 million followers, according to the New York Times. The group became a significant voice of protest in a country that, at the time, had a population of nearly 1.3 billion.
Falun Gong’s largest protest — of 10,000 people — occurred in 1999, and ultimately sparked a crackdown, as described in a 2008 congressional report. Falun Gong is technically banned in China, so you won’t find Shen Yun shows there.
AP Photo/Wu Zengxiang, Xinhua
China’s embassy in the United States has published multiple statements bashing Falun Gong, Li, and Shen Yun. The notion that Falun Gong is a "cult" is a feature of Chinese propaganda against the organization.
"The so-called "Shen yun" is not a cultural performance at all but a political tool of ‘Falun Gong’ to preach cult messages, spread anti-China propaganda, increase its own influence and raise funds," the embassy said in a statement. "The public need to stay away from the so-called ‘Shenyun’ performance of the ‘Falun Gong’ organization so as to avoid being deceived and used by the cult."
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
Li, no longer safe in China, lives in the United States as a permanent resident. China has an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
And what’s this I hear about harvesting organs?
One of the ways China persecutes Falun Gong, members of the organization say, is by imprisoning its members and stealing their organs.
"As noted in the Department’s recently-released Human Rights Report on China, some activists and organizations continue to accuse the government of involuntarily harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, especially members of Falun Gong," a spokesperson for the US State Department told INSIDER. "The government denied the claims, having officially ended the long-standing practice of involuntarily harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants in 2015."
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
A State Department representative also told INSIDER that it backs freedom of religion in China, and believes that the ban against Falun Gong should be lifted.
"The United States continues to call on Chinese authorities to end the ban on the Falun Gong, allowing them to worship freely and practice their faith in accordance with international human rights commitments," the spokesperson said. "Freedom of religion is critical to a peaceful, stable, and thriving society."
Does this have anything to do with that random anti-China newspaper that shows up on my porch for some reason?
You’re probably thinking of the Epoch Times. It’s a free newspaper that’s aggressively distributed in some cities and suburbs in the United States. And it, too, has links to Falun Gong. If you’ve ever opened it up, you’ve probably seen the same type of anti-China messaging you’d find in Shen Yun.
So…what does any of this have to do with memes?
The ubiquity of Shen Yun’s posters, along with the posters’ distinctive design, has made them ripe for meme-dom.
The meme reinforces its marketing. By having posters everywhere, Shen Yun has become a viral joke — which just raises more awareness for the show. Kind of genius, if you think about it.
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