On a cool evening in late April, I watched a performance of Shen Yun, the two and a half hour variety show organized by the religious sect Falun Gong. Artistically, it was pleasant: The dancers are professionals, emotive and lithe. The emcees — one American, one Chinese — who introduce the acts and offer a bit of historical commentary, banter amicably if a bit awkwardly. Unsurprisingly for a performance held at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at flagship theaters around the world, the show and the orchestra are technically superb.
But Shen Yun, which ended its annual run at the Kennedy Center on April 26 and has performed in dozens of cities across the world since its founding in 2006, is not about the arts. It’s not about “reviving 5,000 years of civilization,” as the show’s ubiquitous fliersproclaim; nor is it a Chinese version of the wildly popular Canadian circus company Cirque du Soleil, as the older gentleman sitting next to me at the performance expected.
Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by qigong (energy cultivation) practitioner and former grain clerk Li Hongzhi. Emphasizing the three principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance — values seen as lacking in modern China — the organization quickly grew in popularity. At its peak in the late 1990s, it had millions of practitioners across the country.
Practitioners perform breathing and movement exercises thought to improve health and extend one’s life. More serious members may subscribe to some of the organization’s religious beliefs, which borrow from the Buddhist notion of the cycles of rise, flourishing, decline, and death, says Benjamin Penny, author of the 2012 book The Religion of Falun Gong. “They’ve always had this notion that there was this physical end point coming, and that practitioners, or those that cultivate good to a certain level, will survive to the next cycle,” notes Penny, who’s also the deputy director of the Australian Centre on China in the World.
Practitioners of Falun Gong — also commonly known as Falun Dafa, which roughly means “Way of the Dharma Wheel” — stress that the organization was, and is, nonpolitical. Still, after an estimated 10,000 supporters massed for a silent protest outside the seat of the CCP government in the Chinese capital in April 1999, Beijing grew worried. Soon after, it launched a crackdown, one that continues to this day. Tens of thousands of practitioners have been detained, with an unknown number tortured and murdered. It remains illegal to practice Falun Gong — which Beijing has called an “evil cult” — in mainland China. (The laws are more permissive in Hong Kong, where authorities tolerate Falun Gong.)
Li moved to the United States in 1998. Although his precise whereabouts are a closely guarded secret, he is rumored to reside somewhere in the New York area, and he occasionally appears at Falun Gong events in New York City. An unknown but presumably very small number of people continue to practice Falun Gong inside mainland China. Outside the mainland, there are “maybe just tens of thousands” of practitioners, says Andrew Junker, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who has studied Falun Gong. “They are very small and intensively organized,” he says.
Around 2000, Falun Gong practitioners decided to set up media organizations in the United States, including the broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD TV) and the newspaper Epoch Times in part “to speak as the voice of Falun Gong,” as NTD TV’s then president, Zhong Lee, told the Wall Street Journal in a 2007 interview. The media outlets — which also cover a wide variety of general-interest news — seem to function as megaphones to amplify the persecution that Falun Gong practitioners have faced and continue to face in mainland China. But the aim is also to discredit the CCP.
Representatives from Falun Gong downplay the link between their organization, their media outlets, and Shen Yun. Dong Xiang, a practitioner and the executive director of theFalun Dafa Association of Washington, D.C., which put on the Kennedy Center show, emphasized in an interview that “Shen Yun is not a Falun Gong show, even though many of the artists practice Falun Gong.”
The show’s first act, “Following the Creator to Renew All Things,” casts doubt on that assertion; the first song, titled “A Song From the Ancestors,” disproves it. “Followers of a Great Way [Dafa] shall save us, even as they’re persecuted,” crooned the soprano. “The truth will be buried in lies.” Sung in Chinese, with an English translation broadcast on a massive screen, the song continues: “Followers of Dafa now spread truth to shatter delusion.” (Li is treated like a god among practitioners, “and that’s more or less how he represents himself,” says Junker.)