The politics (and religion) of singing and dancing

I knew things would get weird when Shen Yun Performing Arts stopped by the Sacramento Community Center Theater last week. That's because I looked at the group's website before attending the show and discovered that the troupe sings lyrics such as, “In the followers of Dafa lies the lone hope of salvation.” The New York-based traditional Chinese performing-arts troupe has toured the world for the last seven years, with the self-proclaimed mission of “reviving 5,000 years of divinely inspired Chinese culture” through art, music and dance. Currently, the group features three casts simultaneously touring and performing for audiences around the globe.

But worldwide, theater and dance critics have concentrated on the how the group slips in political and religious messages and promotes Falung Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa). Although the show's colorful and diverse dances and music change annually, reviews often focus on the show's propagandizing: In 2008, a reviewer for The Telegraph in England criticized the troupe's work as “a politically motivated performance … being smuggled on to stages around Europe in the name of family entertainment.” The show has also been known to show the Chinese government's modern-day persecution and murder of Falun Gong practitioners.

Indeed, there was such a scene in the troupe's recent Sacramento show. In addition, literally every song performed was a cultish ode to the benefits of Falun Gong. And, sure, it's slightly misleading that Falun Gong—a Chinese spiritual discipline that promotes Taoist- and Buddhist-influenced exercise and meditation—isn't advertised on the troupe's fliers, but seriously, this political bent is apparent all over the troupe's website. And, besides, it's not like Falun Gong is a controversial religion or anything: It promotes physical fitness, practicing mindfulness and cultivating good karma. So, why have past critics been so sensitive about mentioning it?

My Chinese grandparents fled from China during the Mao era in part to escape the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Economic, religious and cultural oppression are now part of the country's infinitely complex 5,000-year history. So, why should this reality be ignored in Shen Yun's production? It's certainly popular for current American politicians to criticize China's current government. Why can't a group of people directly suffering the wrath of communist China do their own commie bashing?

According to the group's two emcees, this show's main message was a generally true thesis about China: It's a country full of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Sure, some of the opera singing was a bit lackluster (and its only lyrical purpose was to laud Falun Gong), and a few dancers may have messed up slightly, but it definitely entertained my 93-year-old Chinese grandmother (who, by the way, is Catholic). And, yes, it also criticized the Chinese Communist Party.

But I didn't mind that.