Column: The Bigotry Behind the Pretty Ads

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Apparently I have been living in a pocket dimension. I conclude this because it was only last week that I first heard of “Shen Yun,” whose ads seem to dominate both digital and print spaces everywhere this time of year.

If, like me, you have also been living extra-dimensionally, let me bring you up to speed: Shen Yun is a theatrical dance production that promotes itself as “5,000 years of civilization reborn.” Founded in 2006 by ex-Chinese citizens living in New York, their ads generally portray some variant of a woman dancing in traditional garb, depicted mid-leap, set against a pastel backdrop. There are so many of these ads popping up each year that they have even spawned a series of internet memes about the relentless nature of their advertising.

An advertisement for Shen Yun [Shen Yun]

As I said, I have been living in another world until quite recently. I only just heard of them this past week while watching a stand-up comedy special on Netflix, Tiffany Haddish’s “Black Mitzvah.” In it, she jokes about wanting to be the first black member of the dance troupe, punctuated with a comedically-timed image of one of Shen Yun’s now-iconic ads with Haddish’s face Photoshopped on the dancer’s body. The audience laughed, and I have seen their ads literally every day since.

On the surface (and my rough knowledge of advertising budgets and production expenses notwithstanding) it all seems benign: Shen Yun is a theatrical group that has played to packed houses for years and garnered the praise of Hollywood celebrities and fashion icons like Cate Blanchette and Donna Karan, and their program has included “well wishes” from progressive US politicians including Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. But beyond the colorful costumes, the synchronized dancing, and flashy projection techniques, when we start to peek behind the intricately embroidered curtain, the reality is more dubious.

According to the Shen Yun website’s FAQ, “Shen Yun’s artists practice Falun Dafa, and it is a source of inspiration for our performances.” Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong) is a Chinese political and religious group that opposes China’s ruling Communist Party. Founded in 1992 by the charismatic leader Li Hongzhi at the height of the Qi Gong craze in China, Falun Dafa draws from the traditional spiritual health practices of that earlier philosophy, which involve breathing exercises combined with gentle physical movements.

While Qi Gong is focused on personal development and healing, however, Falun Dafa also includes ultraconservative religious dogma, such as the belief that different races will each have their own segregated afterlives (leaving the supposed fates of mixed-race persons up in the air), and an anti-science, anti-evolution, and anti-LGBT worldview that rivals even the most conservative Christian zealotry. Add to this a liberal dose of bizarre alien conspiracy theories that seem more in keeping with Scientology than traditional Chinese spirituality, and we have one of the most interesting religious sects in operation today. (In 2018, a former member of Shen Yun discussed some of these stranger elements of Falun Dafa in a YouTube video.)

The Falun Gong / Falun Dafa symbol, containing traditional Chinese iconography of the swastika and the taijitu [Wikimedia Commons]

In 1999, Li Hongzhi gave an interview to Time in which he spoke on various subjects concerning Falun Dafa, and spoke extensively about aliens and how they are corrupting human society.

“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.”

While these beliefs are certainly unusual and have no basis in science, they on their own do not necessarily constitute the popular definition of a “cult.” Their church reportedly does not force their members to stay in the organization, nor do they separate themselves from the rest of society. Even still, their racist and homophobic philosophies are certainly a cause for concern, and the Falun Dafa newspaper, the Epoch Times, displays a demonstrable pro-Trump bias, praising the President more times than any other publication outside of the Trump campaign itself.

Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker describes Shen Yun as “religious-political propaganda … an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.” Shen Yun and the Epoch Times regularly report tales of persecution by the Chinese government, including group arrests and torture. In Tolentino’s description of the show she attended, members of Falun Dafa were portrayed as as happy, brightly clad individuals, while the non-practitioners wore black (presumably to let us know they are the “bad guys”) and were unhappily addicted to technology (shown by them constantly looking at their cell phones). The show also included non-practitioners perpetuating violence against innocent Falun Dafa members.

Some of the political messages of the show are subtle: two of the black-clad men are shown holding hands, reinforcing the anti-LGBT beliefs of the troupe. But in case one thinks that such propaganda is relegated to subliminal messages, in one scene a projected image of a tsunami wearing the face of Karl Marx appears to destroy an entire village – not so subtle after all.

Beyond the show itself, Shen Yun shows a troubling unwillingness to accept criticism, no matter how benign – their response tends to be immediate and surgical. I experienced this myself: upon learning of them (and almost immediately seeing an ad for their next performance come up on my Twitter feed), I shared Tolentino’s New Yorker article above, which details the bigoted aspects of their beliefs, and found myself promptly blocked. While in my case I had openly criticized the group, I have heard stories in which seemingly non-threatening comments are likewise removed and their authors blocked. A long-time friend of mine simply commented that Shen Yun’s marketing practices went a bit overboard, and the group responded by immediately blocking her, too. C’est la vie.

In all fairness, some of the claims Falun Dafa have made about their treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities seem to be true. Stories of imprisonment, torture, and even forced organ harvesting are a chilling reminder of the flagrant human rights abuses reportedly perpetrated by the communist state in pursuit of its atheist-only agenda, a fact also seen in recent stories about China’s treatment of other religious minorities like the Uhygur Muslims. Even here in the United States, representatives of the Chinese government will reportedly even go to the length of harassing Shen Yun performers, as well as the owners of the venues in which Shen Yun is scheduled to perform.

The reality of their persecution would normally endear them to the likes of liberal left-wing political activists here in the states, but Falun Dafa’s rejection of modern medicine, as well as their racist and homophobic doctrines, make them less palatable to progressive members of American politics. Perhaps to try and bypass this political deficit, it has been reported that Shen Yun will sometimes solicit “greetings” from people in positions of power and then attempt to pass them off as endorsements. When questioned, spokespersons for both Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar (neither of whom have attended a Shen Yun performance) responded that their supportive messages quoted in Shen Yun’s program were nothing more than a “typical diplomatic gesture when such comments are solicited by any international cultural group.”

A screenshot of a Shen Yun performance [Shen Yun’s YouTube]

While there is no evidence of Falun Dafa exerting inappropriate control over its members, nor engaging in dangerous or criminal activity, their positions against science, medicine, and the dignity of queer people should make them at the very least suspect to those who are working toward a free society for all people. Certainly, they should not be attacked for their beliefs, but when they try and conceal their agenda of racism and heterosupremacy behind bright colors and pseudo-history, I’ll take a hard pass – even though the costumes do seem pretty.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to use a different source image for the Falun Gong symbol.

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