- Owen Thomas Webb
Qigong Heavenly Kingdom – The Peculiar World of Shen Yun
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
When Shen Yun came to the Edinburgh Playhouse to perform ‘5,000 Years of Chinese Civilization Reborn’, it was an inherently political imagination of China that was presented. Shen Yun, the performing arts wing of the Falun Gong new religious movement, tour the world with the stated objective of reviving ‘genuine Chinese culture’, but what this means, though it may not be clear at first glance, is far more esoteric than it sounds.
It would be easy enough to conclude based upon the massive advertising campaign promoting Shen Yun that the Falun Gong exists as a purely anti-communist faction of the Chinese diaspora. However, the political messaging of Shen Yun is not entirely what it seems, it is more complex than anti-communism. In fact, it might not be anti-communism at all. In a 1999 interview conducted by Time Magazine, in which Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, who is also the founder of American conspiracist newspaper the Epoch Times, was questioned about his beliefs, Li gives the strong impression that the Falun Gong new religion and the Communist Party of China, or CPC, did not come into conflict for political or ideological reasons. Rather, Li believes that the conflict arose out of the CPC’s desire to prevent a second power centre detracting from the influence of the party. Li comments that “In China, the government is a centralized government. Because the number of our practitioners is large, the government may feel pressure.” Interestingly, this statement evaluating why there is conflict between the Falun Gong and the Communist Party implies that the party is in moral agreement with Li and is not concerned by the mass practice of qigong new religion, in itself at least. “The Chinese government knows that what I am teaching is good and that I am teaching people to have high moral values. They are only concerned because there are so many people practicing cultivation.” Given the very clear anti-Chinese government sentiment of the Shen Yun performance itself, it leads one to conclude either that Li’s beliefs are more explicitly political now than before, or that the real message of Shen Yun is such that the message wouldn’t be accepted without a political façade to win the trust of people who might share some of the conspiracist beliefs espoused by Li.
Within the performance itself, there is little indication that the cosmological aspect of Falun Dafa, the name of the Falun Gong’s particular variety of qigong meditation, is taken seriously by the group, except for one scene in which Li Hongzhi is depicted leading incorporeal spirits from a divine realm on a journey to Earth. This scene is easily overlooked or forgotten entirely, because there is no follow up to it at all until the inexplicable final scene in which a white robe-clad body-double of master Li appears on stage saluting an enormous golden swastika. The Falun Gong’s fondness for this symbol is suspicious; the organization now has seemingly very little connection to mainland Asia itself, where the symbol is not associated with fascism, and it cannot possibly be lost on them that their carefully cultivated western audience only thinks of one thing when presented with such iconography. If one considers the doctrine of segregated heavens existing for different races, and mixed-race people having no heaven to go to at all, beliefs articulated by the organization and reportedly enforced as an anti-race mixing rule upon its adherents, then it becomes more than just suspicious, and more like they are taking liberties with their tenuous connection to dharmic culture than innocently representing their Asian religious heritage.
There is an uncomfortably vague spirituality present throughout a Shen Yun performance, which is difficult to assess at the time. It will initially appear to the audience that this emphasis on vague spirituality is part of the orientalism of the Shen Yun experience, but this is not the case. Shen Yun’s own website reads that “Shen Yun’s artists tell of a time when divine beings walked upon the earth, leaving behind a culture that inspired generations.” I wish I could say that this is rhetoric, intended to market the story of the Shen Yun performance itself, but after seeing the performance in its entirety, completely lacking in a coherent narrative or story, I cannot conclude that this is anything other than the admission and articulation of a literal belief. In an investigation published by the ABC, a former child-dancer of mixed European and Chinese parentage tells of the racist rhetoric and conditioning she was exposed to within the organization; “The leader of Falun Gong claims that race mixing in humans is part of an alien plot to drive humanity further from the gods,” says Falun Gong escapee, Anna. “He says that when a child is born from an interracial marriage, that child does not have a heavenly kingdom to go to.” That the Falun Gong do in fact hold this preposterous belief is supported by the performance, which is careful to note that some parts of the world were populated by heavenly beings of higher levels of divinity than others, and the beings that populated China were at the top of that hierarchy. Notably, the performance features homages to the Han, Manchu, Mongol, and Tibetan peoples of China, but excludes the Hui, who are not Buddhist like the other predominant ethnicities, though the Falun Gong articulates no particular reverence for Buddhism. Anna, who would normally be excluded from heaven because of her biracial heritage, was promised by her mother that dedicating her life to the Falun Gong and becoming a Shen Yun dancer would amend for her perceived racial imperfection. Ana says of her mother that “She thought that it was the highest honour possible and that it would guarantee me getting into heaven, essentially.”
With this information in mind, the Falun Gong’s insistent use of the swastika becomes less forgivable and comes dangerously close to being an actively provocative symbol, representative of beliefs not so different from those with which it is normally associated in the West. The proclamations that “Atheism and evolution are the works of Satan”, articulated in monotone song on no less than three identical occasions throughout the second half of the performance, are statements coherent with the conspiracist rhetoric that Li Hongzhi seems to have mindwiped himself into believing, and which he articulated in his Time Magazine interview.
The Falun Gong are by all accounts a cult, with racialist priorities and total wantonness in their use of the swastika, a symbol which only evokes one image in the minds of the Westerners they are marketing themselves for, and from whom they are making money. Shen Yun is profitable because it is a curiosity to white occidentals, who cannot distinguish the dubious image of the Falun Gong practitioners bowing to Li Hongzhi from the benevolent image of the Buddha and his disciples, which is the fundamental orientalist image of eastern spirituality. I hope that you do not make the same mistake.
Read the full review of “Shen Yun – 5,000 Years of Chinese Civilization Reborn”.