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Shen Yun, 2019, unofficial illustration
© Anne Gerrish

What’s the deal with… Shen Yun?

You’ve seen the marketing, but what’s the story behind Shen Yun, the ‘world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company’?

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Shen Yun? Is that the show with all the posters everywhere?

That’s the one. Notably, amid the dementedly hyperbolic endorsements (‘The orchestra is phenomenal’, ‘They are very very on top’, ‘Absolutely the No 1 show in the world’), there isn’t really any explanation of what the show actually involves, and professional critics are not invited as a rule.

So what do we know about it, then?

Not mentioned in Shen Yun’s advertising – although freely explained on its website – is that it’s affiliated with Falun Dafa (better known as Falun Gong), a Chinese spiritual practice that doesn’t believe in evolution but does believe that Chinese civilisation was divinely inspired. The sect emerged in 1992 and rapidly became an enormous – albeit entirely peaceable – success. Then China’s atheist ruling Communist Party outlawed it and by all accounts has been viciously cracking down on it since 1999.

If it’s banned in China, is it technically even Chinese?

Shen Yun is based in New York State and was set up by Chinese expats. It has six companies that tour the globe furiously, and each city it visits is blitzed by the same barrage of full-bore display advertising. It is somewhat celebratory of pre-Communism Chinese culture, although – as the New Yorker’s illuminating recent article on the company points out – China does not have a long tradition of the type of classical dance the show trades in.

Is there anti-Chinese government propaganda in the show?

Yes. A monstrous Chairman Mao! A tsunami with the face of Karl Marx! A section on the Chinese government’s alleged harvesting of the organs of Falun Dafa prisoners! These are all things you will apparently see in the show.

Right. So is it meant to be any good or what?

From what we’ve heard, the weirder stuff is liable to sail over the heads of most Western audiences, which means you’re mostly left with a kitschily excessive classical dance show, performed to a high skill level, set against a retina-searing digital display. Exactly what Shen Yun is trying to achieve is somewhat open to interpretation. Certainly it exists to spread the word of Falun Dafa, but there is no suggestion it is actually trying to recruit anybody. It’s almost certainly completely harmless, but it is undeniably pretty odd.

Illustration: Anne Gerrish

Shen Yun is at the Eventim Hammersmith Apollo. Apr 22-May 1.

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