Stepping into Shen Yun’s Psychedelic World

Come each December in New York City, Shen Yun’s advertising is nearly inescapable. Its bright purple posters adorned with lavishly dressed dancers and a central, leaping woman are taped to every bodega door, lamppost, and window, even occupying billboards. Past advertising claimed to offer “5,000 years of Chinese civilization reborn,” while 2022’s campaign has adopted the shorter tagline of “China Before Communism.” Shen Yun’s aggressive marketing is an urban phenomenon that feels as natural as snow banks on sidewalks in December, or leaves returning to trees in April. To most, their knowledge of Shen Yun is restricted to the information they subconsciously pry out of its advertising: it’s a dance performance, has something to do with China, is pretty traditional, and a woman probably jumps at some point. 

Shen Yun lives in some corner of our minds, an uncanny object that, once noticed, follows you everywhere. Everyone — and I mean everyone — knows of Shen Yun, but no one knows anything about it. Shen Yun’s ubiquitous advertising is the subject of memes, jokes, rave reviews, scathing exposés, and mysterious allegations of being an upstate New York based cult’s recruitment tool. I attended Shen Yun in late April out of morbid curiosity and a desire to understand a legendary urban anomaly.

I began looking into Shen Yun in early 2022, prompted by a YouTube video recommended to me on the subject. It turns out that Shen Yun, which maintains that it is a non-profit performing arts and entertainment company, is – according to New Yorker reporter Jia Tolentino – “essentially, religious-political propaganda” for a Chinese new-religious organization called Falun Gong. Falun Gong’s beliefs are rooted in China’s long tradition of Qigong, a form of meditation based on graceful physical movements and controlled breathing. 

Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by a man named Li Hongzhi, quickly becoming a major movement in a nation recovering from brutal repression of religious freedom during the Cultural Revolution. However — unlike other qigong practicing groups — Falun Gong adds to the mix a belief that practicing their variety of Qigong will lead to salvation from the coming apocalypse. Practitioners believe that they will gain enlightenment from studying the writings of “Master Li”, who purports to be able to levitate and walk through walls. The number of adherents the Falun Gong group attracted in the subsequent years is under debate (some historians claim up to tens of millions of adherents), but either way, the Communist Party felt clearly threatened by the loyalty to Li garnered by the group. To stop the expansion of their political and social influence, the government began a crackdown upon Falun Gong groups in 1999, banning publication of Falun Gong-related material and issuing an arrest warrant for Li, who fled to Queens. 

Li Hongzhi’s beliefs range from questionable to outright hateful; he claims that evolution is fraudulent, that homosexuality is unnatural, and that the afterlife is racially segregated. He told Time Magazine that modern science was a tool of alien control over humanity, later claiming to be metaphorical. A San Francisco man named Samuel Luo alleged that the group encouraged his parents to reject essential medical treatment in favor of their view that illness is a result of poor karma. Luo set up a Web site called The Untold Story of Falun Gong in 2007, and Falun Gong responded by complaining to the domain provider. The organization also threatened to sue the International Cultic Studies Association for bringing Luo to a conference as a presenter. Falun Gong’s defensive reactions not only to criticism but to basic journalistic inquiry can suggest an institution that would prefer people not ask very many questions.

Today, Falun Gong members in China face brutal persecution. According to Amnesty International, they are frequently and arbitrarily detained and tortured merely for practicing their religion in public. Tens of thousands of practitioners have been arbitrarily detained since the early 2000s, However, Falun Gong-associated outlets in the United States play up this oppression to cartoonish levels. The group alleges that China frequently executes practitioners to harvest their organs, and even does so while they are still alive; these allegations have been debunked in a report by the Washington Post.

Shen Yun is a recruitment tool for Falun Gong; Li Hongzhi describes its purpose as “saving” audiences. The exact structural and financial links between Shen Yun, Falun Gong, and the Falun Gong-backed newspaper the Epoch Times remains unclear, but their relentlessly pro-Falun Gong rhetoric and extolling of each others’ virtues demonstrates an all-but-certain link. The Epoch Times denies this link, but former employees have claimed its mysterious finances are sourced significantly from wealthy Falun Gong members, many of its staffers are members of the group, and Li Hongzhi himself has called the paper “our media.” 

The further I looked into Shen Yun, the more intriguing it became; at this point, I couldn’t not go. After weeks of waiting, I finally took the pilgrimage to see Shen Yun’s “5000 years of civilization reborn” in person (this rebirth happened to be taking place in Newark, New Jersey). As suggested by Shen Yun’s “dress code” on their website, I wore a suit and tie. I weaved through a sea of older white people and their bored children, making my way to my seat. The show started with scientific precision at 1 p.m. We were informed that no photography of the show was allowed, as its distract the performers and the entire performance is copyrighted (and we would thus be violating the law). As the curtains rose, I heard a woman behind me say “we’re about to get CCP’d.”

A display of Falun Gong scripture for sale in the mezzanine hallway

The first scene begins with the stage blanketed in vapor, with rows of dancers in ornate robes converging onstage. A man in white robes stands behind them, surveying the stage. Their movements guide the vapor with robotic precision offstage and toward the audience. The dancers move in perfect unison, soundtracked by cheerful orchestral music and lit by a temple emerging from clouds projected onto a massive screen behind the stage. It was surprisingly awesome. Then, the white-robed man leaped into a long hole spanning the width of the stage in front of said screen, his figure now projected several times his size. He then exclaimed, “Who shall follow me to Earth to renew all things in the end times?” The whole troupe on stage followed him into the hole, promptly floating on screen. We were then in space. All the dancers floated to earth, appearing back onstage. There were angels and an emperor. I watched this unfold, scribbling down notes while attempting to make sense of this disjointed plot. 

The show continues in this way, tossing out incoherent stories with religious and apocalyptic themes. One memorable story was that of the Journey to the West, but instead of the Buddhist gods defeating the Monkey King, a giant Li Hongzhi descends from the heavens onscreen to beat him up. 

I gave up on looking for a plot or common threads, instead letting them wash over me. Shen Yun’s dances blur into one traditional-ish looking blob, until, in the seventh act (yes, there were seven acts, and it wasn’t even the intermission yet), I was jolted out of the hypnosis it had put me in. 

A tenor emerged on stage, announcing that he was going to sing a song titled “What Brought Us to This World.” He sang of “the universe…crumbling in its end days”, “the devil [leading] you along with modern trends,” and told us that “the true reason you came to this world [is] to learn the Way and be saved.” These themes are echoed in a later song, where a soprano instructs the audience to “heed not the mad doctrines of evolution and atheism / modern thought and ways lead one toward Hell.” 

Two acts later, we were once again fed the Falun Gong propaganda I came to see. The second to last dance of the first half of the show told of a girl recruited into Falun Gong by her mother, arrested in a park by a group of ninjas with a hammer and sickle on their backs (presumably meant to be communist cops) and taken to have her organs harvested by her father in an “Armed Police Hospital.” He does so without realizing that the girl is his daughter. However, his wife (also arrested) tells him that he just harvested his daughter’s organs. He repents, and they are all raptured into the heavens where the daughter is brought back to life. Hooray!

A similar story unfolds in the final act of the show, where a Falun Gong practicing family is jumped by a mob of teenagers in a park. They defeat the teenagers in hand-to-hand combat, but the teens call in the communist ninjas, who defeat the Falun Gong practitioners and prepare to summarily execute them. Just as it seems too late, a giant tsunami washes over the city projected on the background, flattening it.. The tsunami is about to kill our protagonists when the robed figure from the beginning of the show appears onstage, with rays of light beaming from his body. He stops the tsunami and saves the day; everyone is raptured and sent to heaven. This is the note on which Shen Yun ends.

The Shen Yun troupe displays an almost supernatural level of talent and discipline. Sleeves ripple in impossibly perfect synchronization, and bodies twist and stretch in ways I had never considered possible. Dancers leap across the stage, their motions appearing almost weightless. 

Bodies frequently appear to morph into one pulsating and twisting psychedelic shape. Shen Yun’s dancers almost appear more than human; they become hypnotic, pulsating blobs of pure radiant, colorful energy. There is an undeniable level of talent, craftsmanship, precision, and devotion to their craft one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. In its most moving moments, one feels a true sense of longing for a beautiful, long-past period in Chinese history. However, twirling sleeves, rippling skirts, and vibrant colors distract from the fact that Shen Yun is facile and hollow in its storytelling.

Shen Yun could do away with the constant misogynistic undertones present throughout many of its stories, which rubbed fellow audience members I spoke to the wrong way. A female character is slapped in nearly every story throughout the second half of the performance, with their assault usually not even being important to the plot. Another story, titled The Story of Lady Wang Zhaojun, tells of a female servant to the Chinese emperor traded into marriage with a warlord. She is treated and accepts her role as a possession throughout the story, with the bureaucrats that kept her from joining the emperor’s harem portrayed as an antagonist. Obviously, ignoring the misogyny of feudal China would be historical revisionism. However, Shen Yun makes no effort to challenge these attitudes, instead choosing to portray its female characters as one dimensional possessions. 

According to Emily Wilcox, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, the “traditional Chinese dance” Shen Yun claims to present is “actually a very new art form.” “Dancers in China emphasize the fact that Chinese dance is an artistic innovation…They’re interested in the possibility of newness, diversity, finding something new in Chinese history rather than re-creating the same thing.” 

For a representation of a dance form founded in “newness,” Shen Yun makes no effort to challenge the misogyny of ancient China, instead projecting a reactionary image of a very flawed past. Criticizing the abuses of the present Chinese government does not require praising a time when women were subordinate to men their entire lives, socially segregated, and treated as possessions by their husbands.

In truth, Shen Yun’s stories seem to bear no morals, demonstrating no higher truth about Chinese culture. Shen Yun’s issues stem mostly not from its content but rather from the vast discrepancy between its promised “5000 years of civilization reborn” and the facile, shallow soap-opera-esque tales it delivers. I don’t believe its purpose is not to tell meaningful stories representative of Chinese culture, but rather to tirelessly project a reactionary, idealized image of another dark time in Chinese history. The show could also do without the bizarre, apocalyptic songs and its perpetuation of unfounded conspiracy theories in place of genuine human rights advocacy.

Shen Yun was a truly bizarre and unforgettable experience. I can only imagine what it is like to an unsuspecting viewer not familiar with its political context. Leaving Shen Yun, I felt bewildered, confused, and high off the meticulously crafted performances I had seen in rapid succession for the past two hours. Shen Yun may not keep you engaged and attentive through its two-hour runtime, but it will leave you doubting your senses for weeks to come.