The Shen Yun rabbit hole

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

A friend of mine recently urged me to read up on Shen Yun, and whether it’s disturbing to see posters for it taped up in practically every small business in Madison. We’re in the thick of it right now, because one of the Chinese dance group’s touring companies is headed to town on May 7 and 8 for a two-night run at Overture Hall. But we’re not alone: Shen Yun is everywhere, everywhere, thanks to a network of local Falun Dafa organizations that coordinate promotion of these events, ensuring that American metro areas from coast to coast experience a barrage of posters and highway billboards. Try escaping that image of a dancer executing a graceful leap in an ornate purple-and-pink gown. You can’t.

While we’re saturated with Shen Yun advertising and Shen Yun memes, we’re a bit less saturated with conversation about the complex political and cultural battles in which Shen Yun is embroiled. Shen Yun grew out of the Chinese spiritual phenomenon known as Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong. The best introduction to all this is to read Jia Tolentino’s recent New Yorker story about Shen Yun, or a shorter piece by The Stranger‘s Rich Smith.

The two things that jump out the most in the New Yorker story are that you can expect the group’s two-hours-plus performance to include heavy-handed allegories about the evils of communism (“At the end of the show came Mao, the Communist earthquake, the hammer-and-sickle tsunami, and the enormous face of Karl Marx,” Tolentino writes), and that Falun Dafa founder Li Hongzhi has preached against homosexuality and the mixing of races. The Chinese government has persecuted Falun Dafa followers, though to what extent is a matter of some dispute, as Tolentino notes: “The fact that both Falun Gong and the Communist Party communicate via propaganda makes it almost impossible to understand what’s really happening.”

The New Yorker story also discusses the right-wing leanings of the Falun Gong newspaper The Epoch Times, and if anything doesn’t quite do justice to how outlandish it is. The outlet is currently pushing a deep-state conspiracy theory with headlines like “Spygate: The Inside Story Behind the Alleged Plot to Take Down Trump.” Its website is running a serialized audiobook version of a book titled How The Specter Of Communism Is Ruling Our World. It also shares content with The Daily Caller, founded by Tucker Carlson. Granted, Falun Dafa has legitimate complaints with the Chinese government, which has also persecuted other religious minorities. But in The Epoch Times, those complaints also bleed into something more warped—a worldview that conflates all left-wing movements with authoritarian regimes, promotes dangerously backward social ideas, and pushes pro-Trump conspiracy theories.

Shen Yun at least aligns itself with Falun Dafa’s narratives about persecution and its opposition to Marxism, and isn’t subtle about those aspects, as reviewers across America have noted. Whether you can really draw a straight line between the dance group and Li Hongzhi’s most bizarre and reprehensible teachings is a far more complicated question that I honestly don’t feel comfortable trying to answer for a whole host of reasons. But if nothing else, the case of Shen Yun reminds us that art is often bound up in hairy political issues, and all the gorgeous, omnipresent promotional materials in the world can’t untangle them.


New this week:

Ashley Lusietto fills up the Central Library’s first floor with massive dancing figures.

Four Star Video Heaven is looking for a new owner.

On the Tone Madison Podcast, author Jen Rubin delves into her memoir We Are Staying.

Three writers offer deeper reviews of three standout features that screened at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Footwork producer Sirr Tmo will visit Madison this weekend for a workshop and a show.

Paul Soglin tweets his post-mayoral road trip.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has unveiled its 2019 Rooftop Cinema season. The Criminal podcast has announced a September 21 show at the Barrymore. Death-metal trio Ossuary shared the title track from the upcoming release Supreme Degradation. Philip Crawford shares a transportation wish list for Madison.

This week’s Madison calendar: A host of local jazz artists at ALL Jazz FestSizemore: The Big Salad II screens at CommunicationAnd more.

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