Home  /  Falun Gong  /  Views of Academics

Danceageddon: Following the Money Trail Behind Shen Yun’s Revised Eschatology

2021-01-27 Source:www.pdcnet.org Author:James R. Lewis


Falun Gong was originally a qigong group that entered into conflict with the Chinese state around the turn of the century. It gradually transformed into both a religious group and a political movement. Exiled to the United States, the founder-leader, Li Hongzhi, acquired property near Cuddebackville, New York, which he subsequently designated Dragon Springs. Dragon Springs, in turn, became the headquarters of Shen Yun Performing Arts, an ambitious touring dance and music company that claims to embody the traditional culture of China prior to its subversion by the Chinese Communist Party. Though Li’s earlier eschatology emphasized that individuals needed to become Falun Gong practitioners in order to survive the imminent apocalypse, the significant success of Shen Yun seems to have prompted Li Hongzhi rewrite his eschatology, which now emphasizes that all one need do in order to be “saved” was to view live Shen Yun performances.

Keywords: Shen Yun, Falun Gong, Falun Dafa, Li Hongzhi, People’s Republic of China, Chinese Dance, Dragon Springs

[Li Hongzhi’s] millenarian framework [has more recently been] used to justify concentrating public activism on the Shen Yun art shows because such shows, Li argued, were a superior technology of saving souls than the more explicitly political practice of “clarifying truth.” The charismatic leadership that unleashed the progressive potential of Falun Gong [thus eventually] stifled it (Junker 2019, 190).

In 2006, Falun Gong began offering their Shen Yun song and dance program. “These were clearly modelled on the long running Spring Festival Gala broadcasts of Chinese Central TV that feature the best of Chinese performers and have an annual audience of hundreds of millions of people” (Penny 2018). Anyone reading this article will have likely seen the brightly-colored flyers and posters of acrobatic dancers leaping through flowering cherry blossom trees and numerous quotes from celebrities and public figures effusing praise on a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle (available in every city, every year). But the joyous, colorful ads hide a more sinister aspect of the show.

Over the years, Shen Yun performances have evoked strong reactions, expressed in either terms of elaborate praise or utter shock. It is in the reviews of the show that seem to have become a virtual battleground for enticing or warning prospective attendees. On the Shen Yun website, there are pages and pages of glowing reviews from celebrities and respected public figures. A reporter for the Minnesota “Star Tribune” points out that the group “aggressively solicits ‘greetings’ from people in powerful positions, then passes them off as endorsements. The eyebrow-raising number of notables listed in the glossy programs of recent years, featuring their photos and enthusiastic messages, have included Hollywood celebrities, mayors and academics.…” (Tillotson 2015). The following quotes are typical of the language found on Shen Yun web pages:

It was a very emotional experience… It was not just entertaining, but at the same time, it has a message. And definitely, I believe we become better people just by watching and witnessing this, and become part of the soul of China… I think we came here with an expectation to be entertained, and we came out of here inspired. - Brigadier General Hector Lopez, US Brigadier General, Wartime Chief of Staff (Shen Yun 2017).

It’s very dramatic, and sometimes funny, with the monkey, and the scorpion, and getting pregnant, and you know—it’s just they’ve done an amazing job production wise of telling the story, and understanding the emotions, and putting it all together, and just the beauty of it all… (Shen Yun 2019)

What I was unprepared for was the extraordinary magic, the visual feast and the seduction from the stage as Shen Yun’s dance troupe leapt through the screen, conjuring the possibility of flight, allowing the viewer an endless stream of imagination while reflecting on many of life’s opportunities (Ibid).

I love the show. The show is so, it’s so filled with light. It’s exactly what this city needed. We needed to hear this story, we needed to see the dancing, and we needed to feel it in our bones. It’s absolutely, just the best thing that we could have had! (Ibid)

However, a simple scratch on the surface of this ‘Disneyfied’ wonderland and one sees the uncomfortable truth of a show selling itself as fun for the whole family but acting out violent beatings and ending with an Armageddon-like destruction of China. After reading a selection of reviews by skeptical observers, one becomes a connoisseur, of sorts, of journalistic humor; a few favorites:

After more skits depicting Falun Gong followers being assaulted by communist thugs, tortured with a cattle prod and surgically blinded, it should become clear to audiences fairly quickly this show has about as much to do with ancient Chinese dance traditions as Jonestown had to do with basket-weaving (Dabkowski 2018).

He calls the troupe a fund­raising vehicle for Falun Gong, a sort of combo of a “Wild East Show and a Billy Graham traveling tent show” that sensationalizes a culture most Americans aren’t familiar enough with to separate fact and fiction (Tillotson 2015).

Every 17 years, a biblical swarm of cicadas emerges from underneath North American deciduous trees for four to six weeks of near-deafening mating. Then, nearly as abruptly as the insects arrived, they vanish, returning to their subterranean homes for another 17 years. In a similar fashion, each year, cities and small towns across the world are flooded by a visual cicada storm of marketing, from technicolor billboards to glossy mailers, all heralding the imminent arrival of Shen Yun, a touring dance troupe connected to an exiled Chinese religious group (Braslow 2019).

Shen Yun has lived in the pink fluffy insulation of my mind for a while now. Last year, the ads were goldenrod yellow, like dehydrated urine… These posters were so uncanny and contentless that the easiest explanation for their existence was that my brain had simply glitched and invented Shen Yun the way John Nash invented his roommate in “A Beautiful Mind” (Tolentino 2019).

Several observers’ amusing comments nevertheless seemed to contain more than a grain of truth:

I am reluctant to welcome the teachings of a man who believes that aliens live among us and that homosexuality and mixed-raced marriages are degenerate. This seems a long way from the "truthfulness, compassion and forbearance" presented as the group's principles on stage.  But what I really object to is that such a politically motivated performance is being smuggled on to stages around Europe in the name of family entertainment. … In such a context, any judgment of the piece's artistic merit seems beside the point, but it is a horribly Disneyfied version of the traditional Chinese culture it seeks to celebrate. … The result is one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I have ever spent in the theatre (Crompton 2008).

The Chinese government says [that Li Hongzhi] was an unexceptional student without any higher education whose only real skill was his trumpet playing. And here at least, the government’s version of Li’s biography rings true. After moving his base to the United States, one of the first Falun Gong initiatives was the “Divine Land Marching Band,” a group of followers who play instruments and dance in local parades, bringing their message to local Santa Claus Parades and Chinese New Year celebrations. Both the marching band and Shen Yun make sense as a musician’s response to persecution (Hune-Brown 2017).

What chain of events led to the creation of Shen Yun? The performance company was founded by Falun Gong (FLG), which in turn was founded in China by Li Hongzhi (LHZ) in 1992 as a form of qigong. Qigong refers to a complex of techniques for physical and spiritual well-being, with an ancient tradition in China. Though often compared with Indian yoga, the majority of exercises involve slow movements while practitioners are standing, inviting comparisons with Tai Chi. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a qigong revival in China, often referred to as the “Qigong Boom” (Otehode and Penny 2017). Though spiritual activities are generally viewed with suspicion in the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), qigong has been accepted as a traditional form of exercise.

In 1999, the government initiated a campaign against certain qigong groups that were targeted as superstitious and reactionary, including FLG. Unlike other groups, Falun Gong reacted with a demonstration of more than 10,000 followers outside Beijing's Zhongnanhai, the residence of China's top leaders, the largest such demonstration since the 1989 student demonstration in Tiananmen Square. Authorities reacted with a wide-scale public campaign against the movement, a response that was “swift and, in retrospect, entirely predictable” (Hune-Brown 2017). Hundreds of local leaders and members were arrested; FLG subsequently claimed their practitioners were brutalized and tortured.

When it became clear that authorities were on the verge of banning the movement in 1998, Li Hongzhi and his family had escaped China and relocated permanently in the United States. Then, from the safety of his new home, LHZ encouraged his followers left behind to continue to demonstrate against the Chinese government. In David Ownby’s words, “Li scorns those practitioners—even in China, where stakes of resistance are high—who lack the courage of their convictions, [and] seems to ask that his followers make sacrifices that he himself has not made” (2003: 118–119).[ Or, in Andrew Junker’s words, “I have observed little in the actions and teachings of the charismatic leader to inspire my trust or respect. Often I have paused to wonder, what kind of leader would condemn to divine punishment those who renounced Falun Gong under torture? (Junker 2019, 192).

At the time, the news media was full of stories about the initial demonstration and the subsequent banning of Falun Gong. Additionally, for some time afterwards, the story line would re-manifest in the headlines when practitioners – especially Western practitioners – would make their way to Tiananmen Square to stage brief protests before being arrested and deported. Also, in early 2001, a small group of practitioners immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square (Lewis 2019). Again, this made world headlines, but quickly disappeared from the front pages. However, Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong had found a hospitable refuge in the West, particularly North America, where the group was able to establish a new headquarters in rural New York state.

At a gathering in Ottawa some years after the Zhongnanhai demonstration that was attended by sociologist Susan Palmer, Li Hongzhi,

…congratulated the martyrs of Tiananmen Square who have “consummated their own majestic positions” and presumably earned a posthumous enlightenment, or a crown of martyrdom: “Whether they are imprisoned or lose their human lives for persevering in Dafa cultivation, they achieve Consummation” (S. Palmer 2003, 356).

It seems clear in retrospect that Li’s teaching actually encouraged his followers to seek persecution, if not outright martyrdom:

Falun Gong adepts are fearless of persecution and even seem, by their provocative acts, to deliberately seek it: persecution validates their doctrine and brings them closer to the salvation promised by Li Hongzhi (D. Palmer 2001, 22).

In her study of Falun Gong’s conversion patterns, Susan Palmer (not to be confused with the Sinologist David Palmer) points out that involvement in the group eventually “requires participation in public demonstrations against the PRC government’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners” (2003, 354). Resistance in the face of oppression builds up one’s xinxing, or spiritual energy. The theory of how this works rests on a quasi-physical interpretation of karma. Li Hongzhi teaches that what other spiritual systems might call ‘good karma’ is a white substance referred to as de; ‘bad karma,’ on the other hand, is a black substance Li refers to as karma. How this works out in a confrontation with police and other oppressors is a kind of spiritual vampirism:

Li says that ‘When one throws punches at someone else, he also throws out his white substance [that is de or virtue] to the other person, and the vacated area in his body will be filled with the black substance [that is karma]’. This is important as it goes some way to explaining why Falun Gong practitioners have been apparently so willing to go to public places in China and do things that will get themselves arrested and, as they claim, brutalised. If a policeman were to beat you up, he is actually passing on his de to you and that space in him is taken up by karma! You win – he loses (Penny 2001 [brackets in Penny]).

This esoteric view of the karmic process motivates practitioners to actively seek oppression: at the unseen spiritual level, what is actually happening is that practitioners are attacking policemen – not vice versa. Furthermore, it is the practitioners who are winning. And as for followers who die while ‘forbearing,’ Li Hongzhi assures those “who martyred themselves to the cause could be expected to receive instant ‘cultivation’ or enlightenment, the goal toward which every adherent struggles” (Farley 2014, 249-250).

It was thus LHZ’s encouragement to practitioners to confront persecutors which had ultimately invoked government repression. Li Hongzhi not only encouraged followers to confront media whose portrayals of Falun Gong were judged inaccurate, but also government authorities – as in the case of the Zhongnanhai protest, which was undertaken with Li Hongzhi’s encouragement and “personal approval” (Ownby 2003, 109).  Alternately, he could, of course, have instructed his followers to: ‘lay low and continue the practice secretly and, if necessary, deny that you are a practitioner.’ Instead, he held this kind of cautious approach up for reproach; e.g., “There are also many new practitioners who practise in hiding at home, afraid of being discovered by others. Just think: what type of heart is that?” (Li Hongzhi, cited in Palmer 2007, 253).

It seems clear enough that LHZ was less interested in protecting followers than in playing the ‘brutal persecution’ card to the international media. Though the interest of non-FLG media eventually waned, Falun Gong supporters kept the issue alive by creating hundreds – eventually thousands – of websites propagating the Falun Gong interpretation of events. This was possible because the larger number of overseas followers were “Chinese students and scholars who have both easy access to the Internet and the requisite cultural capital and technical capabilities” (Zhao 2003, 214).

At the global level, [this] has ensured that [FLG’s] interpretation of events prevails over that of the PRC government. Western press coverage has been overwhelmingly supportive of Falun Gong and critical of PRC authorities, and negative assessments of the movement outside of the PRC are few and far between. Undoubtedly, the extensive information which practitioners have posted on their websites provides a ready resource for sympathetic journalists with tight deadlines (Bell and Boas 2003, 287).

Additionally, by May 2000 – shortly following the ban – members had set up their own newspaper outside of the PRC (The Epoch Times), and were also publishing it on the web by August. They established New Tang Dynasty TV (initially in New York), a channel directed particularly to the Chinese diaspora, in 2001. Sound of Hope radio was initiated in 2003.

FLG has thus been able to influence news media other than its own via its extensive presence on the web, through its direct press releases and through its own media. FLG has also been able to propagate its point of view indirectly, through other, non-FLG sources, which creates the impression of multiple sources for the same narrative. Thus, for example, “The press often quotes Amnesty International, but Amnesty’s reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources” (Kavan 2005). While Amnesty International has been a largely positive force on the world scene, its reports are sometimes deeply flawed; for example, the so-called Iraq Incubator Incident which helped justify the U.S. invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was pure propaganda which had been promoted by Amnesty (Democracy Now 2018). Additionally, Falun Gong followers and/or sympathizers have de facto control over the relevant webpages in Wikipedia (as discussed in Lewis 2018, 26-29).

However, despite the fact that Falun Gong’s version of its struggle with the PRC won the day in the global media, Li Hongzhi was still dissatisfied. He did not just want to win the propaganda war; instead, he originally wanted world opinion to galvanize the international community to force China to legalize FLG and to allow him back into the country. In addition to demonic forces and the PRC’s imputed new strategies of covert oppression, he seemed to be convinced that the non-Falun Gong news media was to blame because they failed to cover the tale of FLG’s alleged persecution on a continuous basis:

Back when the persecution first began, the [bad people] did things publicly, and they tried in vain to suppress Dafa disciples with a sinister, overwhelming atmosphere in which it felt as if the world was collapsing. But the evil forces, the rotten demons, and the malevolent Party couldn’t succeed. Later on, they realized that their approach would, as time went on, draw international attention and aggravate the Chinese people, and the broader public would support Dafa disciples and the effort to thwart the persecution. So, they gradually made the persecution into a covert one. Then, for one thing, it looked on the surface like the malevolent CCP [Chinese Communist Party] had again won a victory, and secondly, it painted a false picture where things seemed calm and harmonious on the surface. Meanwhile, behind the scenes it continued to underhandedly persecute Dafa disciples in a sinister fashion. In the latter stages it has gotten to the point that even the CCP’s state-controlled radio stations, television stations, and newspapers no longer mention it. But it has never let up in its means of oppressive persecution. These are the persecutory means of a gangster regime, the likes of which have never been seen before. You have seen that under these circumstances the mainstream media outlets of each country around the world have, for the most part, not reported on the persecution of Dafa disciples, keeping silent while crimes and sins are committed (LHZ 2005).

He attributed this failure to human greed:

Through the persecution we’ve seen that nothing advocated for in human society is reliable. There are many people around the world who talk about human rights, and there are many countries that pay lip service to freedom of belief, to the point that seemingly everybody the world over takes these things to be life’s most basic needs, a person’s most crucial rights. But when the CCP persecutes the Chinese people and tramples on their human rights and freedom of belief in a terribly evil and severe way, many governments and media throughout the world have remained silent. In other words, when material gain is at stake, all of that talk about freedom of belief and human rights suddenly means nothing to them (Ibid).

The truth, of course, is that the news media simply move on from one atrocity to the next. If they repeated the same story night after night, viewers would eventually succumb to “compassion fatigue,” and change the channel to watch something less hackneyed.

At a certain point, persecution doesn’t breed sympathy—it breeds a kind of contempt. The tenth time someone hands you a pamphlet about the Chinese government oppressing the Falun Gong, your impulse isn’t to write to your local representative, it’s to cross the street (Hune-Brown 2017).

Then there is also the problem of the non-visibility of the claimed oppression (in LHZ’s mind, attributable to “covert persecution”): how can a media company generate news about supposedly horrifying repression when the only evidence is second or third hand accusations from a group that has a vested interest in showing China in the worst possible light?

PR war over the interpretation of events in China – by successfully pushing the idea that Falun Gong was a peaceful spiritual exercise group being unfairly persecuted by the Chinese government – Li was still frustrated because he seemed no closer to what was at the time his ultimate goal of a triumphant return to the Chinese mainland. In addition to steadily decreasing media coverage, the movement seemed to be running out of steam. At this juncture, ether Li Hongzhi or someone else in Falun Gong (or perhaps some combination of the two) subsequently came up with two new strategies the following year that would re-mobilize the movement and reawaken world interest in FLG’s plight: Shen Yun performances and the accusation that the PRC was ‘harvesting’ organs from live FLG prisoners.

Two months before pushing the organ harvesting claims:

·         The above Li Hongzhi passages come from a talk given in the summer of 2005. Despite winning the Falun Gong was continuing to fade from the headlines – “Western journalists had stopped telling the story” (Tillotson 2015).

·         Beijing announced that President Hu Jintao would make his first official visit to Washington to enhance mutual understanding. The next day, Google launched a search engine in China that censored websites on Falun Gong and redirected readers to sites criticizing the movement.

·         International governments, foundations and corporations had not given Falun Gong the amount of money LHZ hoped for (Kavan 2020).

The Performance and Specific Background to Shen Yun

[C] After Li Hongzhi and his family first moved to the United States, he is said to have initially lived in the New Jersey-New York City area. Falun Gong eventually acquired property near Cuddebackville, New York, about one and one-half to two hours northwest of New York City. This property, which Li designated Dragon Springs, became FLG’s de facto headquarters. In addition to becoming the site of LHZ’s residence, Dragon Springs also became the site of Falun Gong educational institutions, Fei Tian College and Fei Tian Academy of the Arts. These institutions act as feeder schools for Falun Gong’s Shen Yun performing arts troupes, which are also headquartered in the same compound. FLG’s well-deserved reputation for secretiveness (Hune-Brown 2017) has been on full display at Dragon Springs:

[D] ritics of Dragon Springs … criticise the closed nature of the complex itself. “Not even some of the local practitioners have ever been inside,” says Ketcham, who describes how “outward looking” cameras have been mounted “on almost every tree” surrounding the complex. Initial “open houses” stopped after 2006, he says – the very year that the Fei Tian Academy [one of FLG’s schools] and Shen Yun were officially registered. Richard Aber, a contractor who entered Dragon Springs said he was “met at a gate with an AK47. What do they need guns for up there? Don’t we have cops to protect them here?” (van der Made 2019)

As part of a tour of the local area around Dragon Springs with a city alderman, Andrew Junker – a Sinologist who had written sympathetically about Falun Gong – ended up describing FLG’s dynamics as “paranoid and secretive”:

After introducing myself, one of the staff became agitated, saying, with hostility, “I know who you are.” She drew the alderman aside into a private conversation in the back of the room and then ejected us from the office. The alderman reported to me that she had said, “He is the enemy.” Ironically, in the edition of The Epoch Times they were distributing that day, I happened to be quoted making a sympathetic statement toward Falun Gong (Junker 2019, 101).

Shen Yun has been a profitable enterprise for Falun Gong, and is currently the group’s primary outreach to non-practitioners (Penny 2018). Promoted as a revival of 5000 years of traditional Chinese culture, Chinese “classical” dance is actually quite new, as recounted by Jia Tolentino in an important New Yorker article on Shen Yun:

In February, I called up Emily Wilcox, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan and the author of the book Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy [2018]. “I studied Chinese classical dance at the Beijing Dance Academy for a year and a half,” she said, “and, a few weeks after I came back to Michigan, a group promoting Shen Yun came up to me at the mall, handed me a flyer, and gave me the whole spiel about how Chinese dance is banned in China. It was hilarious to me, and so ridiculous, and, in a way, it inspired me to write this history in my book.”

Wilcox told me that Chinese classical dance is one of the predominant forms of dance in the contemporary Chinese art world. “It’s the form that professional dancers pay most attention to,” she said. “And, crucially, it’s actually a very new art form.” In the early nineteen-fifties, Wilcox explained, Chinese dancers, driven by a nationalistic impulse to create a form that could truly represent China, and drawing inspiration from historic art objects, nineteen-twenties Chinese opera, and various types of folk performance, began to shape a new tradition. “Dancers in China emphasize the fact that Chinese dance is an artistic innovation,” Wilcox said. “They’re interested in the possibility of newness, diversity, finding something new in Chinese history rather than re-creating the same thing.” …[She] pointed me to several Chinese-classical-dance performances on YouTube, all of which were markedly more expressive and nuanced than what I saw at Shen Yun (Tolentino 2019). [ In a different article, Wilcox is quoted as saying that, “Shen Yun's claim that they are the only source of authentic Chinese dance is completely ridiculous and clearly part of their mission to exploit Chinese cultural experiences for their own political purposes, without regard to historical accuracy.” (Tsengmarch 2014).

Shen Yun’s self-portrayal as the embodiment of authentic Chinese tradition relies, in part, on residual Cold War perceptions of the People’s Republic of China as a corrupter of traditional values and culture. In the words of Yutain Wong, from his introduction to Contemporary Directions in Asian American Dance:

By making use of a simplistic binary between pure and contaminated cultures, Shen Yun masks the extent to which the company capitalizes on differentiating themselves from the West, while giving over to the West the authority to recognize and value their difference. More importantly, Shen Yun views its repertoire as a museum object that can only be preserved on Western stages.

Founded in 2006, the Shen Yun performance company is transparently an extension of Falun Gong. Li Hongzhi asserts that Shen Yun is a way of “saving” audiences. This assertion represents a seemingly minor but nonetheless highly-significant revision of LHZ’s earlier eschatology. In the original scenario, one was required to become an active, sincere follower in order to survive the imminent apocalypse. However, subsequent to the emergence of Shen Yun as a viable, profitable enterprise, Li decided that one need only attend a Shen Yun performance in order to escape destruction in the “Final Havoc.”

Though details of the performance’s script vary from year to year, the overall structure remains fairly constant; in Junker’s words:

The opening scenes showed divinities descending to earth to initiate human culture, which was depicted as Tang Dynasty-like China. The final act in the last two shows I attended were fully millenarian: in each case, the show enacted a modern Chinese city suffering cataclysmic destruction by natural forces (earthquake or tidal wave, for example), all of which was then suddenly reversed by a Buddha-like figure descending to earth and initiating an era of utopian, post-millenarian bliss. Between the dramatic bookends of gods founding human culture and a millenarian reckoning was a variety show of dance and musical performances in the style of the annual China Central Television (CCTV) New Year’s Gala. Some of the performances were completely nonreligious and non-political; some were didactic political sketches dramatizing the repression of Falun Gong; and some were operatic songs praising the Dafa (2019, 176-177).

In his above overview, Junker understates Li Hongzhi’s role in the drama; other observers are more explicit about the identity of the “Buddha-like figure”:

… a huge tidal wave is set to destroy the city, but Master Li steps on stage, waves his hands, and sends the water back into the ocean, as… interdimensional wheels fly around in the sky. The spotlight shines on Li, unmistakably cast as a supernatural savior of mankind. Dancers gather near him to celebrate, holding a sign that reads "Falun Dafa is Good," and the curtain falls (Silverman 2019).

In addition to being pilloried for its unsubtle political message, Shen Yun has been criticized for preaching Falun Gong ideology and for its attacks on homosexuality, atheism and evolution (Hurley 2017):

The female dancers moved in hypnotic swirls; the male dancers jumped and flipped. Behind the stage was an enormous screen upon which digital backdrops—ancient temples, royal gardens, the cosmos—appeared, along with digital dancers who would walk to the bottom of the screen and then pop out, via the appearance of a living dancer, on the stage. The colors were near-neon and unnatural; they reminded me of the glowing hues of Photo Hunt, the tabletop bar game. The hosts started talking about a spiritual discipline called Falun Dafa, and then introduced a dance in which a beautiful young follower of Falun Dafa was kidnapped and imprisoned by Communists, who harvested her organs. “I’m hallucinating,” I whispered to my brother in the dark. …

The dances continued, sleeves swirling, skirts rippling. A man came onstage to sing a song in Chinese, which was translated on the screen behind him. “We follow Dafa, the Great Way,” he began, singing about a Creator who saved mankind and made the world anew. “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human,” he sang. At the end of the song, the row of older white people sitting behind me clapped fervently. In the final dance number, a group of Falun Dafa followers, who wore blue and yellow and clutched books of religious teachings, battled for space in a public square with corrupt youth. (Their corruption was evident because they were wearing black, looking at their cell phones, and, in the case of two men, holding hands.) Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned black; the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave. Dazed, I rubbed my eyes and saw a huge, bearded face disappearing in the water.

“Was that . . . ?” I said to my brother…. “Karl Marx?” he said. “Yeah, I think that was a tsunami with the face of Karl Marx” (Tolentino 2019).

Follow the Money

For researching certain issues, a useful strategy is sometimes to ‘follow the money.’ In the case we are examining, Li Hongzhi (or someone else in Falun Gong) founded Shen Yun as a non-profit corporation. While non-profit organizations in the United States are not required to pay income taxes, they are nevertheless required to report their income and expenditures on IRS Form 990 every year. These annual reports are open to public view and can be found posted online. For understanding the detailed finances of an organization, Form 990 is often unhelpful because an organization’s detailed expenses are recorded on supplemental forms that are not immediately accessible.  However, Form 990 turns out to be insightful when we are looking at overall income and general financial resources.

Shen Yun’s Form 990 for 2018 reports that in the United States the production took in $37,458,382 and had assets of $121,983,477. At first blush, this sounds like an enormous figure but, for an enterprise of this size, thirty-seven million dollars is in reality not so large.[vii] Salaries for performers and musicians alone would easily consume all of the profit, and then some. So, how has Shen Yun been able to amass assets of over 100 million dollars? A major factor in Shen Yun’s financial success is its non-traditional marketing strategy, which relies on local practitioners in every city who volunteer to promote the show:

This is the secret to Shen Yun’s marketing strategy. Instead of a centralized team of marketers, Shen Yun relies on a network of volunteers in each city that the show visits who raise the money and buy the ad space publicizing Shen Yun, according to the Guardian. Falun Gong’s founder Li serves as the overseer of these efforts, offering general guidance on messaging and scolding volunteers when they’ve erred. “If you decide to bring Shen Yun, then really ensure that you do it well. And since it is Master who is personally guiding Shen Yun, if your area doesn’t do well it will very quickly get back to me” (Braslow 2019). [Quoted statement comes from Li Hongzhi 2010.]

Though he openly admits to his followers that he is ‘personally guiding’ Shen Yun, he simultaneously cautions practitioners against being overly forthcoming about the performance’s association with Falun Gong – a reflection of a more general caution against discussing the group’s stranger teachings with ‘ordinary people’ (Lewis 2018, 1-2):

For the many theater-goers who are surprised by Shen Yun’s religious and political connections, that’s by design. In that same speech, Li cautioned against emphasizing the relationship between Shen Yun and Falun Gong. “You needn’t insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it” (Li Hongzhi 2010), he explains (Braslow 2019).

Not only does Shen Yun rely upon local practitioner volunteers to do the necessary footwork for promoting the production, but the show relies upon donations from locals to fund the group’s over-the-top advertising budget.

In each city that Shen Yun visits, shows are “presented” by the local Falun Dafa Association. This means that local Falun Gong followers must raise the needed funds, provide the publicity, and lay the groundwork to make the show successful. Over the years, in speech after speech, Li has gotten into the weeds about Shen Yun marketing and production. In one speech [LHZ 2010], Li admonishes his followers for not working hard enough to bring out crowds. “Shen Yun brings about a change in conditions for the Dafa disciples in each region it goes to, and advances the cause of saving people, but you, in turn, have to provide Shen Yun with the conditions that it needs,” said Li (Hune-Brown 2017).

Rather than bringing every local branch together under a single corporate umbrella, Falun Gong chose to incorporate each local group as a separate non-profit organization. Though in the beginning these branches spent their donations on local concerns, in the years following the creation of Shen Yun, donations were consumed by the necessity of promoting the show. Any funds left over then went to the group’s Dragon Springs headquarters in Cuddebackville, New York. In the most recent tax year for which we have records, there were thirty-six regional associations:

Eastern US Buddhas Study Falun Dafa Association

North Carolina Falun Dafa Association

Arizona Falun Dafa Association

Arkansas Falun Dafa Association

Connecticut Falun Dafa Association

Falun Dafa Association of Alabama

Falun Dafa Association of Louisiana

Falun Dafa Association of Atlanta

Falun Dafa Association of Colorado

Falun Dafa Association of Hawaii

Falun Dafa Association of Kansas City

Falun Dafa Association of New England

Falun Dafa Association of Rhode Island

Falun Dafa Association of Utah

Falun Dafa Association of Washington

Florida Falun Dafa Association

Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association

Indiana Falun Dafa Association

Kentucky Falun Dafa Association

Michigan Falun Dafa Association

Mid-USA Falun Dafa Association (Illinois)

Minnesota Falun Dafa Association

Missouri Falun Dafa Association

Nebraska Falun Dafa Association

Nevada Falun Dafa Association

New Jersey Falun Dafa Buddhas Study Association

Ohio Falun Dafa Association

Oregon Falun Dafa Association

San Diego Falun Dafa Association

South Carolina Falun Dafa Association

Southeast US Falun Dafa Association (Georgia)

Southern Falun Dafa Association (Texas)

Tennessee Falun Dafa Association

Upstate New York Falun Dafa Association

US Southwestern Falun Dafa Association (California)

Washington DC Area Falun Dafa Association

Western US Falun Dafa Association (California)

Wisconsin Falun Dafa Association

To provide a sense of the annual cash flow of these associations, by the end of 2018, the Falun Dafa Association of Atlanta had taken in $2,077,507, whereas the San Diego Falun Dafa Association had ‘only’ taken in $1,253,573. Without tabulating the income of every single regional association, we can see at a glance that in 2018 Shen Yun had an advertising budget of tens of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone – not counting the many local associations outside of the United States – plus free labor.

[These] local Falun Dafa associations in the US (all with "non-profit" status) receive the money generated by Shen Yun ticket sales, pay for the “advertisement and promotion,” “occupancy” and “travel expenses” and in some cases “donate” a substantial part to Shen Yun Performing Arts in Cuddebackville [Italics added] (Jan van der Made 2019).


Because of the lack of detail in the tax forms, the exact amount of money that flows from the Shen Yun shows back to the Dragon Springs complex in Cuddebackville is unclear as there are no tax returns available online for the organisation after 2005, when it reported net assets of over $20 million (Ibid.).

Ben Hurley, a former Australian follower, provides a vivid picture of what Shen Yun performances involved for local practitioners in his short autobiographical sketch, “Me and Li” (2017). In his words,

I would dread the arrival of Shen Yun in Australia every year, because of the expectation that all practitioners there would basically put their lives on hold for the weeks or even months leading up to it to meet all [of the larger FLG organization’s] demands (Ibid).

One of the primary organizers of Australia’s branch of The Epoch Times, he was on the cutting edge of promoting Shen Yun. Though unpaid, he and his compatriots believed that they were being paid in the coin of divine blessings.

In terms of racking up blessings for your eternal existence, participating in the Shen Yun reporting team was about as good as it got. Every Shen Yun performance was viewed by Falun Gong practitioners as a monumental battle between good and evil in other dimensions, with the manifestation in this physical dimension being a little more mundane. A media team would assemble in a hotel room or apartment somewhere nearby the venue, ready to work through the night. Several reporters would go to the venue and do short interviews with audience members as they came out during intermission and after the show. Positive comments were taken down or recorded on video and then quickly written into articles and broadcast on various Falun Gong media outlets…. The Epoch Times had to get one article published online within half an hour of each show finishing, otherwise the battle in other dimensions had basically been lost for the night, and Shen Yun’s entire tour of that country was jeopardised (Ibid).

But while one team was frantically interviewing audience members, quickly writing up articles, and rushing them into publication, a separate team of practitioners,

…was devoted solely to taking care of the cosmic battle side of things. This team would sit in a room somewhere nearby with crossed legs and right hand held erect in front of their chests, “sending righteous thoughts” non-stop, day and night, to clear away the evil in other dimensions. People with full-time jobs would drop in for an hour or two after work, others would stay much longer, coming in day after day for hours on end…. This was in addition to the four global times that had been in place for years, corresponding to Beijing times of 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight (Ibid).

A major area of tension between the “non-violent” (Junker 2016) image that Falun Gong projects and LHZ’s inner teachings is the “war with demons.” While outside observers perceive FLG as a pacifist group because individual members appear to engage in passive resistance tactics rather than taking up arms against the PRC, Li Hongzhi attributes the movement’s persecution to demonic influences, and explicitly instructs his followers to engage in forms of spiritual warfare designed to slay demons and inflict harsh retribution on perceived enemies, both spiritual and human (Lewis and Huang 2020).

In addition to the deaths of FLG acquaintances who refused to seek medical attention because of LHZ’s anti-medicine teachings, Hurley eventually left the group because of what he viewed as the ineffectiveness of these promotional efforts:

It became increasingly clear to me as I worked on these media projects how hamstrung they were in achieving any real traction in society. Unable to trust non-believers with the spiritual mission of saving people, and unwilling to allow outsiders an inside view into the machinations of Falun Gong, these media could do nothing but continually draw from a very small pool of Falun Gong practitioners, typically with little or no media experience. And whatever good content they produced (I still feel the Shen Yun dances are beautiful to watch and the original orchestral music is lovely) it was overshadowed by the genuine weirdness of the Falun Gong propaganda inserted throughout…. (Hurley 2017)

Shen Yun Merchandising

Another source of income that is rarely if ever considered is Shen Yun merchandise. The online Shen Yun store, of course, carries only “official” Shen Yun products:

One of the links on the Shen Yun website will take viewers to the Shen Yun Shop, where one can purchase everything from Shen Yun stationary to gold and silver jewelry. Jewelry runs in price from $30 ear ring sets to $120 necklaces. The merchandise in the stationary section runs from $10 postcard sets to official “Tang Dynasty” Ballpoint Pens for $35 each – which we might infer go along with one’s Tang Flower Scarf Ring ($45) or one’s Tang Dynasty Grace Scarf ($268). The shop also sells $85 Tote Bags. There are a few men’s accessories, including pocket squares (handkerchiefs) from the Han Dynasty plus gold and silver cufflinks ($45).

The Shen Yun Shop also sells some more reasonably-priced items, such as Shen Yun-themed puzzles, coloring books and T-shirts for children. Then there are Shen Yun prints, albums, CDs, DVDs and calendars. Plus, there is Shen Yun tableware, like signature mugs and Mongolian Bowels Coaster Sets, as well as Chinese Hand Fans and, interestingly, Courtyard Elegance Cushion Covers ($69 per set of two). Shen Yun also re-associates items from different categories into what are labelled ‘Gift Sets,’ such as the Elegance of the Yi Scarf & Scarf Ring Set ($175).

The whole merchandising effort might strike one as rather tacky, but official movie merchandise for popular films (think Star Wars Toy Millennium Falcons and Harry Potter Magic Wizard Kits) regularly makes more profit than the original movie (Shelton 2019), so why shouldn’t Shen Yun? Clearly, Li Hongzhi or someone else in his organization was paying attention. In an Express Wire press release (https://www.theexpresswire.com/pressrelease/_10253459), the chief merchandise categories are listed as: Apparel, Home Décor, Toys, Accessories, Men, Women and Youth. These are not exactly the same categories as one finds on the Shen Yun Shop webpage, but there is enough overlap that it prompts one to speculate that someone in Shen Yun took their cue from other performance-related merchandising schemes.

However, it should also be noted that Li Hongzhi had earlier incorporated merchandizing as a money maker back in China when he was first starting out as a qigong teacher and healer in the 1990s. Though the Chinese government has “portrayed falun gong as having lucrative revenue sources from charging exorbitant admissions to qigong seminars” (Tong 2002, 650), one of the primary reasons the group was able to grow so quickly was that, not long after his initial series of seminars, Li Hongzhi and others in the FLG organization were able to offer instruction free of charge – due to the proliferation and sale of Falun Gong merchandise (a business strategy qigong teachers before LHZ had pioneered).

Though a latecomer to the qigong scene, Li Hongzhi was, nevertheless, a quick study. PRC authorities have pointed out that “the falun gong movement generated prodigious income from sales of congregational paraphernalia” (Ibid., 651), and this was no overstatement. The FLG organization sold books, audio tapes, video tapes, video CDs, badges, laminated pictures of LHZ, calendars featuring Li Hongzhi portraits, meditation cushions and even exercise suits (which look a bit like bright yellow pajamas) – in fact, anything that could be spun out of the seminars and turned into a marketable product. To get a full sense of the extent of FLG’s merchandizing efforts in China, readers should consult James Tong’s exhaustive Revenge of the Forbidden City (2009).


Though initially Li Hongzhi seems to have been sincere enough about his goal of returning to the mainland shortly before Shen Yun was initiated, the trajectory the performance company followed subsequent to its founding appears to indicate that Li no longer anticipates returning to China in his lifetime. Even the purchase of the property that became Dragon Springs in the years leading up to the launch of Shen Yun signaled that LHZ was beginning to settle into his new home country. Other developments more directly related to the establishment of Shen Yun as an ongoing institution – such as the founding of a college designed to feed graduates into the expanding number of touring troupes, and the semi-permanent housing of performers in Dragon Springs dormitories – reflect a long-term commitment, both to Shen Yun and to Li’s ongoing residency in the United States. Instead of recruiting new converts to Falun Gong, the thrust of followers’ missionizing efforts became attracting non-practitioners to attend live performances of Shen Yun. Simply attending a performance would save individuals from perishing in the final conflagration at the end of time.

Now the effects of Shen Yun Performing Arts shows today [are obvious]. Everyone knows, everyone has seen them fulfill as [important] role. If a thousand people enter the theatre, when they leave [they are] already changed. When compared to other clarifying work endeavors you all do, under most conditions, it is impossible to have this kind of immediate and visible effect. Until now it has been impossible to reach this degree or reach this many people. The performing arts shows can fulfill this function (LHZ; quoted in Junker 2019, 177).

In other words, Shen Yun is far superior to all other forms of activism. As a consequence, “Falun Gong diaspora protest activism [has] changed from being explicitly political and largely based on human rights framing to a millenarian movement aimed at ‘saving souls’ before the end of history” (Ibid., 178). Unsurprisingly, it should be obvious that Li Hongzhi’s emphasis on the importance of ‘ordinary people’ purchasing expensive tickets and viewing live shows in person – in lieu of viewing Shen Yun online or via a DVD – not coincidently contributes to Li’s bottom line. Thus, it seems, LHZ has finally made peace with his exile from China, and settled into a prosperous lifestyle in North America as the artistic director of a performing arts compan


Bell, Mark R., and Taylor C. Boas.

2003. "Falun Gong and the Internet: Evangelism, community, and struggle for survival." Nova Religio 6:2, 277–293.

Braslow, Samuel.

2019. “Just How Big Is Shen Yun’s Marketing Budget?”


              Accessed 26 December 2019

Chan, Lik Sam.

2016. “Emotional duplex in the nation (de-)branding: a case study of China and Shen Yun Performing Arts.”

       Critical Studies in Media Communication. 33: 2, 139–153.

Crompton, Sarah.

2008.. “Shen Yun: Propaganda as entertainment.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3671451/Shen-Yun-Propaganda-as-entertainment.html 1/2.

Accessed 3 October 2017

Dabkowski, Colin.

2018. “In return to Shea's, Shen Yun stays true to propagandist roots.”


              Accessed 23 May 2018

Democracy Now.

2018. “How False Testimony and a Massive U.S. Propaganda Machine Bolstered George H.W. Bush’s War on Iraq.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkRylMGLPMU

Accessed 25 March 2020.

Farley, Helen.

2014. “Falun Gong: A Narrative of Pending Apocalypse, Shape-Shifting Aliens, and Relentless Persecution.” In Controversial New Religions, eds. James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen, 241-254. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gelt, Jessica.

2016. “Falun Gong, banned in China, finds a loud protest voice in the U.S. through Shen Yun dance troupe.”


              Accessed 29 December 2019

Huang, Josie.

2018. “I went to a Shen Yun show. Here's what I saw”


Accessed 23 May 2018

Hune-Brown, Nicholas.

2017. “Selling China by the Sleeve.” Hazlitt Magazine.


              Accessed 23 May 2018

Hurley, Ben.

2017. “Me and Li— Why I left Falun Gong after being a devoted believer for a decade.”


              Accessed 5 January 2020

Junker, Andrew.

2016. “Live Organ Harvesting in China: Falun Gong and Unsettled Rumor.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 1-29.

Junker, Andrew.

2019. Becoming Activists in Global China: Social Movements in the Chinese Diaspora. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kavan, Heather.

2005. “Print Media Coverage of Falun Gong in Australia and New Zealand.” In: Peter Horsfield, ed. Papers from the Trans-Tasman Research Symposium, ‘Emerging Research in Media, Religion and Culture’. Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 74-85.

Kavan, Heather.

2020. Personal Communication (2 January 2020).

Lewis, James R.

2018. Falun Gong: Spiritual Warfare and Martyrdom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, James R.

2019. “Burning Faith: Interpreting the 1.23 Incident.” In James R. Lewis and Huang Chao, eds., Enlightened Martyrdom: The Hidden Side of Falun Gong. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 85-109.

Lewis, James R., and Huang Chao

2020. “Falun Gong: Origins, Growth, Conflict.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford University Press.

Li Hongzhi.

2005. Teaching the Fa at the 2005 Canada Fa Conference


              Accessed 30 December 2019

Li Hongzhi.

2010. Fa Teaching Given at the 2010 New York Fa Conference.


              Accessed 30 December 2019


2005. “Editorial: The Essentials to Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts and the Schedule for Sending Forth Righteous Thoughts at Set Times Around the World (Update 2).”


                     Accessed 9 October 2018

Otehode, Utiraruto, and Benjamin Penny.

2017. “Activist Practitioners in the Qigong Boom of the 1980s.” East Asian History 41, 15-24.

Ownby, David.

2003. In Search of Charisma: The Falun Gong Diaspora. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 6:2, 106-120.

Palmer, David A.

2001. Falun Gong: Between Sectarianism & Universal Salvation. China Perspectives 35, 14-24.


              Accessed 7 June 2015

Palmer, David A.

2007. Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Palmer, Susan J.

2003. “Healing to Protest: Conversion Patterns Among the Practitioners of Falun Gong.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 6:2, 348-364.

Penny, Benjamin.

2001. The Past, Present and Future of Falun Gong. Lecture at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.


              Accessed 3 June 2015

Penny, Benjamin.

2018. “Falun Gong.” In Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements, Edited Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter. Leiden: Brill, 524-544.

Robertson, David.

2019. “Chinese Culture, Cult and Communism – Shen Yun – A Review.” https://theweeflea.com/2019/01/28/chinese-culture-cult-and-communism-shen-yun-a-review/.

              Accessed 26 December 2019

Shelton, Jacob.

2019. “Movies That Made More Money On Merchandising Than At The Box Office.”


              Accessed 31 December 2019

Shen Yun.

2019. Latest Reviews


              Accessed 17 December 2019

Shen Yun.

2017. Shen Yun Guestbook.


Accessed 14 February 2017

Silverman, David.

2019. “The Cult of Falun Gong: How This Group Raises Big Money Using a Dance Troupe and Its Own Victimhood.” Skeptic 24:1 (Winter).

Spera, Keith.

2018. “Chinese classical dance show Shen Yun is also about politics, propaganda and proselytizing.” The New Orleans Advocate (Feb. 7). https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/arts/article_feb0e283-76c1-5df2-a2a8-6d24857f1a76.html.

Accessed 26 December 2019.

Tillotson, Kristin.

2015. “Shen Yun: Politics behind the performance.” Star Tribune.


              Accessed 26 December 2019

Tolentino, Jia.

2019. “Stepping Into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun.” New Yorker.


              Accessed 31 December 2019

Tong, James W.

2002. “An Organizational Analysis of the Falun Gong: Structure, Communications, Financing.” The China Quarterly 171, 636-660.

Tong, James W.

2009. Revenge of the Forbidden City: The Suppression of the Falungong in China, 1999-2005. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tsengmarch, Ada.

2014. “Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But it also has a Political Edge.” LA Weekly.


                     Accessed 15 March 2020

van der Made, Jan.

2019. “Shen Yun: Fighting Communism - and making a stack on the side.”


              Accessed 19 November 2019

Wilcox, Emily

 2018. Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy. University of California Press.

Wong, Yutian.

2016. Contemporary Directions in Asian American Dance. University of Wisconsin Press.

Zhao, Yuezhi.

2003. "Falun Gong, Identity, and the Struggle over Meaning Inside and Outside China." In Contesting media power: Alternative media in a networked world, eds. Nick Couldry and James Curran. United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.