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Shen Yun Performing Arts as Falun Gong’s “Wild East Show”

2014-03-17 Source:museumfatigue.org Author:By David Davies

  This past week I went to my mailbox in the social sciences divisional office and was surprised to find every faculty mailbox had been stuffed to overflowing with a 2014 calendar of the Shen Yun dance troupe. 


  It would be treating the calendars with too much respect to call them junk mailmuch more respect than was shown to our faculty by the person who dumped them theredespite our administrative assistants warning that most would end up in the trash. We got spammed by representatives of Falun Gong. Hit by the actual world version of cheap mortgage deals, Viagra supplements and mail order bride messages that circulate onlinehawking a similar kind of cheap fantasy to the financial deal, the potent erection and the happily-ever-after-love-in-the mail. 


  The calendar features a Chinese female dancer flying through the air with fluttering silken clothing and long flowing sleeves. Beneath her are a series of other dance images featuring more exotic Asian figures flying around in silken outfits. Across the top reads, Reviving 5,000 years of Civilization. 


  As a professor who teaches about China, I have a strong, visceral reaction to the images of the Shen Yun Dance groups propaganda. I work hard to disabuse my undergraduate students of their stereotypes of Asia and introduce them to contemporary issues, relationships and controversies that link their lives in the US to those in China and other places around the globe. 


  While there is a contemporary China about which we all could be learning more, Shen Yun hawks a distant, aestheticized Orient-as-entertainment. It works against a nuanced understanding of contemporary China, with airy-fairy references to 5,000 years of history. 


  The mail-spam also upset me because at least one of my colleagues assumed that I had stuffed the faculty mailboxes. After all, he told me, I direct the East Asian Studies program at our university. 


  In recent years I have gotten into the habit of calling this genre of Chinese culturalist propaganda swords and silk. Its the kind of presentation that evokes an idealized ancient Chinese pastcomplete with flying heroes, fluttering maidens and, of course, plenty of swords and people dressed in flowing silk robes. As a genre of representation, it evokes a China that is distant in time and space from the presentfeeding customers shiny, prepackaged images familiar to the Western imaginary of the Chinese Orient. 


  It is the kind of presentation of a traditional China that gives the viewer exactly what he or she wantsthe performance of an exotic that is easy to consume and resonates with upper class ideas of high culture. Dance. Beauty. Culture. A global village performance. 


  When considering the aesthetic desires evoked by swords and silk”—a world of idealized serene faces and flawless features, at first I was inclined to compare Shen Yun to the socialist realist propaganda images of the Chinese communist period. There are certainly formal aesthetic similarities and Shen Yuns backersFalun Gongcertainly use propaganda methods and organizing tactics that find roots in revolutionary China. 


  That comparison, however, didnt seem quite right because the images of socialist-realist revolutionary propaganda intended their idealized images to cut a sharp contrast with the less-than-ideal presenta difference which made the future worth struggling for. In this sense, it seems to me, revolutionary propaganda posters were about something differenta political message wrapped in a progressive aesthetic. 


  The swords and silk imagery of Shen Yun seems different to meit does something different. It offers images of an otherworld past unrelated to the present except as entertaining escape. Shen Yuns ideology is a conservative onereinscribing conservative gender roles, Confucian hierarchy, and an Orientalist aesthetic. An uninformed visitor to their performance might mistakenly think that the pageantry actually has some relationship to contemporary China. 


  Perhaps it does, if only as the propaganda and fundraising operation of Falun Gong. This, however, would be confusing content with form. Im interested in the rhetoric, representation and claims of a swords and silk show to revive culture. What is the definition of culture that is being evoked here? How does an Orientalist pageantry performed for a largely non-Chinese audience revive anything? How does one attend to the often creepy evangelical tones of their advertising and propaganda videos? 


  A more useful comparison might be to think of the Shen Yun troupe in the context of Buffalo Bill Codys Wild West Shows of the late 19th Century US. At exactly the moment the West was closing and the cowboys disappearing, Codys shows represented an American Wild West. It represented Cowboys and Indians to Americans as well as Europeansan exhibitionary spectacle which performed difference at the moment it was being erasedoffering a uniquely American subjectivity which could be circulated at an earlier stage of globalization. The Indians were part of the show even as US government policy focused on strong assimilationist policies. 


  It be useful to think about Shen Yun as a kind of Wild East Show”—a visual spectacular intent on circulating a mythology about reviving a 5,000 year civilization in terms that appeal to hapless consumers and enriching the owners. It is a mythology asserting an exotic that confounds and distracts from the much more important relationships that lie beneath. 

  Original Text From:http://museumfatigue.org/2013/12/13/shen-yun-performing-arts-as-falun-gongs-wild-east-show/