Shen Yun — the history behind traditional Chinese arts

December 1, 2019 — by Serena Li and Nicole Lu

We were waiting in line for a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco when we spotted a poster across the street. The familiar image of an anonymous girl with beautifully extended arms and legs on a purple background was attached to the wall of a vape shop.

We’ve all probably seen the meme of Shen Yun’s advertising. Every time you drive on a local freeway, there’s roughly a 99.9 percent chance that you will run into a billboard displaying the bright colors of the Shen Yun performances.

This prominent New York dance company and orchestra symphony, established in 2006 with the goal of reviving authentic Chinese culture, is now on its 13th tour of Northern California. Tickets cost anywhere between $100 and $200 for each performance.

Because of where the show stemmed from, many people often associate the Shen Yun with communist ideologies; however, this rumor isn’t true.

According to The New Yorker, Shen Yun is a company founded on the philosophy of Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, a Chinese religious practice based in mindfulness, spirituality and a connection between heaven and earth. 

Falun Dafa is illegal in China. The Chinese government believes that it antagonizes communism. As an officially atheist regime, the party sees the huge number of practitioners of Falun Dafa as a threat. In 1999, about 70 million people were reported to practice Falun Dafa, though the number is rising. Because of the persecution in China, many practitioners have been forced to flee, usually to America.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming number of conspiracy theories and memes often overshadow the performance aspect of Shen Yun. 

Shen Yun is a premier dance and music company known for its amazing performers. A look at its 2019 trailer conveys the hard work and dedication put into every show. 

The video “What it takes to be a Shen Yun dancer,” which depicts the hard work each dancer puts into their training, has more than 4 million views. In the video, the narrator explains that the strict training regiment that each Shen Yun dancers undergo “takes a mind of steel, and limits of rubber.”

The performance is composed of a collection of pieces depicting classical Chinese culture over a span of 5,000 years. Several famous dances include “The Flower Drum Lantern Dance,” Hua-gu-deng in Chinese, and the “Manchurian Dance.” They express the lively folk culture and elegant Manchurian aristocracy, respectively.

Accompanying the troupe of talented dancers includes the Shen Yun symphony orchestra, which performs original compositions that blend classical music from both Eastern and Western countries. 

According to the official Shen Yun website, while traditional Chinese music focuses on the expression of internal feelings, Western music emphasizes the cohesiveness and overall effect of the musical ensemble. Shen Yun strives to incorporate both cultures in its performances for well-rounded musical pieces that capture the spirit of two very different regions.

So is it worth seeing? A Chinese singer in the Bay Area, who chose to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, attends the show every year. She is a professional singer with a background in classical Shanghainese song style. She said that Shen Yun was the most breathtaking performance she has ever witnessed, and explained that the techniques that the Shen Yun singers used were nearly flawless. 

By contrast, junior Celine Chien, who saw the show several years ago, said that the show felt like a commercialized version of Chinese culture. Chien said the dancing felt inauthentic. Instead of promoting Chinese dance, she saw it more of a ploy to gain money from Western audiences. 

“In terms of costume and dramatic effect it was cool,” Chien said. “I know the people in it try really hard, but it’s way more expensive than it’s worth.”

Opinions about Shen Yun vary widely. Though concerns and questions are understandable, Shen Yun effectively paints itself as a bold team of talented performers bringing values and ideas censored in mainland China. Knowing that their advertisements and billboards aren’t going to go away should serve as an incentive for others to see what the show truly is about.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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