Selling China by the Sleeve Dance

Beneath the ubiquitous posters for the Shen Yun ballet is a battle between dissidents and the state over the soul of a nation, both at home and across the diaspora.

October 2, 2017

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and...

A few years ago, during the final days of a road trip with friends between Memphis and Toronto, I made a quick stop in a town in rural Kentucky. Bardstown is a tiny spot that’s picturesque enough, though the enormous placard announcing it had been voted “most beautiful small town in America” felt perhaps overly boastful. There, in a store selling bourbon-scented soap to tourists, someone had laid out a neat pile of pale blue pamphlets. Even in a town with an Asian population that needs to be rounded up generously to reach one percent, the image was instantly familiar: A Chinese woman floating through the air, dress billowing out behind her, with the caption: “Shen Yun. 5,000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage!”

If you live in a major city in the western hemisphere, you have seen this image. The pamphlets are for a company based out of upstate New York that presents spectacles of Chinese traditional dance in which a cast of forty performs intricate, synchronized routines to the pop-eastern sounds of a live orchestra. Each year Shen Yun’s ads spring up across the world in advance of the company’s touring season—banners hanging from street lamps in Brussels, billboards looming over Los Angeles freeways, pictures of ethereal Chinese dancers taped up in the windows of Toronto convenience stores and hair salons.

The company has five separate touring troupes that carry out a dizzying schedule, a kind of Cirque de Soleil of the east backed by a seemingly bottomless postering budget. They’ve played the Lincoln Centre and the London Coliseum. In a single week this past spring they hit Philadelphia, Honolulu, Charlotte, Kansas City and Huntsville, Alabama. Then Barcelona, Salzburg, Bremen, Baden-Baden and Paris.

As a troupe whose influence stretches all the way from Bogota, Colombia, to towns in Kentucky that have surely never seen forty Asians in the same week, let alone forty Asians in the same theatre, doing the sleeve dance, Shen Yun is impressively far-reaching. It’s difficult to imagine a group that’s done more to bring Chinese art to the unlikely corners of the world. According to the company, Shen Yun is an “international phenomenon, bringing the wonders of ancient Chinese culture to millions across the globe.”

According to the Chinese government, however, Shen Yun is the singing, dancing face of Falun Gong—a malevolent “anti-society cult” that, the government says, leads its followers to self-mutilation, suicide, and murder. In a 2012 statement, the Chinese Embassy in Washington issued a warning to Americans who might have been swayed by the posters appearing around town. “They have been staging the so-called ‘Shen Yun’ Performances in the U.S. in recent years in the name of promoting Chinese culture and showcasing the oriental charm,” the statement reads. “But in fact, in addition to their tacky taste and low artistic standards, the performances were filled with cult messages and implied attacks against the Chinese Government.”

Wherever Shen Yun goes, the government follows. In Ecuador and Ireland, Berlin and Stockholm, theatres and local governments have reported receiving letters or visits from Chinese embassies attempting to shut down the dance show. Sometimes the threats work. In Moldova in 2010, the company arrived at their theatre in Chisinau hours before their scheduled performance and found themselves locked out. More often, confused theatre managers shrug off the pressure and threats from government officials. In February of 2014, Jörg Seefeld, the event manager of the Stage Theater on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a Shen Yun performance was scheduled, received a visit from the Chinese Embassy’s cultural attaché who “tried to influence things.” Seefeld refused and the show continued. “I am from East Germany,” he told the Berliner Zeitung. “With the Chinese it is like it used to be with our rulers at the time. They are simply scared.”

Shen Yun reports a catalogue of more insidious attempts to silence the group. “Will the world allow the Chinese Communist Party to dictate the arts?” they ask on their official website, above a list of attempts by the party to sabotage their performances. Prior to their shows at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville last year, the group says the tires of the show’s presenters were slashed. In 2015 in Chicago, someone allegedly tampered with a truck covered in Shen Yun ads, pouring “corrosive chemicals” over the brake and accelerator pedals. The troupe says that Chinese spies photograph their movements and listen in on their phone calls. They report suspicious break-ins, where the only items missing are passports and laptops.

As a dance troupe that travels the world performing the Mongolian chopstick dance to western audiences, it’s easy to dismiss Shen Yun as a campy curiosity. But Falun Gong practitioners have become some of the most outspoken opponents of the Beijing government, prominent voices in the pro-democracy movement, and Shen Yun has turned into a strange preoccupation for the group. And so a kitschy dance show has become a preoccupation for the Chinese government as well, one of the battlegrounds on which the fight for the hearts and minds of westerners and overseas Chinese will be won, one ribbon dance at a time.


On a chilly January night in Toronto in 2015, I brought my mother and girlfriend to a Shen Yun performance at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a three-thousand-person theatre that generally hosts traveling orchestras and Josh Groban concerts. The crowd was a mixture of Chinese-Canadians and typical Toronto theatre-goers—silver-haired ballet aficionados, young couples in their opera-house-best, a South-Asian family with a young son who kicked the back of my chair relentlessly throughout the performance.

The show began with the sound of a gong as the curtain rose on a wall of dry ice haze that slowly dispersed, drifting into the orchestra pit to reveal dozens of dancers posed in brightly coloured, flowing costumes. What followed over the next two hours was a parade of unconnected Chinese dances that jumped from region to region, story to story. There were vignettes from the classic folk tale the Monkey King and dances from Mongolia and Tibet, all performed with impressive athleticism and precision in front of a projected backdrop that whirled through animated images that looked like the cut-scenes from a video game.

Between each dance, two Masters of Ceremony emerged from stage right to perform stilted patter, a strong-jawed Caucasian man in a tuxedo trading scripted jibes in impressive Mandarin with a pretty Chinese woman in a pink silk dress. Before each performance, the man performed the exact same bit of stage business in a way that quickly became unnerving. Oversmiling like a pageant host, he announced each new dance with a dramatic pause and a little flourish of the arms. At the end of the first act, the MCs took to the stage to announce yet another routine. “China has a long history of spirituality,” the man explained. “But in China today you can be arrested or even killed just for meditating.” With his fixed smile and familiar gesture he introduced the next piece: “The Power of Compassion, a scene from contemporary China.”

The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers were in tight khakis and tucked-in yellow polo shirts, Chinese versions of the anodyne dancers from an Old Navy commercial. They performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds—helping an old woman with a cane, chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. A girl walked by, ostentatiously chugging from a bottle of alcohol, and the young Falun Gong practitioners brought her into the fold and took away her liquor.

One of the young do-gooders unveiled a Falun Gong banner. Suddenly, a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer and sickle entered, looking like the villains in a Bruce Lee movie. The communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong followers. They attacked a young woman and a boy tried to protect her. In the melee, one of the attackers twisted his ankle and fell to the ground.

A Falun Gong practitioner tried to help his injured foe, who kept striking him. Undeterred, the young man moved to help the thug anyway, lifting him up and carrying him on his back while the villain continued raining punches on him. In the piece’s climax, the communist lifted his fist for the final blow. He let it hover in the air, trembling, and then—in a moment of tension that reminded me, more than anything, of Keanu Reeves’s inability to kill Patrick Swayze in the third act of Point Break—slowly dropped it, too moved by the young man’s compassion to continue.

The young Falun Gong practitioners gave him their book. The reformed thug pirouetted around the stage. Everyone sat and meditated together and suddenly the backdrop exploded into a kaleidoscope of colourful animations—monks descending from heaven, women in dresses swirling around, flipping, leaping, enacting a kind of orgy of celestial joy presumably meant to mirror the inner ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment. Suddenly the former communist’s leg was healed. He ran, he leapt, and then the cast pointed to the screen and the final image of a man, meditating and beatific, at peace with the universe.

The lights came up for intermission and we wandered out into the lobby, blinking and dazed. Outside, a young woman with an audio recorder was cornering patrons and asking for their reactions. The next day, the headlines spoke for themselves: “Toronto Showgoers Smitten by Shen Yun”; “Shen Yun ‘Extraordinary on a Whole Different Level,’ Says Toronto Entrepreneur”; “Accomplished Singers Applaud Shen Yun: ‘It was perfection.’” The dozen articles were all published in the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper.


I had brought my mother to the show because I thought she might be interested in this particular take on Chinese culture. Her mother, Gar Yin Hune, came to Canada in the 1930s as part of a different kind of Chinese cultural export: a traveling show designed to bring eastern art to the people of North America, particularly to the immigrants working in Chinatowns across the continent.

My grandmother was a Chinese opera singer who grew up in Guangzhou in what always seemed like some impossibly medieval-sounding time before communism. She was the second daughter of a man who ran a series of teahouses where singers performed. He was, by her account, a lazy philanderer who neglected to pay his children’s school bills and kept multiple women in addition to his first wife. One of these women performed in the teahouses and my grandmother—a bold, unusually pushy kid who had been kicked out of school after the payments stopped—followed her into the performing arts.

As a teenage ingénue she performed on barges up and down the Pearl River. She traveled to Vietnam, flirting with generals to secure safe passage. At eighteen, she escaped China on a cultural visa just as Japan began bombing—a kid making her way to Vancouver and then Toronto’s Chinatown despite the Exclusion Act’s ban on immigrants from China. These stories have become part of family lore. And by the time she was in her eighties—living in a spacious condominium in downtown Toronto, taking her grandchildren to eat a Filet-o-Fish at the McDonald’s across the street—this personal history had become intrinsically tied to her vision of the true China. It was a vision that skipped over Communism, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and remained stubbornly true to a country that had long ceased to exist.

This, of course, is how politics works in the diaspora. Nations that have changed dramatically—transformed piece-by-piece in ways subtle or traumatic—persist in immaculate form in the minds of a country’s expatriates, safeguarded for generations. In the inner suburbs and ethnic neighbourhoods of the world’s big multicultural cities, battles begun decades ago in various motherlands continue year after year, invisible to the oblivious majority. In North America, overseas Chinese have long had disproportionate influence on politics back home. In the early 1900s, Sun Yat Sen toured the continent, dropping in on Chinese communities from the mountains to the Great Lakes to raise funds for the revolution that would eventually overthrow a dynasty. As a kid, my mother remembers going to local Toronto cinemas to watch Cantonese melodramas as part of fundraising efforts for the Guomindang, Chang Kai Shek’s government in exile.

One way to understand Shen Yun is through this history of dissidents trying to change their country from across an ocean. This, of course, is not how the group wants to present itself. Since its inception, Shen Yun has gone out of its way to minimize its connection to Falun Gong. The dance company would rather not present itself as a religious entity, let alone a political group. In the posters designed to attract the culture-lovers of Berlin or Los Angeles, they are simply performers sharing an ancient artform. “Shen Yun was established in New York in 2006 by elite Chinese artists,” the origin story on their website reads. “They came together with a shared vision and passion—to revive the lost world of traditional Chinese culture and share it with everyone.” The company doesn’t make a habit of expanding on this story in the media. Despite the constant touring and the need to promote the show, the group rarely grants interviews.

The real story of how a troupe of Chinese dancers ended up performing in Kentucky, however, begins as a story of religious repression. Falun Gong (sometimes called Falun Dafa) is a spiritual movement that emerged out of the “qigong boom” in the early ’90s, an explosion of Tai-Chi-like practices that claimed to build wellness through specific movements and breathing. Falun Gong stood out from the many other forms of Qigong for a couple of reasons. First, Falun Gong’s mysterious leader, Li Hongzi, hadn’t just created a set of specific exercises but had mapped out an entire spiritual worldview that made his “cultivation practice” look suspiciously like a religion. And second, by the late ’90s it was becoming remarkably popular, with an estimated 70 million practitioners including high-level members of the Communist party. To the Chinese government, the fact that a quasi-religious organization stubbornly outside party control could inspire huge numbers of people to action was reason for concern. The seemingly harmless sight of middle-aged people exercising in the park began to look like a threat.

Li fled China and in 1998 became a permanent resident of the United States, where he’s been based ever since. In China, the government began to crack down. On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners quietly gathered in Beijing to demand an end to government harassment. It was the largest protest since Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese response was swift and, in retrospect, entirely predictable: they outlawed Falun Gong, arresting tens of thousands of people, and initiating a propaganda campaign that saw daily newspaper articles warning people about the dangerous “cult.” Along with democracy, Tibet, and Taiwan, Falun Gong became one of the government’s most verboten subjects.

For middle-aged exercise enthusiasts, the crackdown was devastating and bewildering. During this crisis, Li disappeared from the public eye for nearly a year, leaving followers struggling to figure out how to respond to their new position as political pariahs. When Li reemerged, says Andrew Junker, a sociologist at Valparaiso University who has written extensively about Falun Gong, it was with a new message. “There was a transition to a religious and millenarian interpretation,” says Junker, “a sign that the end of days are here.”

In a much-circulated interview with Time magazine in 1999, Li talked about Falun Gong followers having the power to levitate and spoke at length about an extraterrestrial invasion. “Since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture,” Li said. “Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens.” When the interviewer asked him if he was a human being, Li’s response was intentionally enigmatic: “You can think of me as a human being.”

With this shift in rhetoric, Li also reinforced his position as leader. “He was represented as being in charge of winning the cosmic battle while people were fighting the earthly battle here on the political sphere,” says Junker. Out of this crisis, a new version of Falun Gong emerged. Practitioners who had always been discouraged from concerning themselves with earthly considerations found a way to fold political concerns into their spiritual practice in a strategy known as “clarifying truth.” This meant, in theory, to try to correct the misinformation that was emerging from the Chinese government.

David Ownby, a professor at the Université de Montréal and the author of Falun Gong and the Future of China, says that the Falun Gong practitioners who arrived in North America in the early 2000s had been far from political. “They were perfectly patriotic, nationalistic Chinese people,” Ownby says. “Most of them had immigrated for economic reasons. They weren’t dissidents at all when this started.” The irony of the crackdown is that, by banning the practice, the Chinese government had inadvertently turned thousands of hitherto apolitical actors into outlaws and activists.

In the interests of “clarifying truth,” Falun Gong practitioners began speaking about politics. Falun Gong followers formed media groups such as the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television—organizations with a dedicated anti-Beijing bent that have become key partners in pro-democracy movements, a counter to the government-influenced Chinese press in North America. “The Chinese government hadn’t really counted on the fact that Falun Gong had a big presence in the diaspora,” says Ownby. “And in Canada and the U.S. they became very good at buttonholing journalists and members of Parliament. The Chinese government kind of freaked out.”

During this time, at the turn of the century, you saw hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners protesting in the streets, sitting outside Chinese consulates, passing out pamphlets. There were sympathetic articles in mainstream newspapers documenting their persecution. In 2001, The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on a fifty-eight-year-old Falun Gong practitioner who was tortured to death. In 2006, human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian MP David Kilgour published a report claiming the Chinese government had killed and systematically harvested the organs of Falun Gong practitioners.

What followed this flurry of media attention was inevitable: compassion fatigue. The facts on the ground—that Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted, imprisoned, and killed—remain as true as ever. But western sympathies have shifted. As China has grown in power, human rights abuses have became easier to overlook. And while Tibetan protestors and pro-democracy activists have always had the West’s unqualified sympathy, Falun Gong occupies a more ambivalent space. Despite Beijing’s insistence, Falun Gong is not a cult; it’s a diffuse group without strong hierarchies, and there is no evidence of the kind of coercive control that the label suggests. But it is, well, strange. Without the ballast of thousands of years of tradition, all new religions can feel absurd, and some of Li’s stranger comments have given the group the aura of an eastern version of Scientology. Falun Gong has moralistic, socially conservative beliefs, preaching against homosexuality and sex out of wedlock. The group is secretive and has a tendency to exaggerate and distort. For years, the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times has claimed that hundreds of millions of people have renounced the Chinese Communist Party, relying on numbers that are impossible to verify.

All of this has made them feel alien and less than sympathetic to the liberal westerners who would be their natural allies. Falun Gong practitioners were being repressed, sure, but there was something unnerving about the group’s presentation, their bizarre worldview. 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.

It’s out of this context—with Falun Gong persecuted in China and treated increasingly warily in the west—that Shen Yun emerged. For Falun Gong followers who had spent years doing the emotionally draining work of protest, sitting outside North American Chinatowns absorbing the indifference of passersby, it’s easy to see why promoting a dance show would be an appealing alternative. Practitioners in North America have escaped persecution, but to live comfortably in suburban New York or Vancouver, while family and friends suffer in China, comes with a burden. “There’s a guilt among Falun Gong practitioners,” says David Ownby. “They hope that they will get western public opinion back on their side. And they think that this is one way to do it—through this artistic medium.”


For all the competing narratives around Shen Yun, one place to find a clear version of its founding is in the words of Falun Gong’s leader himself. Li Hongzi is a mysterious figure. Every fact of his biography is contested, with government officials and Falun Gong followers arguing over the life of a man who is either the living embodiment of Buddha or a charlatan leading his gullible followers into ruinous folly.

According to Li’s official biography, he was born May 13, 1951, the same day as the Buddha. The Chinese government says he was born July 7, 1952, and backdated his birth for the religious significance. According to the hagiography, Li was a spiritual prodigy, learning Buddhism, Taoism, and Qigong from a series of masters who secretly instructed him throughout the Cultural Revolution under the cover of darkness. The government says he 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—an attempt to use art to bring his message to the masses.

Since 2000, Li has delivered long speeches to Falun Gong practitioners at international conferences that bring followers from around the world to hear his pronouncements. The speeches are part state-of-the-union, part Papal address, a curious mixture of the mundane and the spiritual. They’re collected at, the website that is the centre of much Falun Gong online activity. In transcripts, the speeches veer from moments of folksy, pragmatic advice to warnings about apocalyptic forces and an epic battle for the fate of humanity happening somewhere in the spiritual realm. During the question-and-answer period, Li acts as some combination of spiritual guide and self-help guru. In a single session, he’ll respond to questions about the suitability of video games (they are contributing to humankind’s destruction), best practices for investing (“it’s your own money, so whether you leave it at home or put it in the bank is your own business”) and what will happen to Chinese citizens who haven’t quit the Communist party when the Fa-rectification arrives and the material world as we know it ends (they will, unfortunately, be doomed).

And in these transcripts, Li speaks again and again about his desire to change the world, and his homeland in particular, through the power of Shen Yun. In an appearance at the 2014 New York Fa Conference, Li gives his account of the origin of the dance troupe. “How did Shen Yun first get started?” he asks. “There was a group of Dafa disciples involved in the arts who wished to use their professional skills to expose the persecution and save sentient beings.” According to Li, these early performances weren’t very good. It distressed him to see his spiritual practice represented by such mediocre art. “I observed that as people were leaving the theater afterwards, they were making all kinds of comments, but not many of these were compliments,” said Li. “The words that I heard weighed on me.” So the Master stepped in. If a dance show was going to save people, it needed to be a top-notch dance show. “Afterwards I thought, ‘I’ll lead them in doing this.’ And that was how Shen Yun was first established.”

Since then, Shen Yun has expanded considerably, from a single troupe to five companies of forty-odd dancers. The performers are trained in a school, the Fei Tian Academy in Deerpark, New York, part of a 427-acre retreat built as a refuge for Falun Gong followers fleeing persecution that includes a Tang-dynasty style temple. The company is a mixture of professionals and full-time Fei Tian students who perform unpaid. One former dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, immigrated to North America from China as a child. Dancing for Shen Yun, he said, was exhausting. During the four-month tours he worked long hours, studying in the morning before performing each night, then packing up and moving on to the next city. Though he isn’t a member of Falun Gong himself, he says sharing their message felt like an important act of political activism. “I felt like it was for a good cause,” he told me. “Sometimes you volunteer and they’ll make you pay for everything. Here they were nice enough to cover expenses.”

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, 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. “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.” He also encourages followers not to emphasize the Falun Gong connection. “You needn’t insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it,” he tells them.

What emerges from pages and pages of speeches from a decade of speaking is a strange story: a massive dance company led by a messianic figure who both communicates with celestial beings on a higher plane and is responsible for local marketing. It is as if the Dalai Lama were also a kick-line choreographer or the Pope spent his spare time producing Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Shen Yun is not a mere dance performance, but a chance to save the world’s “sentient creatures.” Performances have the capacity to “dissolve evil.” And the source of so much evil is the wicked communist party. For followers, then, the success of Shen Yun becomes freighted with significance: the fall of the corrupt communists, the salvation of family members left behind in China, the spiritual fate of the world, all tied together and dependent on the performance of groups of lithe twentysomethings on the stages of the world. “I am preparing for Shen Yun to perform in mainland China,” Li told his followers in 2009, to enthusiastic applause. “The evil may think it’s powerful, but let’s see what history has in store. It’s not up to them. Every dynasty was once full of bluster, only to be reduced to a whimper in the end.”


One day in last May last year, I spoke to Leeshai Lemish, one of Shen Yun’s Masters of Ceremony, from his hotel room in Korea. Lemish was supposed to be performing with Shen Yun in Seoul that evening, but their performances had been cancelled at the last minute under suspicious circumstances. Now he was frantically trying to figure out what had happened.

Lemish is an Ohio-born Israeli-American who came to Falun Gong as an adult after studying Chinese at Pomona College. Today he lives at Falun Gong’s upstate New York retreat. And since 2004, he has worked full time for Shen Yun, acting as an MC during performances and working on the show’s website and publicity in non-touring months.

“We’ve had a few crazy days,” Lemish told me. “I’ve seen sunrise more days than not.” After days of making calls, though, he thought he had figured out what had happened. The cancellation followed a familiar pattern: four Shen Yun performances at KBS Hall in Seoul were nixed at the last minute after the theatre received a letter from the Chinese embassy. In a thinly veiled threat, the letter asked the hall, which is controlled by Korea’s state-run television station, to “consider the overall picture of the Chinese-Korean relationship” and cancel the performances. Now Lemish and the nearly eighty members of dancers, musicians and crew were stranded in Seoul, bleeding money, without a theatre for their performance.

For Lemish, the cancellation was just the latest proof of the perfidious, global reach of the Chinese government. “People sometimes don’t realize how tricky the Chinese Communist Party can be,” he told me. “You don’t realize how evil this stuff can be. If you grow up in the West, you know cerebrally what this means, but you don’t know what it’s like to grow up in this type of environment.”

Lemish acknowledged that Shen Yun has been reticent when it has come to publicizing its ties to Falun Gong. After fifteen years of the Chinese government calling Falun Gong an evil cult, however, they have been reluctant to reveal their association. “I think it’s probably fair to say that we’re trying to figure out what’s the best balance here,” said Lemish. “As we’re getting more established we’re getting more transparent.” The very fact that he was talking to me, after months of negotiation, represented a major shift in the group’s approach, said Lemish. Slowly, the group was revealing their Falun Gong connection. They were including information about the spiritual practice in more of their promotional material, hoping to change their image. If a Catholic orchestra or a Mormon choir could perform without being labeled propaganda, why not Falun Gong?

When I asked Lemish about whether Shen Yun was actually controlled by Li Hongzhi, he became uncomfortable, evasive. “I may not want to say a lot about it, just because of security issues,” said Lemish. “You have a spiritual leader kind of figure, so there’s a lot of security issues involved for us. Things like slashing our tires. Things like spies.”

Lemish keeps a running tally online of all the attacks he claims his traveling group has experienced. “We have people in our company who were persecuted in China,” said Lemish. “There’s a dancer who lost her father, who was tortured to death. You have people who have spent time in jail, a lot of people lost family members. You have people who regularly get visitors from the public security bureau at their parents’ home in Beijing. You don’t want to forget that we’re out here celebrating Chinese culture and all these great stories, but there’s something very dark happening.”

To try to sort out the truth about Shen Yun requires one to stand between two forces buffeting you with propaganda and figure out which way to lean. The “propaganda” charge against Shen Yun sticks because it feels true. The show’s message is clumsy, presented with all the subtlety of Maoist revolutionary theatre. Of course, many of the things Shen Yun depicts—that Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed for simply meditating, that the country’s human rights violations are legion—are true. But the specific vision of the country they present and their zealous insistence that this is the one true vision, is distasteful to patriotic Chinese people who understandably do not like to be told that their homeland is evil. Like Cuban exiles in Miami, the people behind Shen Yun see their homeland in a specific context that grows increasingly distant the longer they are away. Li Hongzhi is now an exile himself—another expatriate like my grandmother, imagining an idealized time that has long since disappeared, if it ever existed.


After the Shen Yun performance in Toronto, I made my way into the lobby and tracked down a man who introduced himself as Joel Randall, the show’s presenter. A forty-something Caucasian man with sharp features and a quiet intensity, he smiled broadly as he explained that he was a devoted Falun Gong practitioner who had been inspired by the beauty of the show and was determined to show it to the world. Later I learned his real name is Joel Chipkar, a real estate agent who has appeared in the media as Vice-President of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto.

It is wrong to think of the show as Falun Gong propaganda, Chipkar told me. The aim was to counter government propaganda. “They’re the ones that have been responsible for the destruction of traditional Chinese culture for the past sixty years,” he said. During our conversation, my mother wandered over. Chipkar shook her hand and gave her the kind of ingratiating, lightly condescending smile that must be increasingly familiar for her, a tiny, seventy-year-old woman. “As you know, the Chinese culture was steeped in spirituality,” he told her. “Everyone respected the belief in gods. And then in come the Communists and destroy it all.”

My mother interrupted. “I don’t know if they were religious that way,” she said. “Some of it was just plain superstition.” Chipkar’s vision of China as a god-fearing nation didn’t jibe with her own conception of the country—a vision that came refracted through her own specific experience growing up the daughter of Confucian-ish pragmatists who didn’t seem to give much thought to the gods one way or another. “My family was here before communism. I don’t know if it was a spiritual belief,” she said. Chipkar insisted—“it was all about the spirit, it was all about gods”—and the two of them argued, politely, as the rest of the audience filed out of the lobby and into the cold Toronto night.

And this, of course, is what Shen Yen is fighting: a battle for the very essence of what it means to be Chinese. The night’s grand theme is that this, finally, is true Chinese culture. And this message, as much as the songs and dances that explicitly attack the government, is surely what causes Beijing the most concern. The show tries to reframe the years of Communist rule as a blip in the grand historical narrative of a country. It’s the same argument that underpins so many dissident political movements: the idea that those seeking to topple the government represent the authentic soul of a nation. That, after years of illegitimate rule, people finally have the opportunity to restore a country to its true character.

At that moment a screen in the lobby was playing an ad for an upcoming show by the National Chinese Acrobats. Chipkar looked at the screen and frowned. The practice of Chinese acrobatics was only formalized and promoted under the Communists. In the midst of the Cold War, Beijing used the National Acrobats as a diplomatic tool—sending those strong, skilled bodies across the world as the living embodiment of the country’s triumphant revolution.

“Chinese culture is not acrobatics,” Chipkar said firmly. “It’s not juggling and jumping through hoops and standing on each other’s heads. That’s not Chinese culture,” he said, gesturing at the ad. Next week, Shen Yun would be gone and this other vision of China would take its place, telling a new story to its audience. On screen, men in colourful uniforms hurled themselves tumbling through the air. Girls with arched backs balanced atop slightly larger girls with arched backs, contorting themselves into elegant handstands. A dozen women in red skirts and calf-high red boots smiled radiantly, arms outstretched, circling the stage while balanced on a single gleaming bicycle.

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and many other publications.