Illustration by Shane Tolentino

You’ve seen them everywhere. A posed dancer on a solid blue background, skirts flowing behind her. “China Before Communism,” the poster proclaims. They are in the windows of liquor stores, little diners, and get mailed to your home as glossy brochures. Indeed, all over Chicago they are plastered on train platforms, lit up on billboards, and streamed online before your video plays on Youtube. 

It’s the advertisements for Shen Yun Performing Arts, which bills itself as a traditional Chinese dance performance and whose arrival to Chicago each year is forecasted by the city being bombarded with a flurry of ads. The same phenomenon plays out all over the country, year after year, from San Francisco to New York, and everywhere in between.

These ads have existed on the city’s periphery for so long, it is easy to overlook just exactly what is being advertised. If you have ever wondered what these omnipresent posters represent, wonder no more. Earlier this spring, I attended a Shen Yun show in Rosemont, Illinois and tried to get to the bottom of what the show is about, who outs these performances on, and why their advertising campaign is so aggressive. 

Spoiler: these performances, and their accompanying million dollar marketing budgets, represent a lot more than a traditional Chinese dance performance. Behind those billboards is a highly political parent organization, an alt-right media empire, and a global power struggle over the narrative of Chinese history. 

Shen Yun is a project of the spiritual sect known as Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, a buddhist offshoot originating in China in the early 1990s. Its founder, Li Hongzi, a former trumpeter for a police band, started the group in northeast China. With its claims of miraculous health benefits, and indeed spiritual salvation, Falun Gong grew fast. When Li’s book, Zhuan Falun, was published in 1996, as a handbook to the practice, it catapulted the already growing Falun Gong movement to widespread popularity in China. 

Initially focused on breathing exercises and meditative practices, Falun Gong was fairly apolitical. However, its immense popularity alarmed the communist party in China, wary of its growing influence. According to an investigation commissioned by the party, the group was estimated to have an astonishing 70 million followers. The party banned the sale of Zhuan Falun and initiated a severe crackdown on practitioners, that included mass arrests and beatings. 

By the early 2000s, the practice had been nearly eradicated in the country. But by then, Li had already moved Falun Gong’s operations to the United States, rebranding as a prominent anti-Chinese communist party (CCP) voice. 

Today, the Falun Gong runs its programs via its sprawling headquarters known as Dragon Springs in upstate New York. One of the main vehicles for the Falun Gong’s messaging is The Epoch Times. Initially a Chinese-language newspaper serving immigrant communities in the U.S., today it is an online conservative media behemoth with millions of followers across its various platforms. 

Officially, Falun Gong denies any editorial or fiscal control over the paper, while conceding that it was founded and run by Falun Gong practitioners. And in addition to promoting far right conspiracy theories like COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon by the Chinese communist party, or that January 6th was led by antifa groups, the newspaper often highlights glowing portraits and reviews of Shen Yun performances and Falun Gong practices. 

The highly polarized content it produces drives traffic, while also spreading its core anti- Chinese Communist party messaging and promoting the Falun Gong cause. The Shen Yun performances, with their ubiquitous advertising, attempt to do this as well, albeit in a much different format.

In April, Shen Yun performances took place in Rosemont, near O’Hare Airport outside Chicago. In a gaudy theater, guests were sharply dressed, adhering to the evening business attire dress code, taking selfies on a red carpet. The crowd was exceptionally diverse, though children under six were discouraged from attending. 

Despite the high cost of the tickets (the lowest priced tickets were nearly $100, plus $20 parking), the lobby was packed. Several people I spoke to admitted to coming to the performance on a whim after seeing an ad on YouTube, others because they saw a billboard and were interested in Chinese history. No one seemed to know the politics or messaging behind the group or had heard of the Falun Gong. 

The two hosts of the matinee performance introduced the show, speaking in English and Mandarin, respectively. Immediately standing out was a giant screen dominating the back wall of the stage, which projected digital backgrounds for the various dancing scenes. 

With perfect precision, dancers would jump from the back of the stage on a small set of stairs, as if falling into the screen, and their figure would then be animated onto the screen, giving the appearance that the stage was infinite. The technology was genuinely impressive, and later in the show’s program, I saw that Shen Yun has patented this technique. 

Given the context, I expected more overt politics from the show. But for much of the runtime, Shen Yun seemed mostly apolitical, innocuous dance sequences and the brilliant animation on the screen. 

However, halfway through the show, the tone changed dramatically, beginning with a sequence titled, “Thousands of Years Led to this Day.” A grand piano was wheeled onto the stage, followed by a man in a tuxedo. With the piano accompanying him, the man, with a stunning voice, sang operatically in Mandarin, with the English translation projected onto the screen behind him. 

Referring to “Dafa [as the] vehicle to Heaven’s great heights” and stating that “behind atheism and evolution an evil specter lurks,” the song espoused Falun Gong ideas explicitly. 

It was followed by a dance sequence in which a group of peaceful khaki pants-wearing Falun Gong practitioners, who praise the benefits of the practice, are suddenly accosted by a mob wearing hoodies emblazoned with inverted hammers and sickles. 

Subtlety now gone, in the last part of the dance a Chinese surgeon is bribed to harvest the organs of his own daughter, which, according to narration, is something that happens all the time in modern China. These scenes, abrupt and awkward with their messaging, are striking amidst otherwise colorful and peaceful dances, calling attention to the politics behind Shen Yun.

The Chinese government, which continues to see the group as a threat to its influence, has successfully shut down performances in major cities across the world. The state has developed various counter performances and narratives via state funded institutions such as the global network of Chinese Cultural Centers or university-based Confucius Institutes. 

In 2018, the Chinese consulate in Chicago denounced the “so-called Shen Yun Performance” and Falun Gong organization for being a cult and a tool of anti-China propaganda. 

Whether all those Shen Yun performances are making a difference on public opinion is harder to gauge. If the reaction of some people in the audience in the Chicago-area Saturday matinee was any judge, the CCP can rest a little easier: “Well, that was weird,” said one audience member, as streams of people headed to the exits before the performance had fully ended. 

And yet, Shen Yun remains quite successful, evidenced by those ever present ads. From 2006, when the performances began, to 2022, it has scaled up from one to seven continuously touring companies. 

In 2017, Falun Gong reported assets at nearly $97 million, with Shen Yun profits coming in between $10–20 million. And with the ascendent Epoch Times, it is likely Chicago will continue to be a host of the Shen Yun ads.

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Matthew Murphy is majoring in American Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at University of California, Davis. This is his first story for the Weekly.

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