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You've Seen Those Shen Yun Ads All Over LA. Here's What The Show Is Really About

A billboard on the 5 Freeway advertises Shen Yun's 2019 tour through Southern California. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Anyone who's driven L.A. freeways in the last month has seen them: billboard after billboard of a Chinese woman in a bright flowing gown, leaping mid-air.

A blurb exhorts: "A must-see!"

Yup. Shen Yun's coming.

To promote dozens of shows starting in March, the Chinese dance company has flooded L.A.'s airwaves and the internet with ads. This marketing strategy, used in the 100-plus cities Shen Yun visits each year, is so unrelenting that it's kicked the meme factory into high gear.

That nagging sense you're being stalked by Shen Yun ads is apparently universal. Much less understood is the dance troupe's origins in Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual movement which has been banned in China.

Show spectator Karen Yung watched Shen Yun at the Microsoft Theater in L.A. last year. Based on the ads, she was expecting light family fare. So scenes of Chinese Communist thugs brutalizing Falun Gong followers really threw her.

"They don't conceal that it's Falun Gong but I don't feel like they're very upfront about it either," Yung said.

The 2018 Shen Yun trailer features scenes depicting Communist heavies beating up Falun Gong followers. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Here's a look at why Falun Gong followers want you to see Shen Yun so badly — and why the Chinese government wants you to stay home.

FIRST OFF, WHAT IS FALUN GONG?

Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, emerged from China's qigong boom in the 1980s. People were looking for inexpensive ways to improve their health through meditation and slow-moving exercises.

A qigong master named Li Hongzhi founded Falun Gong in 1992. Practitioners follow his spiritual teachings about "truthfulness, compassion and forbearance" and five exercises that resemble tai chi.

Wen Chen learned Falun Gong after she had moved from China to the U.S. to study at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Now a staff scientist there, she said Falun Gong has taught her how to live healthier and more harmoniously with others.

"You can't change others," Chen said. "But you can change yourself and then the conflicts usually get easily resolved."

Chen does Falun Gong exercises two hours a day — sometimes at home, sometimes in public spaces. She often meditates with a dozen other people on the lawn at Caltech.

It's hard to know exactly how many people practice Falun Gong worldwide because no registration is required and there are no houses of worship. In the L.A.-area, several hundred followers are on an email list for local events, but Chen said there are many more devotees.

WHY DID THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT BAN FALUN GONG?

A group of people practice Falun Gong in Danang, Vietnam. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

Falun Gong amassed millions of followers within a few years in the mid-1990s.

Alarmed by its fast rise, the Communist Party launched a smear campaign with the help of state-run media, portraying the practice as quack science that was making practitioners ill, even killing them, said James Tong, who directs the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"They said some Falun Gong practitioners became crazy and committed suicide," Tong told KPCC/LAist in an interview last year.

Followers staged hundreds of protests, culminating in a massive demonstration in 1999, when more than 10,000 of them silently gathered outside a compound where the highest-ranking members of the Communist Party lived and worked.

This was the last straw for party leaders. They outlawed Falun Gong and forced followers underground. In the years since, thousands of Falun Gong devotees have been arrested, and unknown numbers allegedly killed.

The Chinese government justifies its repression of Falun Gong activities, calling it a dangerous cult.

Falun gong master Li Hongzhi photographed June 15, 1999 in New York. (Henny Abrams/AFP/Getty Images)

IS THERE ANYTHING TO THE 'CULT' CLAIMS?

Falun Gong's enigmatic founder inspires comparisons to cult leaders. Li, who now lives in New York, claimed in a 1999 interview that Falun Gong followers can levitate and that a stealth alien invasion was underway.

Falun Gong practitioners themselves have developed a reputation for being overzealous, even aggressive, about pushing the narrative of a harmless self-improvement practice that's been misunderstood and demonized by the Chinese government.

They show up to protest Chinese dignitaries visiting the U.S. They've created their own sophisticated media outreach —through The Epoch Times newspaper and New Tang Dynasty television broadcaster — to circulate stories that are pro-Falun Gong and anti-Chinese government.

They also allege that Communist leaders have ordered the deaths of thousands of Falun Gong followers, and forced others to donate organs. No one disputes the government is persecuting followers, but the extent of the abuse Falun Gong purports is difficult to verify.

Despite the questions swirling around the movement, religious scholars generally don't think Falun Gong meets the criteria associated with cults, said Catherine Wessinger, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

Li remains an important central figure, but Wessinger said he's not a totalitarian leader in the mold of Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple.

The movement lacks a strong hierarchical structure, Wessinger said, and followers act independently and peaceably. They typically have jobs and families, and are engaged with the larger community, she said.

"They haven't isolated themselves from society," said Wessinger, who studies the history of religions. "They don't live in one place. You have Falun Gong members all over the world."

SO WHERE DOES SHEN YUN FIT INTO ALL OF THIS DRAMA?

Some have argued that since the crackdown in China began two decades ago, Falun Gong could use a boost in the PR department.

The paranoia expressed by Falun Gong news outlets and allegations of organ harvesting, according to historian David Ownby, have contributed to an image problem. As he wrote in his 2008 book, Falun Gong and the Future of China, followers have "strain[ed] the patience of many who might have maintained a neutral attitude about the group."

Falun Gong supporters stage a quiet demonstration near the United Nations headquarters in 2007. (Nicholas Roberts/AFP/Getty Images)

Enter Shen Yun.

Founded in 2006 in New York, the dance troupe helps to spread Falun Gong messaging in a pretty, colorful package with elaborate scarf dances and sumptuous costumes.

In an interview with KPCC last year, Clayton Dube, who directs the China Institute at the University of Southern California, said Shen Yun is using its freeway ad blitz to appeal to anyone who might have a vague interest in Chinese culture. "They're trying to bring in people, not so much to become practitioners but to become sympathetic to the fact that this group is suppressed and frequently oppressed in China," he said.

He compared Shen Yun to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's use of music to win over mainstream audiences who understand little about their group.

Shen Yun, which translates into "beauty of divine beings dancing," features young performers trained at an academy founded by Falun Gong practitioners in Deerpark, N.Y.

Falun Gong follower Chen hopes that the dance troupe wows audiences enough to leave a lasting, favorable impression.

"They may have some prejudice toward Falun Gong before and after they watch Shen Yun," she said, but "maybe they would think about it again."

Scene from Shen Yun 2019 trailer. (Screenshot via YouTube)

WHAT ACTUALLY GOES ON IN A SHEN YUN SHOW?

I saw Shen Yun last year on a Saturday afternoon at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. The audience was mostly non-Asian and skewed middle-aged and older.

After the Shen Yun show in Long Beach, audience members scan tables of merchandise and get free posters. (Josie Huang/LAist)

A raft of signs around the theater warned audiences about taking video or photos. Inside, the 3,000-plus-seat theater was nearly filled to capacity, as people settled in for more than two hours of song and dance numbers accompanied by a live orchestra and performed against a bright, animated backdrop.

The program was mostly light-hearted, incorporating Chinese folklore and punched up with G-rated humor, including a few fart jokes. But the show took a dark turn in several sequences, where dancers portraying Communist thugs showed up to harass Falun Gong followers. In one scene, young people are beaten up for meditating outdoors. In another, prison guards tortured a Falun Gong follower, leaving him limping and blinded.

Several times, a dancer ran across the stage and unfurled a yellow banner that proclaimed Falun Gong is "good."

Afterward, the white male emcee — his partner was a Chinese woman who spoke in Mandarin — somberly said: "The persecution depicted in the piece you just saw is based on true events that are still taking place in China today."

"Unfortunately, he added, "you cannot see a performance like this in China."

SO WHAT DO AUDIENCES THINK?

It's mixed.

Reddit is filled with Shen Yun threads where disgruntled viewers describe feeling they'd been ambushed by religious propaganda.

After a 2018 Shen Yun performance in Long Beach, reporters from New Tang Dynasty interview audience members about their impressions. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Karen Yung, who had treated her family to a Shen Yun show at the Microsoft Theater last year, was upset she had spent $350 on four tickets.

"I don't find anything about Falun Gong itself objectionable," Yung said. "The trickery of this money-making show — that's what I find objectionable."

But other audience members had high praise for the show. Mildred House, a psychologist from Rancho Palos Verdes, attended the event last year in Long Beach with about a dozen friends from her bridge group. Outside the Terrace Theater, she complimented the skills of the performers and worried about how they were being treated by the Chinese government.

"They were saying more or less that they would not be able to do this show if they were in China," House said.

After the show, reporters for New Tang Dynasty pulled aside audience members for interviews. Clips would later be aired by the broadcaster, and stitched together for commercials. Excerpts would turn up in articles in The Epoch Times.

HOW HAS CHINA RESPONDED TO SHEN YUN?

Not surprisingly, the Chinese embassy lambasts Shen Yun in a statement on its website, saying it's helping Falun Gong "preach cult messages, spread anti-China propaganda, increase its own influence and raise fund (sic)."

In 2016, Chinese officials successfully got a theater in Seoul to cancel four Shen Yun shows at the last minute. Meanwhile, China supporters in different countries, such as Belgium, have protested Shen Yun tours.

USC's Dube said the Chinese government has sponsored its own cultural shows in the vein of Shen Yun, but they can't compete on name recognition.

"There's no question in my mind that Shen Yun performances have attracted a large and diverse audience in ways that most Chinese government-funded performing arts groups have not," Dube said.

Chinese nationals living in Belgium try to cover a Shen Yun ad with Chinese and Belgian flags in 2014. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

SO HOW DOES SHEN YUN MANAGE TO HAVE SO MANY ADS?

Credit goes to the Falun Gong volunteers who buy advertising and book venues for Shen Yun everywhere it travels.

With tickets typically starting at $80, Shen Yun's tours through Southern California have netted millions, which cover the hundreds of thousands of dollars the dance company spends on marketing, according to Gene Del Vecchio, a USC adjunct professor of marketing who spoke with KPCC last year.

Wen Chen volunteers with the Southwestern Falun Dafa Association, which covers Southern California and Las Vegas. Chen declined to get into how much is spent on advertising in greater L.A., but she said in the past some media sponsors have run Shen Yun ads for free or at steep discounts.

And now Shen Yun memes, which poke fun at the go-for-broke marketing tactics, are helping to get the word out about the show even more.

Chen said the memes' popularity tells her that outreach efforts are working.

"That's our job, right?" Chen said. "So you're complimenting us. We did a good job."