In Western countries, movies like Kung Fu Panda, Mulan, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are what most often represent Chinese culture to the mainstream.
Like General Tso’s Chicken and fortune cookies, which aren’t even from China, a lot of China’s true culture has gotten lost in translation.
But audiences in the West are interested in authentic Chinese culture, a fact evidenced by the rise of Shen Yun Performing Arts, a classical Chinese dance and music company based in New York.
Shen Yun was founded in 2006 to revive the traditions of China’s 5,000-year-old civilization.
Since the communists took power in 1949, the regime has sought to break people’s belief in the divine, and thereby sever their ties to Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that go back thousands of years in China.
The Communist Party has destroyed places of worship, killed monastics, and pushed society toward atheism. It promotes class struggle, battling with heaven, and has framed traditional culture as “backwards” and “superstitious.”
Principles such as humans and nature being in harmony, respecting the heavens, and karmic retribution have for many years been passed down through Chinese songs and stories.
“I like the message that good triumphs over evil. In all of the stories and throughout the performances, bad things happen to good people, but good came out of it and good triumphed over evil,” said Walter Dunlap, a lawyer who saw Shen Yun in Dallas.
“Very connected between heaven and Earth and so that’s, you know, the creator God is with us all and it’s good to see that,” said Steve Markham, a film producer, who also saw the performance in Dallas.
“Everybody, I think, wants to believe that there’s a spiritual being that takes care of all of us, and has a place for us when we leave,” said William Garrett, a former vice president for El Paso Gas. “And I think that that theme is a wonderful one for humanity.”
Confucianism’s five cardinal virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness have also been central to China’s culture, and play out on stage in Shen Yun’s dances and lyrics.
“Our audiences, I know, they feel uplifted,” said Shen Yun clarinetist Yevgeniy Reznik. “They feel like their hearts and souls were touched by the performance. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re performing in Argentina or North America or Japan, it seems like anywhere in the world, people can relate to traditional Chinese culture.”
Eric Hagen, a former chair of the theater department at the University of South Dakota, agreed.
”The values of love and compassion and brotherhood and loyalty and justice. Those are all universal values that anyone can appreciate,” he said.
Shen Yun brings out these values with Chinese classics, such as “Journey to the West,” the story of a monk who traveled to India to bring Buddhism back to China. It also has stories from China today that show the influence of communism on contemporary society. All these are performed without words, with only the dancers’ movements and a live orchestra to convey the meaning.
“I love how the concept of how we all come from heaven and we are eventually all going there—it’s universal and I like that,” said Frances Medina, executive director of Novawall by MP Elevator.
With costumes that are true to the time and location of the stories, and a projected backdrop that takes the audience through time and space, many say that watching Shen Yun is like getting a lesson in Chinese history.
“So what I see is a kind of story, a history lesson, told in a beautiful way,”said Matthew Krill, a computer support specialist who saw Shen Yun in Oregon.
“It was a true history lesson about the tradition of political oppression, but also artistic expression about ethnicity, about tradition,” said actor and producer Baldwin who saw the performance in Santa Barbara.
“It was an interesting new culture for me to explore because you know, I’ve never been to Asia, so this is my way of taking a trip there,” said Marcela Maryniak, the digital media director at marketing firm Altice USA.
Shen Yun’s five companies have been performing to sold out performances around the world. They’re set to perform in Asia, Europe, North America, Israel, Mexico, and Argentina. The one country they won’t be performing in though is China, which is still controlled by the Communist Party.