Shen Yun advertises 5,000 years of history in dance. Why does China call it an ‘anti-society cult’?
BY ALIX MARTICHOUX - 02/19/24 10:20 PM ET

FILE- Shen Yun dance troupe promoting China before communism on a billboard advertising their upcoming performance in Leavenworth, Kansas. (Photo by: Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – If you haven’t seen a Shen Yun performance, you’ve probably seen an advertisement for it.

Shen Yun is currently advertising performances in more than 60 U.S. cities – and dozens more in other countries – and that’s just for the next three months. The dance troupes visits hundreds of cities each year, and before each tour stop a city is often blanketed with billboards, flyers and bus ads.

The ads typically feature dancers twirling or leaping through the air. The 2024 trailer tempts viewers to “experience art with 5,000 years of history, inspired by the divine.” An ad from 2020 called the show “so inspiring it changes your life.”

Shen Yun Performing Arts distributed this photo to promote performances in Southern California in 2015. (Photo: Business Wire via Associated Press)

But a memo from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China has a divergent opinion on the performances: “This organization preaches heretical fallacies that are anti-humanity and anti-science, and exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers. It is a cult that seriously harms the society and violates human rights, and is a cancer in the body of the modern and civilized society.”

The Chinese government’s main issue with Shen Yun is its association with Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa.

Falun Dafa is a religious movement that emerged in the early 1990s. It pulls elements from Buddhism and Daoism and combines them with meditation, breathing techniques and exercises similar to qigong, according to Human Rights Watch. The practice was banned and violently suppressed in China in 1999, CNN reports.

In its warning to potential show-goers, the Chinese Embassy calls Falun Gong an “anti-society cult.”

Shen Yun isn’t denying its ties with Falun Dafa – it openly admits the connection. Shen Yun says its performers have faced persecution in China, and sabotage around the world. Their efforts to share their belief system through dance and music have been met with harassment, hate crimes, and tour vehicles’ tires slashed, the organization says.

Shen Yun is just one high-profile manifestation of Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. You may have also seen Epoch Times newspapers at news stands around your town. The right-leaning news organization backed by Falun Gong has massively grown its footprint and readership in recent years, the New York Times and NBC News report.

Shen Yun points people with questions to local presenters, which are often local chapters of a Falun Dafa Association. Nexstar’s repeated attempts to reach two local chapters for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

So is Shen Yun a life-changing artistic masterpiece? Dangerous cult propaganda? Both sides are exaggerating, reviewers who’ve seen the show say.

“To try to sort out the truth about Shen Yun is to stand between two forces, both buffeting you with propaganda, and figure out which way to lean,” wrote Nicholas Hune-Brown in a review for The Guardian.

Jia Tolentino, who went to see two performances for a piece in The New Yorker, wrote it was “so much more and so much less than what it seemed.” A long Reddit thread of opinions on the show is full of people who were disappointed they spent money on tickets for the show. They weren’t converted to a religious cult, but some of them did walk out during intermission.
I think this came and went through SF again recently.