Escaping to the Spotlight
Several children, mistreated by their government and cheated out of their youth, would later become world class artists who tell their stories on the world’s greatest stages.
Indeed, in one way or another, many of Shen Yun’s artists share a common background—being persecuted for their faith at the hands of the world’s largest totalitarian regime. Their tale is that of terror and courage, tragedy and hope.
“One day,” says Principal dancer Steven Wang, “this persecution will finally come to an end.”
Revival and Resistance
Shen Yun, a nonprofit organization established in 2006 by a small group of elite Chinese artists in New York, was founded with an ambitious mission: to revive traditional culture through classical Chinese dance, a medium as entertaining as it is educational. The initiative attracted talent from around the world, including China itself.
But in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has for decades been, in its own words, at war with tradition, religion, and history. That is why Shen Yun could only be established outside of China and even today the company is not allowed to perform there.
Those who left China to join Shen Yun had to risk everything. Some of them, had lost so much already.
From Parks to Prisons
After Mao Zedong’s bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, China experienced a flourishing of qigong meditation practices. Parks brimmed at dawn with millions of people performing slow-moving exercises in search of health and longevity, and, perhaps, tradition.
In 1992, toward the end of the qigong boom, Falun Gong was first introduced to the public by Mr. Li Hongzhi. Different from the vast majority of disciplines publicly taught at the time, the teachings of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) emphasized moral and spiritual elevation above all else. Falun Gong practitioners strove to live by the principles of “truth, compassion, and forbearance” in their daily lives, and enjoyed the revitalized health and mental wellness that comes with meditation.
The CCP, originally supportive of the cause, took these values, and the people who practiced them, as a direct threat to its existence. In 1999, the once-celebrated spiritual practice was banned and the estimated 100 million Falun Gong practitioners were overnight portrayed as enemies of the state.
The persecution campaign, still in effect to this day, has sought to destroy these people economically, socially, and physically. Tactics range from harassment, public defamation, and ransacking, to arbitrary arrest, torture, murder, and even forced organ harvesting for profit.
A Broken Family
For young Steven Wang growing up in China, early family life had been rocky. His parents were quick to employ a heavy hand and his rebellious nature offered no reason not to. The atmosphere changed, however, when his parents took up meditation. His mom, formerly of a fiery disposition, became a pacifist, and his dad changed no less. Just as the Wangs settled into a happier lifestyle, the persecution struck.
Both his parents were abducted and sentenced without proper trial. Steven would visit them as often as police allowed, which was not often, and watched as his parents forced smiles onto their faces and told him everything was fine. Over the next several years, Steven’s parents would be arrested alternatingly, being tortured and released in turn. Steven recalls that since that first arrest, he never again saw both of his parents at the same time.
Steven, who began dance training in China, eventually escaped to America to join Shen Yun, but his parents would not be as fortunate. His father would be tortured to the brink of death and released from imprisonment only to die of medical complications. Steven would not even be allowed to return for his father’s funeral.
Steven’s mother remains in China and has been repeatedly imprisoned, while he tries to lobby U.S. representatives to help get her out.
Performing with Shen Yun has allowed Steven to tell the world the story of his family and countless others.
“When I portray a Falun Gong practitioner being persecuted, I draw upon my own past experiences,” he says. “These were things that really happened to the people close to me”.
Now a mentor for young Shen Yun dancers, he hopes “to use this art form to raise awareness of the persecution going on in China, and to rekindle a sense of justice in people’s hearts.”
Fatherless at Four
Ellie Rao was born into a typical middle-class family in China, yet her childhood was anything but ordinary. One day, police stormed into her home and took away her father. She watched the police car disappear into the distance—it was the last time she would ever see him. He was jailed by the Communist Party and tortured to death for his faith. Ellie was only 4.
At 9 years old, Ellie and her mother were forced to flee China. Dangerously escaping to Thailand, the pair found their way safely to the U.S., where a young and shaken Ellie pursued an education in dance. From California to New York, she finally joined Shen Yun and, now a principal dancer with the company, tells her story through dance to an international audience.
“A regime can take away your childhood, take away your family,” she says, “but it can never take away your faith.”
“I want to use my dance to tell the audience that the world needs truth, compassion, and forbearance,” she says.
A Musician’s Story
One distinctive feature of pre-1999 China was the sheer amount of Falun Gong practitioners. Across the country, people would gather at neighborhood parks and meditate or study together before work. Such large-scale activities were, in fact, commended by the government and recognized for the healthy trend that it was.
Overnight, it all changed. These same peaceful people from all social strata were now running from secret police or traveling to Tiananmen Square to hold banners that read, “Falun Dafa is good,” “Stop the persecution.” Hundreds of thousands disappeared into jails, labor camps, and “reeducation centers.”
Such was the experience in the childhood home of Yu Liang, currently a pipa player with Shen Yun. In August of 1999, a fleet of police vans and armed officers swarmed her local Falun Gong practice site, and she watched as they dragged her mother away. She recalls being too young to fully comprehend the situation, but over time things became clearer.
Over the next two years, her mother was arrested four times. Her father, himself not a practitioner but supportive of the practice after witnessing the positive effect it had on his wife, was constantly being bullied by the authorities.
Meanwhile Yu was an up-and-coming pipa star, winning national competitions and recognition from prestigious institutions. She applied for a position in Shen Yun several years later and was accepted and offered a new life in America. Her parents suffered at the hands of the CCP for a while longer before eventually taking refuge in Canada.
And the Story Continues
The above are just three of the experiences of members of Shen Yun. For those from China, return is currently an impossibility. Family members back in China are often subject to harassment and threats, and aging parents must face a future without seeing their children or grandchildren. Many are now in their third decade abroad without being able to reunite with their parents.
But this persecution, as well as suppression of traditional Chinese culture by the CCP has been extended outside of China in various forms of transnational repression. The “Challenges We Face” section of the Shen Yun website details how the CCP has repeatedly tried to stop the company’s performances, and another website has a running list of some 90 incidents, ranging from trying to pressure theaters and politicians to cancel performances to slashing Shen Yun bus tires.
And yet, now entering its 18th year, Shen Yun—with this collection of world-class performers and their unique backgrounds—perseveres in bringing the splendor of China’s 5,000 years of history and beauty to the world. Behind the stories and legends are the core moral values of this ancient civilization.
As Principal Dancer Ellie Rao put it, “this is what my father courageously stood up for 20 years ago.”