Monday, December 28, 2009

As the Red Regime sinks

My father bought us tickets to see a spectacular show of classical Chinese arts, performed by Shen Yun Performing Arts, at the San Diego Civic Center. I've always wanted to go to one of these, having seen them advertised in New York and Melbourne. At some point I think I also noticed that they were presented by Falun Dafa. Interesting! Well, I had no idea. Shen Yun (founded in 2006 as Divine Performing Arts in New York) presents an evening of "classical Chinese dance" and some ethnic dances (we were treated to dances from the Miao, the Dao, the Northwest, Mongolia and, yes, Tibet), all against lovely candy-colored landscapes of ancient China. But there's more: dramatic episodes from the mythic past and from the present. In fact the show starts in heaven, where a celestial king leads his court to go with him to earth to save suffering beings and establish China's "Divinely Inspired Culture." We end in T'ang China, as the emperor opens his gates and his empire to the Buddhist teachings brought from India by the monk Tripitaka. Along the way we've twice seen elegant celestial figures and Buddhas in saffron robes with blue nubby hair come to the aid of people today. A woman Falun Gong practitioner beaten to death by black-clad thugs, as her young daughter watches, has her spirit transported to heaven by a glorious entourage. A man, tortured and maimed by goons for daringly displaying a banner saying "Falun Gong is Good" on Tiananmen Square, has his paralyzed limbs restored by a line of Buddhas. (In each case, the thugs are attended by roiling dark storm clouds, which are dispelled - and their dungeon-like buildings destroyed - by the arrival of help.) Other mythological episodes narrate the overcoming of dangers - killing a tiger after dulling one's terror with alcohol, and freeing a goddess who had been imprisoned in a mountain by her wicked brother for having fallen in love with and started a family with a human being. The most didactic part of the evening comes in three concert arias, the text broadcast overhead - here's the text of one (from the program, whence also the photos). What to make of it all? It felt like a pageant by a new religion - which of course it is, a bit of a bait and switch. It was reminiscent also of the cultural politics of the cold war, when Taiwan presented Chinese culture as endangered by fanatically uncultured Communists. But most of all it reminded me of the Yang Ban Xi, the eight "model works" permitted in the PRC when all other arts were suppressed by the Cultural Revolution (see the splendid documentary). I don't know a lot about classical Chinese dance or about Falun Gong/Falun Dafa, but the combination - presented in high gloss and in prestige venues like Radio City Music Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, etc. - is an achievement of some sort, not-so-skilful cultural means from a novel antimodern religious configuration.

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