China’s “Divine Culture” performs in America

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A couple months ago, the Shen Yun troupe advertised on my campus for upcoming performances in Cincinnati and Dayton–the latter just passed a couple days ago. Shen Yun describes itself as performing classical Chinese dance (albeit blended with Western orchestration). I was intrigued by the way religion was invoked in their promotional literature. Here are some quotations from a brochure that was mailed to me. The bolding is mine.

BEFORE THE DAWN OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, A DIVINELY INSPIRED CULTURE BLOSSOMED IN THE EAST […]

WITNESS THE DIVINE CULTURE’S RETURN

For thousands of years, China was known as the Divine Land. Its rich culture, said to be from the heavens, valued virtues like integrity, compassion, and tolerance.

Then, under 60 years of communist rule, this glorious culture has been almost destroyed. That is why you cannot see a performance like this in China today.

In 2006, leading Chinese artists from around the world came together in New York with a mission to revive authentic Chinese culture. They formed Shen Yun, and now invite you to witness the divine culture’s return.

The brochure goes on to explain that “Shen Yun” means “the beauty of heavenly beings dancing.” The troupe aims to provide “an experience so beautiful and joyous that it evokes a sense of the heavens.”

I’m intrigued by this linkage, or overlap, or equation, with artistic and religious experience. I blogged a couple years ago about a South Asian dance troupe that similarly characterized their on-campus performance as a “sacred” experience. I wonder: How seriously do the performers take these religious/spiritual claims about their art? How seriously do audiences take it? Is there a cynical Orientalism at work behind the scenes? “Oh yeah, Americans are ga-ga for Eastern mysticism, so be sure to throw the words sacred or divine into your advertising copy.”

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