Shen Yun: A Case Study In Marketing

If you are like me and you watch more YouTube videos than is probably good for you, then you are probably as familiar with I am about advertisements that for at least the last few years have sought to advertise Shen Yun as being an amazing show that captures the feeling of thousands of years of Chinese history.  Like most people watching the advertisements–and this may be intentional–I figured that the shows themselves were one of the ways that China sought to ingratiate itself with the Western world by providing cultural excellence that promoted Chinese perspectives and that would make ordinary Western audiences with perhaps more than enough disposable income think more highly of China itself because of the athletic and artistic excellence of the ballets.  I must admit that I have yet to see such a show myself, but they are precisely the sort of thing that I would enjoy being modestly curious about such matters, so long as I was able to watch them for free or very inexpensively.  It is therefore unsurprising that I get so many advertisements about them because I am at least somewhat in the target demographic for culturally exotic art and music that could be trusted to view such efforts at least somewhat sympathetically.

It so happens, though, that Shen Yun is not at all the sort of Chinese culture that is endorsed by the contemporary Chinese government.  Now, I did not find that out by investigating the show out or going to it, but rather it so happens that the recent coronavirus scare has made it very important for the people responsible for promoting Shen Yun to let their audiences know that the dancers and musicians involved in these shows who promote themselves as being part of a long and noble tradition of Chinese culture are not Chinese nationals and have not even been to China for years.  In doing a bit of sleuthing after seeing such announcements, no doubt meant to reassure potential customers that they will not be subjecting themselves to the threat of a feared global pandemic by observing such Chinese culture, I found out that the show itself was associated with the Falun Gong religious movement.  Admittedly, I do not consider myself to be particularly knowledgeable about life in China or its religious history, given that I have never been outside of the Hong Kong Airport within China’s political borders, despite my fondness for studying ancient Chinese military history.

One thing I do know, though, is that the Chinese are not fond of the Falun Gong religious movement.  Although I am by no means particularly sympathetic to Buddhist practices and regularly criticize them when they are promoted by New Age psychologists and other related people who wish to promote such ideas as being worthwhile spiritual practices to adopt in the name of mindfulness, I can recognize that both genuine Christianity as well as Falon Gong tend to receive the same sort of treatment by Chinese authorities.  This is, it should be noted, not very good treatment, including lengthy spells of imprisonment in the laogai archipelago as well as having their organs harvested for Bodies exhibits to bring the joy of plasticized body organs to Western audiences.  While it is little surprise that Shen Yun would be associated with ancient religious culture seen through a modern light, this is also not something I am particularly hostile to.  I remember once even viewing in Thailand a similar native ballet that used a story in the Ramayana as the source of a touching and skillful ballet performance [1].  I would expect something a bit similar in term of the blend of Western and Eastern dancing technique as being something that I would be able to appreciate without a great deal of approval for the Falun Gong as a religious movement.  Perhaps other people would draw the line differently.

Regardless, though, of what my feelings would be regarding the show itself, I find it fascinating that in order to market this show in the current climate that it is necessary to simultaneously tie the “divine rhythm” of Shen Yun with the lengthy course of Buddhism and related religious movements within China while simultaneously distancing itself from contemporary China with its hostility to the religious beliefs of the performers and organizers.  Whether or not all of the people dancing in Shen Yun are themselves practitioners of Falun Gong is a matter beyond my knowledge.  But seeing the difficulty of a company in simultaneously claiming Chinese culture and legacy as a major drawing appeal to those of us who are at least somewhat curious of Chinese culture and are generally prone to approve of high culture no matter its origins and disclaiming any tie or association with the nation of China or its current public health crisis is deeply fascinating to me.  Whether or not it should be fascinating is, of course, a question that I am too biased to answer fairly.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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