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Not dancing to Beijing's tune

An elaborate stage production coming to the Merriam showcases the culture of China's pre-Communist past. The Chinese government is not happy about it.

Divine Performing Arts
Divine Performing ArtsRead more

This weekend, dozens of dancers in brilliant costumes will leap across the stage of the Merriam Theater, before digitally projected Chinese landscapes. An orchestra will perform original scores melding Western and Chinese instruments; the violin will befriend the two-string erhu.

The production promises a renaissance of traditional Chinese culture, which Divine Performing Arts, the New York nonprofit organization that runs the show, says the Chinese Communist Party long has tried to erase from public consciousness.

Divine Performing Arts, which begins its 2009 world tour with performances this weekend in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., considers itself the steward of Chinese culture. China's government, on the other hand, has called the production "an insult and distortion" of that culture, and its consulates have persuaded Canadian tourism bureaus to rescind support and Malaysian officials to revoke permits.

China's fury is not related to DPA's resurrection of China's imperial past or its inclusion of Taoist and Buddhist elements. It has one target - Falun Gong, a meditative practice that since its 1992 founding is believed to have attracted more than 100 million followers. China banned it in 1999, a year after estimating that more than 70 million people practiced it.

Practitioners of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, overwhelmingly refer to it as a spiritual discipline, not a religion. Indeed, the movement Li Hongzhi started has no hierarchy, no places of worship. It consists of five sets of exercises focusing on three principles: truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.

The show's local presenters are the Greater Philadelphia Asian Culture Center and the Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association. Many participants onstage and behind the scenes practice Falun Gong.

Past performances have included a handful of dances depicting Falun Gong practitioners passively resisting police and women being beaten in a prison. Details of the 2009 tour weren't revealed in advance of tomorrow's debut.

There are relatively few documented cases of offended audience members, but some have questioned whether the organizations that produce and promote the shows are being forthright about Falun Gong's place in them. Others have said the content is so varied as to make such disclosure irrelevant.

Last year, DPA says, about 600,000 people attended performances. This year about 100 shows will be staged in more than 20 countries.

Ying Chen of Sicklerville, Camden County, who conducts one of DPA's two orchestras - her father, Rutang Chen, conducts the other - has worked within the organization since its inception. She came here from Beijing in 1988 to study flute at Temple University.

Chen's brother introduced Falun Gong to their parents, and she says it helped her father quit smoking after more than 30 years of addiction. But the benefits were offset somewhat by governmental backlash: She says that in 2000 her parents were arrested and detained for a month, and in 2002 her brother was held for 18 months without trial, and tortured, at a reeducation camp.

Countless similar stories have been floating around for the last decade, all denied by the Chinese government. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a resolution assailing the government for its human rights failures, including its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.

Chen, 40, practices Falun Gong and says many involved in the production also do - "and I think there's a natural connection. Part of what it teaches is what we feel is the traditional Chinese values - truthfulness, compassion, forbearance - that is so deeply rooted in the Chinese culture."

The show, she says, is about more than reminding audiences that Chinese tradition extends beyond Chinatown, dragons and firecrackers. It is about "the dignity of our spirit."

She echoes a sentiment shared by other Falun Gong practitioners: "This shouldn't be an issue to begin with. It's only an issue because the Chinese government made it that way. It's just like we shouldn't have to tell people, 'Oh, there are some Christian beliefs in our program. There is some Tao influence.' We don't think that's something we need to warn people about."

Representatives of the Chinese government, however, have persuaded several venues around the world to cancel the show. In March, the Malaysian government withdrew a permit after Chinese embassy officials complained. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. quoted a Malaysian official as having said, "The show is nothing, but we're scared of the influence behind it. We have to take care of our relationship with China."

Politicians and other dignitaries often are invited to performances, but Chinese consulates have dissuaded several from attending. Last year, for example, the mayor of North Shore City in New Zealand decided to stay home when the consulate told him of Falun Gong's role in the production.

Tim Wu, 21, a DPA principal dancer who came from Shanghai at age 4 and grew up in North Wales, Montgomery County, practices Falun Gong and says it played a role in two of his dances.

"We're trying to expose the truth of Falun Gong," Wu says. "A lot of people are deceived by what the [Chinese] government says. It's certainly not political at all. At most, from the audience's perspective, basically our dances are good overcoming evil."

Jingduan Yang, the Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association's spokesman, says his organization this year established nonprofit status with the explicit intention to sponsor the show, its largest project.

"This is not a show that is trying to proselytize Falun Gong, per se," says Yang, a psychiatrist. "It's a show to demonstrate the culture, the arts, of where Falun Gong is rooted from. It's not about Falun Gong. It's about ancient, authentic Chinese legends and myths in artistic ways, to help people understand why truthfulness, compassion and tolerance are important. But this is not a show of propaganda for Falun Gong."

He cites the practice's focus on a "life cultivation system" whose principles are deeply rooted in Buddhism and Taoism as evidence of its place within Chinese culture.

Yang says most of his friends have told him they enjoyed the performance and its handling of issues. One, however, was upset about the content, likening it to Chinese propaganda.

"I feel like they really miss the point," he says of such parallels. "We are incomparable to the Chinese government, because they have all the money and the power and control to demonize and marginalize this group of people who have nothing to fight back." China, he says, has spent the last 60 years working to disconnect its citizens from their own culture.

Calls to the consulate general of the People's Republic of China in New York were not returned, but the Chinese embassy in a 2005 statement condemned the DPA's production, then still in its infancy, with swift, sharp language.

The shows "were patchworks of programs with low artistic value and full of implied preaching of cult doctrine and attacks on the Chinese government. They were, in fact, a sheer political tool used by Falun Gong organization to expand its influence and spread cult and anti-China propaganda. They were an insult and distortion of the Chinese culture and a deception to the audience."

Such comments do not surprise the production's organizers, who seem focused on more profound issues.

"I am American now," Yang says. "I care not just about China. I care about America. I care about the world.

"We feel like this is the time the whole world needs this reconnection with these fundamental and universal values. And we are trying to present them in a very artistic form that we are lucky to have inherited from the ancient Chinese culture."