Over the next two nights in a crowded Seattle hall, a collection of colorfully-costumed characters will perform leaps, tumbles, spins, twirls, and various other theatrics set to the sounds of obscure musical instruments like the pipa and the guzheng. And, if the Chinese government is to be believed, this promotes an "anti-human, anti-science, anti-society" cult.
Also known as Falun Dafa, the movement has been the subject of a severe crackdown in China for more than a decade. David Ownby, a history professor from the University of Montreal, told an American Congressional Commission on human rights in China that thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been tortured and shipped to forced labor camps because their leaders have refused to promote the communist party, and support "traditional popular cultural and spiritual practices which had been banned for many years."
Now it seems the Chinese government's efforts at repression don't stop at the Great Wall. Last month, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco penned a letter to every member of the Seattle City Council to "kindly remind" the local officials about Shen Yun's allegedly nefarious ties to the "evil cult" of Falun Gong.
Seattle Weekly obtained a copy of the letter sent to councilman Nick Licata. The correspondence, signed by China's consul general Gao Zhansheng, begins by offering a reminder about the "fruitful cooperation" in business and tourism between China and Seattle, then insinuates that cooperation might not be so fruitful in the coming years should the councilman attend or publicly support the Shen Yun show.
"Shen Yun performance is nothing but a propaganda show for Falun Gong," Zhansheng writes, "in the guise of traditional Chinese art and simply constitute [sic] an insult to and distortion of Chinese culture."
According to the New York Times , Shen Yun has performed in more than 130 cities on four continents. It is a non-profit organization that was established in 2006 with "the mission of revitalizing traditional Chinese culture." The songs and dances often depict Chinese history, and occasionally focus on the harsh treatment of dissenters after the country's cultural revolution.
As for the accusation that Falun Gong is a cult, Michael Green, a member of the Falun Dafa Association of Washington State, says the movement is mostly about rhythmic breathing, exercise, and good deeds.
"It's a form of self-improvement, both of mind and body," Green says, noting that there are about 50 Falun Gong devotees in the Seattle area. "It's peace of mind. I sleep really well from practicing it. It's improvement of health and overall outlook on life when dealing with conflicts in work or family."
Of course, there is a touch of mysticism in the group's teachings and its image isn't helped in the West by the fact that its emblem features a giant swastika. (The swastika is actually an ancient Buddhist symbol called the yungdrung, "a graphical representation of eternity," but still.)
Licata, meanwhile, says diplomatically that the letter he received reflects that the Chinese have "a different way of doing local governance than we do here in the U.S."
"I was surprised by its tone," Licata says. "It's not something I took seriously, and I don't think anyone else would as well. It's probably just a reflection of their view of how they see the world operating, which is quite different than how people in a democracy do."