Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen a billboard or heard dozens of ads for Shen Yun Performing Arts.
In the Bay Area, people are so used to seeing the ads on TV and on the sides of buses come December, people even joke winter should be renamed "Shen Yun season." Since I started writing this article about two minutes ago, I've already seen a Shen Yun spot run on KTVU.
But what is it? The answer is a little complicated.
Shen Yun bills itself as "the world's premier classical Chinese dance and music company." They have performances in 93 cities around the country, from Billings, Mont., to Little Rock, Ark., to three Bay Area locations. The dress code suggests you might want to wear a tuxedo or evening gown since you're "in for a special treat." If you buy a ticket to a show (which run from $80 to $400 in San Francisco), you can expect two hours of traditional Chinese dance accompanied by a live orchestra.
And if you're to believe Shen Yun's own advertisements, you'll get so much more. The hyperbolic 2020 tour ad promises the performance is "so inspiring it changes your life."
But (surprise, surprise), the ads may be overselling it a bit.
Some people who go to the show complain they didn't know what they were in for. Because nowhere in the effusive advertisements is it mentioned that Shen Yun has a political bent. Shen Yun translates to "divine rhythm," and according to the show's website, the artists who put on Shen Yun practice Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a belief system that encompasses meditation, tai chi-type exercises, and "strict morality" (smoking, alcohol, and extramarital or same-sex sexual relations go against the teachings).
A 2017 Guardian article by Nicholas Hune-Brown describes one part of the show: "The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds. One unveiled a Falun Gong banner." And then they were beaten.
Scenes like that didn't sit well with all viewers.
The Fresno Bee's arts writer Donald Munro saw Shen Yun in 2016, and called the show "a beautiful and odd production that veers wildly between two extremes: delicate artistic excellence on one hand and a brusque, heavy-handed effort to inculcate political and spiritual viewpoints on the other."
Many people posting reviews on Yelp weren't as eloquent.
"Be warned: Religious sermon!" reads a Yelp review from someone who saw the show in Fresno. "I WALKED OUT as soon as anti-evolution statements were made on the screen. False advertising!"
"I rate this a Zero star. This show is purely CULT PROPAGANDA. Do not waste your money and time for this," said Ron F. from Pittsburg, Calif.
The Chinese government is not a fan either. The practice of Falun Gong is forbidden in China and its members are routinely persecuted. In condemning the "so-called 'Shen Yun'" performance, the embassy's website calls Falun Gong a "...cult that seriously harms the society and violates human rights, and is a cancer in the body of the modern and civilized society."
Most of the negative reviews were people upset they were blindsided by the political content.