Misconception 1: “But when I was in China I saw…”
Ask non-Chinese what associations the term “traditional Chinese culture” conjures in their minds and many will answer something along the lines of “robed dancers at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,” “martial arts moves from movies like Hero, or “the programs at the new Confucius Institute that opened at my university.”
In actuality, while these examples contain superficial components of traditional Chinese culture, they lack an essential ingredient, one that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has for decades tried to destroy: a tradition of spiritual self-discipline and veneration for the divine.
Since ancient times, Chinese people have believed that divine beings, throughout various dynasties, transmitted China’s rich culture to humans. In particular, the three main religions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism have been at the heart of this heritage. They have inspired spirituality and faith, while spawning reverence for values like benevolence, justice, etiquette, and wisdom.
With its atheist roots, however, the CCP has sought to undermine these values and beliefs, fearing that faith in the divine would weaken allegiance to the Party. It has launched various campaigns—most notably the Cultural Revolution—to destroy cultural and religious sites, while forcing Chinese people to adopt its philosophy of “struggling against heaven, struggling against the land, and struggling against man.”
As such, in today’s China the CCP may sponsor performances or exhibits that superficially depict traditional costumes or legends, but the underlying essence is gone.
It is easy to misconstrue such displays as authentic representations of traditional Chinese culture, while mistaking Shen Yun’s performances—with their references to Buddhas, Daos, and Gods—as proselytizing religious beliefs.
But in reality, since belief in the divine is so central to Chinese culture, omitting it from the arts means not doing justice to its full glory and magnificence. It is this lost tradition, with all its profound inner meaning, that Shen Yun aims to revive.