Friday, February 26, 2016

Shen Yun: Performance Posters as Resistance Art

Shen Yun Performing Arts 2016 promotional poster

When I was in college, I heard the scholar Frank Kermode give a series of lectures, in which he posed the question, "Why are narratives obscure?"

Kermode veered off from the very mainstream question of "how can one tell a story clearly?" into a question that we probably don't think about enough: "What's the value of telling a story that's hard to understand?"

The very powerful lesson I remember from those lectures is about parables -- something that I, as a Christian, am exposed to a lot.

Kermode made the point that the power of parables lies not so much in the light they shed -- their function as analogy or metaphor -- as in the way they use secrets. The parables bind Christians together because they are only understandable by those who hold the key.

Listening to Kermode provoked a moment of honesty in me. "He's right," I thought. "A lot of the time I feel like saying, 'What the heck are you talking about, Jesus?" Kermode pointed out that Jesus frequently had to supply the key -- "I'm talking about something called 'the Kingdom of Heaven' . . . ." Over the years, I've reached into my pocket on countless occasions to pull that key out again. (Thanks, Prof. Kermode.)

I thought of Kermode recently when I was riding on the San Francisco BART and saw one of the ubiquitous posters for the Shen Yun performances of Chinese music and dance. I've been seeing these posters for years, and over and over again I've wondered, "Who is going to such a big effort to get this in front of people . . . and why?"

Shen Yun is a project of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that originated in China. Now that I live in the Bay Area, I pick up the free Falun Gong newspaper, the Epoch Times, every week, and so have frequent reminders of Falun Gong and its struggles. Moreover, I had recently read a book by Li Yiyun, The Vagrants, that made the issues that Falun Gong talks about very front of mind.

Which led me on that subway ride to exclaim, "I know what that poster reminds me of!" 

Kidneys (source: Medicinenet)

Indeed, the shapes described by the Chinese dancers and their flowing gowns and scarves in the poster are a nearly perfect replica of the human kidney system.

Falungong claims that tens of thousands of its members have been the victims of organ harvesting by the Chinese government - with kidneys being one of the main organs involved. It seems almost too macabre to believe. Falungong faces a steep climb in getting the full facts, and it seems like the vast majority of people would rather just not think about it.

Currently, Epoch Times reporters are among the many journalists jailed in China. (They won't be reporting on organ harvesting any time soon.)

People who feel a responsibility to look deeper into this question can look at:

David Kilgour, David Matas (6 July 2006, revised 31 January 2007) An Independent Investigation into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China

Ethan Gutmann, "Bitter Harvest: China's 'Organ Donation' Nightmare", World Affairs Journal July/August 2012

I've asked myself what Falun Gong might hope to accomplish by blanketing the US with images of Shen Yun dancers that might be recognizable as kidneys. Do they hope to stir the consciences of people who see these posters? Do they hope it will win adherents to the cause?

Perhaps. But I think they are doing something much more subtle and much more powerful. I think they are sending a message to their adherents: "We're in a struggle. Not everyone is with us -- yet. But we know what we stand for. And we're not alone!"

Where have I heard this message before?

Related posts

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

When you hear "panda," think "China jails journalists." Yes, pandas are soft, cuddly, cute, and adorable . . . . They're also black and white and live behind bars.

(See CHINA: What's Black and White and Lives Behind Bars?)

We need vagrants, misfits, rebels, and liumang. And that while anxiety is worth noticing, that's not the same as saying it's undesirable, or should be shunned.

(See In Praise of Nonconformity: Vagrants, Misfits, Rebels, and Liumang )