The promo materials were seemingly everywhere. Two billboards on Route 28 and another Downtown. Stacks of fliers in schools and more distributed by hand. Ads on local TV channels. All advertised a performance earlier this month at the Benedum Center by a Chinese dance troupe with flowery costuming and, apparently, a massive marketing budget.
And it’s not just Pittsburgh. Adverts for the troupe, Shen Yun, continue to pop up in cities across the western hemisphere, prompting social media to take notice and, naturally, do its meme thing.
It’s also prompted a slew of quizzical headlines including Los Angeles Magazine’s “Just How Big Is Shen Yun’s Marketing Budget?” and Detroit Metro Times’ “We still don’t know WTF a Shen Yun is but it’s coming to Detroit.”
The most interesting thing about this campaign, however, is not its pervasiveness but rather the story of the group behind it.
Shen Yun, it turns out, is an upstate New York-based outfit with a relentless touring schedule and reviled status among China’s government.
The latter owes to the group’s connection to the Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, a spiritual movement banned in 1999 by China’s atheistic Communist government.
Falun Gong’s philosophy incorporates a mix of Buddhist and Taoist principles and claims tens of millions of members across the world, many of them in the U.S. (The term refers both to the spiritual movement founded by a messianic and exiled leader, Li Hongzhi, and to a set of Tai Chi-like exercises practiced by its members.)
In China, Falun Gong practitioners have “long complained of (…) imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Chinese government,” The New York Times reported in 2016. The Chinese government disputes these claims.
So, how does this lead to billboards in Millvale?
Well, according to a comprehensive report in The Guardian, the Shen Yun dance troupe was started by a group of Falun Gong disciples in the arts community “who wished to use their professional skills to expose the persecution and save sentient beings.” Since then, Shen Yun has grown from a single troupe to five companies of 40-some dancers traveling the world in a Cirque du Soleil-style roadshow.
And while Shen Yun has largely avoided invoking Falun Gong in its public messaging, depictions of crackdowns by Communist officials have featured prominently in past performances.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has labeled the show propaganda. Shen Yun says the government has gone even further, attempting to sabotage performances around the world and dispatching diplomats to discourage participating venues. (In 2012, the Chinese embassy in Washington issued a warning to Americans who might have been swayed by the Shen Yun posters appearing around town, describing the performances as “filled with cult messages and implied attacks against the Chinese Government.”)
Robin Elrod, director of communications with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the owner of the Benedum, said she was unaware of any outreach from Chinese diplomats ahead of the Shen Yun performances there earlier this month.
As for what it cost Shen Yun to rent the theater, the group would have paid a minimum of between $8,000 and $9,000 per performance. (Tickets for the show started at $82.25.)
But how does Shen Yun afford this — and where does the money come from?
In each city Shen Yun visits, shows are presented by the local Falun Gong or Falun Dafa association. This month’s shows at the Benedum were presented by The Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association. (Attempts to reach representatives of the local chapter were unsuccessful this week.) According to The Guardian, that means those local Falun Gong followers “raise the funds, provide the publicity and lay the groundwork to make the show successful.”
According to public filings, Shen Yun generated $22.5 million in revenue in 2016, the most recent year for which records are available. That was an increase of more than $2 million from 2015. The group has revealed little, if anything, about the details of its marketing budget.
“While similar cultural exhibitions like Riverdance commodify culture for the purpose of generating a profit, Shen Yun functions as anti-Communist China propaganda,” Los Angeles Magazine reported. “For this mission,” the article adds, “the members of Falun Gong willingly give their money and time to promote the spectacle.”