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New Year's Show Sparks Controversy

by Larry Tung, Mar 10, 2008
 
Photo courtesy of Best Chinese Shows.

A Chinese New Year show at the Radio City Music Hall has stirred up some controversies after the New York Times ran a critical review of the show, saying the show's Falun Gong theme alienated some people in the audience.

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The variety show, titled "Chinese New Year Splendor," included elaborate traditional Chinese music and dance productions featuring dozens of acrobatic dancers, drummers and a large screen that provided Chinese landscapes as backdrops. The first few numbers proved to be spectacular performances. But a third of the way into the show, Falun Gong references began to appear as three dancers on stage portraying Falun Gong practitioners were beaten up by prison guards. The backdrop of the piece had the Chinese writing "Falun Dafa is good" on it. Falun Gong, a spiritual movement strongly opposed by the Beijing government, is also known as Falun Dafa.

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Meanwhile, between dance numbers, four vocalists performed songs that included lyrics to promote Falun Gong's teachings and denounce China's persecution of the group. In a number that resembles Falun Gong's street theater called "The Power of Awareness," communist police harassed a mother and her daughter practicing Falun Gong in the park. Eventually a group of bystanders chased the police away. At the end of the piece, the message became loud and clear as dozens of dancers performed Falun Gong movements in unison with its three principles - truthfulness, compassion and forbearance -- written in gigantic Chinese characters in the backdrop.

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The Times article, written by reporter Eric Konigsberg, said dozens of people in the audience, perhaps a few hundred, left the show after the prison number and at intermission because they had realized that it "was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong." The reporter quoted audience members who were troubled by the Falun Gong material.

"I had no idea it was Falun Gong until now that it's too late, and it really bums me out," said Steven, a Chinese immigrant living in New Jersey who was among the first to leave the show and asked that his last name not be published.

"I don't feel comfortable here," said Elizabeth Levy, another audience member, as quoted in the article. "I had no idea when I came that this was about Falun Gong."

Eye on a Controversy

Falun Gong is a Tai Chi-like spiritual movement and breathing exercise that gained immense popularity in Mainland China in the early 1990s. It was banned in 1999 by the Chinese government, which declared it "an evil cult." Tens of thousands of practitioners are reported to have been tortured and sent to re-education camps. Since the crackdown, practitioners from around the world have started an international campaign to call attention to China's human rights violation. Many Chinese Falun Gong practitioners have gained permanent residency in the United States through political asylum. The founder of Falun Gong, Hongzhi Li, is believed to reside in New York City.

Inside China, however, media outlets and government offices often produce anti-Falun Gong propaganda campaigns, claiming that many practitioners troubled by health problems have died because they followed Li's teachings and refused medical treatment. They also contend that hundreds have committed self-mutilation or suicide because they wanted to attain "all-round fulfillment" -- a claim by its founder.

Meanwhile, Falun Gong remains a controversial subject in the Chinese immigrant community in New York and other U.S. cities as parties on both sides of the fence try to prove their legitimacy. For many years, Falun Gong groups were not permitted to march in the New Year parade in various Chinatowns because of pressure from the Chinese Embassy or the fear from organizers that they would be labeled as Falun Gong sympathizers. This year, Falun Gong practitioners participated in the parade in Flushing, Queens but were excluded in San Francisco.

The performance at the center of the current dispute is presented by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a New York-based independent, non-profit television station founded by a group of professionals and businessmen in 2001 who commonly practice Falun Gong. It is the station's fifth year running the New Year show. In addition to regular programming ranging from news and entertainment to sports, the station frequently highlights news about China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. The station prides itself for providing "truthful and uncensored" information about China.

The show, performed by the Divine Performing Arts of New York, is touring in 16 cities in Europe, 17 cities in the Asia-Pacific region and more than 30 cities in North America.

But while NTDTV claims to be independent, some Chinese people in New York disagree, calling it a "mouthpiece" of Falun Gong. The Chinese Culture Club and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at New York University started an online petition last year to stop NTDTV from using one of the university's performing arts centers for a dance contest. The website received more than 850 postings, and many petitioners said NTDTV is anti-China and echoed the Chinese government's official stance that Falun Gong is deceiving and evil.

Falun Gong Responds

The New York Times article, published on February 6, immediately drew angry reaction from the Falun Gong community. The Epoch Times, a New York-based newspaper critical of the Chinese government and a media sponsor of the show, has run dozens of articles denouncing the New York Times' coverage.

In one published on February 14 under the headline "The New York Times Parrots Communist Party Line," Carrie Hung, a spokesperson for the television station, objected to the impression the New York Times article gave the show's content. "The New York Times' quotes from the audience members make Splendor seem to be a show all about Falun Gong," she told the Epoch Times. "It is not. The show is about discovering and reviving authentic Chinese traditional culture and values. ... The performances incorporate elements from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Falun Gong, and from various ethnic traditions and different dynasties."

Meanwhile, NTDTV released a photo report on the last show that took place on February 9. Titled "Final 'Splendor' Show Packed After NY Times Article," it featured pictures that showed a capacity audience and a video that included testimonials from audience members who raved about the performance.

Taking It to the Blogosphere

The show and the Times article also generated a heated debated among bloggers.

"We were expecting a night of dance and music, but got this crappy propaganda piece with so-so dancing and the worst lyrics you've ever heard," wrote Angrygod101 on Gothamist, a popular blog about New York. "A good chunk of the show consisted of solo singers belting out FG propaganda songs accompanied by a pianist. I would have walked out too, if I could."

Another blogger, Makina, defended the show's artistic discretion. "If the artists must use their art to project a message, I'm all for it," wrote Makina. "It's been done before and the art is the language of the heart -- to express suffering is part of it."

Jordan Hoffman, a filmmaker and tour guide, said he felt deceived, as there was no mentioning of Falun Gong in the show's publicity. "What I thought would be an energetic, bright and musical show filled with dragons, drums and excitement turned out to be what I imagine a Carnival Cruise is like if controlled by the Falun Gong," he wrote in his blog.

"Truly I felt like I was tied down by the Falun Gong and made to watch this," commented Lisa Latimer on Hoffman's blog. "This was an obvious fundraiser and it should have been marketed as such. ... I don't like it when people get me to spend money under false pretenses."

But some people said they did not find fault with the show's content.

"The Chinese Splendor show mentioned truthfulness - compassion - tolerance," wrote Jean, a blogger and a mother of five. "Wouldn't this world be a much better place if we all tried to handle each other with compassion and tolerance? As for the performances that dealt with the abuses taking place in China against Falun Gong, it's now already a part of Chinese history, and is no more inappropriate a subject matter for the stage than, say, 'Fiddler On the Roof,' which dealt with the oppression of the Jews."

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Washington has repeatedly denounced the show. It released a statement before the show began its run in New York, calling on people to stay away from the "so-called Chinese New Year Gala." "Such 'galas,' with their pretentious mystification, were patchworks of programs with low artistic value and were full of implied preaching of cult doctrine and attacks on the Chinese Government," the statement reads. "They were an insult and distortion of the Chinese culture and a deception to the audience."

The New York Times has not made any public statement on the controversy. But it published a letter to the editor from Zhong Lee, president of NTDTV, on February 15.

"One of the basic freedoms central to the United States is freedom of expression," Lee wrote. "You should not find it so shocking that a Chinese culture show produced in the United States includes some reference to China's human rights issues."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.

 


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