Where are the Ancient Arts of China? (Part 4)

Shen Yun, universally loved, brings a global paradigm shift in the arts.
Where are the Ancient Arts of China? (Part 4)
Donna Karan, fashion designer and creator of the Donna Karan New York (DKNY) clothing line, poses with Christina Li, principal dancer, after the June 23 Shen Yun performance at Lincoln Center, New York. (Dai Bing/The Epoch Times)

As Shen Yun Performing Arts continues its world tour showcasing the lost traditions of ancient China, in a four-part series The Epoch Times takes a close look at these arts, their current state in China today, their undeniable influence in our world, and the significance of their miraculous revival.

The Shen Yun Performing Arts website features a profusion of video testimonials from audience members, no small number of which come from recognized members of the arts community, from classical composers to film production designers.

The ads are up, and the tickets are selling fast across Canada and the United States. New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts has grown from one company to three companies and is now touring the globe most of the year.

It is unusual for any production to be so universally loved and to possess such cross-cultural appeal and influence. The obvious reason is that it is a dazzling performance, but a closer look indicates more: Shen Yun may well signal a global paradigm shift in the arts.

As we enter the new millennium and the post-postmodern era, those of us thinking about art and culture may pause to reflect on all that has happened in the last century. Many of the arts institutions that were either high art in the public sphere or folk art in our private lives have been washed away by consumer culture or perched so high on an intellectualized and abstracted pedestal that they fail to resonate with people. This is not only true in the West—it is a global phenomenon.

Art is not wallpaper, and dance is not exercise—regardless of the cultural context. The gloomy, angular images that mine our propensity to struggle with life don't seem to be serving us well at present. The modern aesthetic has sown ugliness around the globe, most notably in sterile architecture devoid of craft.

Ideally, the arts are the source from which we draw inspiration for all our daily doings and so should help us in our individual and collective efforts to serve society and to feel genuinely fulfilled. Placebos won't cut it in an era as complex and frustrating as this.

Enter Shen Yun, a beautiful performance indeed! But aside from the visual spectacle, the lush combination of Western orchestra and Eastern instruments, and the exceptional technique of the dancers, there is a foundation of substance, a grounding in positive emotions.

If there are dark subjects to broach—and Shen Yun does touch upon the current political situation in mainland China that certainly is dark—they are not treated with anger but with compassion. The overall message is one that awakens us to the continued possibility of goodness in a world sullied. We can each become the lotus flower that rises above the mud.

Shen Yun is steeped in traditional Chinese culture, drawing inspiration from China's legends, folk traditions, and vast spiritual landscape. Under communist rule over the past 60-odd years, China's cultural legacy was identified as a source of strength readily available to the common citizen, and so the oligarchy there sought to systematically eradicate it.

The revival of these arts by Shen Yun, a company founded by Chinese artists living outside the mainland, is much more than an act of self-defense. It is a statement of continuity, not only of the quantifiable elements of culture—the language, the clothing, the music, and the movements—but also of the ineffable stuff that we are each filled with, the stuff we must use to make our way into the future if only we could get past our fears and self-doubts. And the performance is convincing.

Shen Yun might persuade you that we, as a human race, are capable of overcoming our dire circumstances and capable of moving forward and handling the millennium looming before us with tools given to us by our ancestors. It may also convince you that you are more than the sum of your parts and that you can do more and be more—just in case you didn't know that already.

The company's mandate directs us to the strengths of our collective past and the cultural resources that are buried in it. It models our use of those intangible assets as a paradigm or framework not only for the arts, but for daily living.

The idea is so simple yet so profound, and it is a message consistent with the production's aesthetic: Don't be afraid to confront things that are clearly evil. Goodness is worth defending. Winning is possible. Stay open-hearted and broad-minded. Things that are beautiful are not frivolous, be they arts or ideas.

In fact, when beauty surrounds us it can awaken the creativity we need to make changes happen around us.

There is no misty-eyed idealism here. Shen Yun is walking the path. The artists are admirably focused and dedicated. They work tirelessly and are broaching difficult issues awash in a sea of turquoise and apple green gossamer.

How Shen Yun rubs off on the audience is a testament to the power of a good idea. The sheer overwhelming beauty of the production itself has been an inspiration for all kinds of people who have watched it. From fashion designers to cellists, they all leave inspired. Doctors and dentists have also been inspired—a prospect that cannot help but elicit a smile.

Now we need only wait and see just what Shen Yun has inspired in the communities the performance tours to.


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