The Madison Overture Center is hosting Chinese classical dance group Shen Yun this weekend, whose expressive, colorful performances are earmarked by a tagline of 'China Before Communism.'
But behind the flowery dresses and cultural performances is Shen Yun’s parent organization, Falun Gong, a controversial group known for its homophobic, anti-feminist and anti-modern medicine views.
Founded by Li Hongzhi in the 1990s, Falun Gong emerged as an organization that promoted Buddhist and anti-communist beliefs.
The group grew exponentially to 90 million members by the mid-1990s, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Edward Friedman.
“They were trying to expose the evils of what the Communist Party [was] doing,” Friedman said. “There's a period of time when they're first being crushed, in which they are virtually the best source in exposing the evils of what is going on under Chinese communism.”
The Chinese government — headed by the Chinese Communist Party — soon cracked down on the fast-growing movement. In July 1999, China banned Falun Gong, with reports of members being killed and tortured.
The CCP displays “low tolerance for groups that place any spiritual authority above their allegiance to the party,” Freedom House reported.
After Falun Gong moved to America, it took a hard turn to the “extreme right,” Friedman said. “They all become anti-gay, anti-women, etc.”
Shen Yun features little reference to the Falun Gong movement on its website. But Friedman said they’re connected.
“They have to find ways of earning money,” he said. “They create a newspaper, they create a television station and they create a dance group.”
The group’s associates run The Epoch Times, a conservative publication founded by a Falun Gong practitioner that has come under fire for its COVID-skeptical articles and ad campaigns. Falun Gong denies affiliation with the publication, which is now the fourth-largest magazine in America, despite financial ties.
Although membership for Falun Gong isn’t close to its mid-1990s high of 90 million followers, Friedman said Shen Yun has expanded in recent years, with eight traveling dance companies worldwide.
Shen Yun, which will perform this Saturday and Sunday at the Overture Center, is one of the dance companies.
Shari Gasper, communications director of the Overture Center, said the center strives to provide “extraordinary experiences” through a wide range of events.
“Not all of what we offer is appealing to everyone and, ultimately, we leave it to our patrons to decide how and when to participate,” Gasper said. “The diverse communities we serve and the artists we present have varied viewpoints and the right to express unique opinions.”
According to the Guardian, local Falun Dafa chapters — groups that practice Falun Gong’s philosophy — sponsor Shen Yun performances in their home cities. Madison has a Falun Dafa chapter.
“This is a facility rental event presented by an independent organization separate from Overture Center for the Arts, which simply means we offer our space for rental,” Gasper said. “We hope our diversified approach to programming sparks respectful dialogue between those with opposing viewpoints that fosters deeper understanding within our community.”
The group’s associates claim it “espouses conservative sexual ethics. However, Falun Gong does not seek to impose its ethical precepts on anyone,” according to the Falun Dafa Information Center website.
Falun Gong is also anti-modern medicine. The group’s founder, Hongzhi, claimed aliens introduced humans to modern technology like computers and airplanes. He also believes aliens will “introduce legislation to stop human reproduction.”
“Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens,” Hongzhi said in a 1999 Time Magazine interview. “When such people grow up, they will help replace humans with aliens.”
Falun Gong continues to operate out of Dragon Springs, a 400-acre facility two hours outside of New York City.
Jasper Bernstein is the Associate News Editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.