“Winning Without Fighting” – Shen Yun Performing Arts28 January, 2011 at 09:22 | Posted in China, Chinese culture, Shen Yun | Leave a comment
Tags: China, Chinese culture, Shen Yun
Being a performer with Shen Yun for the last few years has made me take a fresh look at my own culture
Many people ask me this kind of question: “What is the biggest difference between Shen Yun and performance companies from China?” I respond by saying the difference is that Shen Yun presents five thousand years of Chinese civilization. People are often astonished at this answer, and ask: “Most of your performers are Chinese who grew up in the West, while those companies’ members were born and bred in mainland China—how do you know that what you present is genuine traditional Chinese culture?” When I hear this, I usually just smile and say: “Give me a moment and I’ll explain…”
From the ancient legend of Pangu separating heaven and earth to the epic of the goddess Nüwa creating mankind, Chinese civilization was built upon a core concept—the idea that this culture was divinely inspired. During the Han dynasty over 2,000 years ago, the great scholar-statesman Dong Zhongshu wrote the classic Three Discourses on Heaven and Humans, in which he enunciated the notion of “the divine right of kings.” He demonstrated the idea that even above the emperor, or “the son of heaven,” lay higher heavens. Whether or not an emperor is in the right, was to be determined by the Confucian classics. If the emperor strays from the Way, people are fully justified to rise up and topple him. This would not be considered treason—it would actually be seen as “acting in the name of heaven.” Chinese history is full of such examples, as when the founder of the Zhou dynasty, Wu Wang, defeated the corrupt Shang dynasty emperor, or when Cheng Tang defeated Jie, ending the decaying Xia dynasty.
Rulers were not the only ones restrained by heavenly laws, subjects, too, revered the mandate of heaven, as is often seen in China’s literary masterpieces. The classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh starts by describing how the preeminent official Hong went awry and followed wicked ways, setting the backdrop for the gathering of one hundred and eight heroes on Liang Mountain. Romance of the Three Kingdoms concludes with the line: “The succession of human affairs is infinite, and the boundless of fate cannot be escaped.” In Dream of the Red Chamber, the Buddhist Kongkong and Daoist immortal Miaomiao appear in the beginning of the novel with a spiritual message and are like a thread weaving throughout the entire book. The Historical Records by Sima Qian specifically record how astral phenomena reflect changes in the human world. In the popular folk stories of the Ming dynasty, one tale after another speaks of the idea of karmic retribution for one’s deeds. It is precisely this faith in the divine that led people to believe that “good is rewarded and evil is punished,” fostering moral restraint for generations.
When the ancients studied, they were not only seeking knowledge; they were even more concerned with learning how to be an upright person. As Confucius wrote in The Great Leaning: “The Way of Great Learning lies in illustrating virtue, rejuvenating people, and resting only in the highest perfection.” Back then, students abided by the Confucian classics to perfect their character, striving to achieve the life aim that Confucius described—to cultivate oneself, manage a harmonious family, govern the country, and bring peace under heaven.
But in the elementary and middle school textbooks of today’s China, this essence of traditional Chinese culture is nowhere to be found. The ancient belief that “life and death are predetermined, riches and honor depend upon heaven,” and the god-fearing worldview are now ridiculed as “idiotic,” “backwards,” and “feudal superstition” that should be sternly criticized. Confucius said: “Monarch-monarch, courtier-courtier, father-father, son-son”—meaning that the relationship between monarch and subjects should be the same as that between a father and son. It is two-directional. Sons and daughters respect their parents, and the parents dearly love their children. An official is loyal to his sovereign, and with a benevolent heart the sovereign, in turn, empathizes with his subjects. This kind of dynamic, which for thousands of years had served to maintain harmonious social relationships, is depicted by the Chinese Communist Party as: “Class struggle between the exploitative ruling class and the working masses.” The way the Party has been trampling on the ancient faiths trying to eradicate belief systems is unprecedented in both its ruthlessness and thoroughness. From the Cultural Revolution’s campaigns to wipe out the three core Chinese religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, all the way to today’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, the Party has never stopped bludgeoning faith.
I was raised under this kind of atheistic education system. In history class, the teacher first writes the main points on the board, then reads from the textbook—if it’s not berating “feudal society” and how its monarchical system exploited the working class, then it’s singing the praise of the “mighty, glorious, and correct” Communist Party that “liberated” the masses from the “abyss of suffering.” At the end of class, the teacher would again remind us which passages we had to memorize—next class we would be checked to see if we had memorized them or not. Many times I felt like a duck on an assembly line, being stuffed ad nauseam with so-called knowledge.
History wasn’t the only class I detested—I also hated classical Chinese class, in which we read ancient prose. Not just because studying the classics from the perspective of criticizing it felt like chewing on wax, but also because the rote memorization made me completely lose interest. I remember one time we were studying Sima Qian’s famous Historical Records, which documents ancient Chinese history in great detail. My classmates and I joked that it would have been great if Sima Qian had been murdered, so that today we wouldn’t have to memorize his writings. As young Chinese, we inherited one of the world’s most ancient cultures—five thousand years of continuous documented history and literature; to have this kind of attitude as a middle school student is really sad. When we read Fan Zhongyan’s Record of the Yueyang Pavilion, I wasn’t impressed by his attitude of “First worrying about the troubles under heaven, then rejoicing in the happiness under heaven,” nor did I care at all about his heartfelt concern for the nation and people. When reading the great strategist Zhuge Liang’s Memorial on Dispatching the Troops, I was completely unable to sense his earnest mindset of “sparing no effort fulfilling one’s duty—’till one’s dying day.”
When I reached high school, the last guise of China’s education system today was completely unmasked. All questions had one standard answer, even to the point that you had to use this one specific word, and it’s wrong even if you just use a synonym, especially on history exams. In order to pass the tests, I was just like a dumpster—I took all the garbage in the textbooks and just dumped it into my brain. And this was not decades ago, I went to school in China in the twenty-first century.
Chinese who grew up like I did under this kind of atheist education system, know nothing about the essence of traditional Chinese culture. They even think that the repulsive history we learned is Chinese civilization’s true history, not recognizing how this narrative was crafted by the Communist Party. When you watch the historical TV dramas and movies filmed in China today, while they are set in ancient backdrops and feature ancient garb and use ancient words, what they display are all inner-palace intrigues and scheming for power. It’s taken for granted that the ancient officials were just like today’s corrupt bureaucrats, spending their days obsessed with how to gain a few more kickbacks. To “spare no effort fulfilling one’s duty—’till one’s dying day,” that spirit of being loyal to the homeland is twisted and portrayed as infatuation and blind devotion to a leader. Every year, China Central Television’s New Year “Spring Festival Gala” broadcast tries to prettify the Communist Party’s image with the farce of singing its praise and extolling its virtues. No wonder the art world of today’s China really has no art to speak of, it has all been reduced to a tool for “fawning over the empress.” Unashamed, the Communist Party still takes their absurd operas and one after another flaunts them on the world stage, vainly attempting to persuade those who live in free societies. Of course, no one really buys it. Instead, this is where the Chinese people truly lose face.
But with Shen Yun, we’re welcomed wherever we go, and some audience members are even moved to tears. Whether it’s overseas Chinese, or audience members who come from mainland China, after the performance they often sigh and say they’ve just seen Chinese people’s roots. Starting from the first piece, with the King of Kings leading divine beings down to the earth, creating the splendor of 5,000 years of divinely inspired culture, the performance clearly articulates the genesis of Chinese civilization.