Captivated by their scintillating Internet marketing, I went to see Shen Yun, now branded “China before Communism”. Shen Yun is the theatrical enterprise of Falun Gong, apparently a rather profitable venture. Falun Gong is a controversial religious movement that is ostracized in mainland China and Shen Yun is controversial, too: see, for example, the New Yorker here.

I wasn’t particularly excited. The show is divided into many, shorter bits. Some are rather interesting: I was enchanted by an Erhu soloist and found the singers pretty good. I thought the orchestra was excellent, and Shen Yun seems clearly capable of attracting great talent. They attracted great interest too; the theatre was packed, for a matinee in a mid-size Italian city, and most of the audience members were Italians, rather than Chinese expatriates. In the songs, a couple of verses were explicitly anti-evolution and anti-atheism, without much of an argument more than, “these things are bad for you.” Still, I don’t think many noticed at all.

I was more puzzled by the rather naïve and cartoonish, dancing presentation of dramatic events such as protest repression and “organ harvesting”. I wish I could ask somebody from China if that kind of representation, which is necessarily euphemistic as it goes through dancing in beautiful costumes, resonates with her. To the Western eye, it doesn’t: it trivializes something very serious.

However, the big criticism of Falun Gong is that this show is propaganda wrapped up in theater. I think that’s unfair. If this is propaganda, it is of the obvious, hence harmless, kind. The denunciation of communism is clear, but it is not overwhelming (it doesn’t touch any economic arguments, for example) and it can be ignored by the audience. In fact, I think most of the audience, in the case of the representation I attended, didn’t pay much attention and wasn’t nudged to. Plus, I can hardly see why this kind of “propaganda” should be a problem, in a world in which we are deafened by politically correct propaganda of the opposite time: which is not more subtle, but only more pressing. While my sympathies do not lie with the religious values of Falun Gong, I am appalled that such a show can be considered a “problem” by anybody.

A last, bittersweet comment. Falun Gong could have gone for more religious preaching, or more political pamphleteering. Instead, they created a music show and achieved tremendous success. They understood something most of us libertarians don’t: that people respond to stories, not to arguments. Perhaps some creative minds in our movement should create a show, “America before socialism”, and tour the world and compete with Shen Yun. I bet it wouldn’t be the worst strategic move in the history of libertarianism.