A Threat to Art
On the evening of May 4, thunderous applause met the closing curtains of our last performance in Ulsan, South Korea. The hope and joy I saw in the audience was a reflection of the same in my heart. The very last leg of our long tour was wrapping up; only performances in Seoul and Suwon remained.
I had been looking forward to Seoul. Although I was worn and weary from our hectic Asia-tour schedule, the last performance in Ulsan only made me more excited for the upcoming weekend. Tickets were selling well as we made ready to finally share months of hard work with the people of the Korean capital.
That night, though, just as were about to head out on the freeway to Seoul, and only two days before the curtain was to open at KBS Hall, we learned that our shows had been cancelled.
KBS Hall is owned by Korean Broadcasting System, a national television broadcaster, and the venue is one of the most prestigious on the Korean peninsula. A few months back, in February, KBS decided to cancel our theater rental contract after receiving a letter from the Chinese Embassy. Our hosting organization in South Korea took the case to the Seoul Southern District Court, which ruled that the cancellation was illegal and Shen Yun must be allowed to perform. That was in April.
But now, half an hour before closing for the long weekend, the same court issued another order that reversed last month’s decision and supported the cancellation. The new order mentioned two more letters from the Chinese Embassy, one to KBS Hall and one to the district court. These contained threats to business if the performances went on as scheduled. The court and KBS were trying to protect the broadcaster’s commercial interests in the People’s Republic of China, where Korean dramas are very popular.
On the surface, the only consequences were thousands of wasted tickets and disgruntled audience members, and maybe a couple days of idleness for us performers.
Shen Yun’s history of performing in South Korea has been fraught with difficulties and interference from the very beginning. In the United States—or Canada, where I’m from—theaters that receive mysterious threats and suspicious phone calls from a foreign embassy might find it ridiculous, but I suppose in South Korea these instill real fear. For a nation so closely tied to China, geographically and economically, a compromised relationship could appear to mean life or death for a business.
In its threatening letters, the Chinese Embassy made it clear that the state-sponsored KBS, one of the biggest media conglomerates in South Korea, represents the opinions of the Korean government. Shen Yun’s performers practice Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline persecuted and smeared by the Chinese Communist Party. Allowing Shen Yun to perform at KBS Hall, the embassy’s threats stated, would damage Sino-Korean relationships, and KBS might find itself suddenly unable to do business with Chinese sponsors and companies. Both KBS and the Korean court system yielded.
I am a dancer. My wish is to express my art to the audience and to share the beauty of classical Chinese dance and traditional culture, as well as the universal values of truth, compassion, and tolerance. More than our missed opportunity to perform in Seoul, I feel for the thousands of people who bought tickets. Perhaps they are the ones who lose most, as their justice system places business transactions above free expression.
If we understand why Shen Yun encounters this kind of resistance in so many places where we perform, we can see where the real threat lies. There is a body of power out there that will go to all lengths to stop Shen Yun from sharing our version of hope and humaneness. If even a democracy’s justice system yields to these kinds of threats, what does that say about the future of the arts?