Where Are the Ancient Arts of China?

Each dance in Shen Yun has a unique story. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts YouTube/Screenshot)
Each dance in Shen Yun has a unique story. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts YouTube/Screenshot)

As Shen Yun Performing Arts continues its world tours showcasing the lost traditions of ancient China, we take a closer look at these arts, their undeniable influence in our world, and the significance of their miraculous revival. To understand where a nation is going, it is important to understand where it has been.

What is China’s traditional culture?

People are becoming more aware that the China of today is neither the China of the past, nor the one of the future. It is evident that the ancient traditions of this land are vast and rich, and their influence on our world is far-reaching.

To understand a nation’s artistic heritage is to understand the deepest values of its people. The thoughts and feelings conveyed in a brushstroke, musical note, or dance represent the ideals and attitudes interwoven into the fabric of a culture, something elusive to the written word.

China’s recorded history began more than 5,000 years ago, making it the oldest on Earth. From the time of the first emperor, the arts have steadily evolved with each succeeding dynasty, bringing new ideas, ideals, and forms of expression.

A Chinese waist drum performance. (Image courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts)

A Chinese waist drum performance. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts YouTube/Screenshot)

Culture is the soul of a nation, with its spiritual aspect being equally as important as physical factors such as race and land. If a country’s civilization is defined by the history of its cultural developments, then it naturally follows that the destruction of that culture leads to the end of the nation.

The traditional Chinese culture sought harmony between man and the universe, and emphasized ethics and morality. It was based on the faiths of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and embodied honesty, kindness, harmony, and tolerance.

Throughout China’s history, despite many invasions and attacks, Chinese culture endured and thrived, and its essence was continuously passed down for 5,000 years.

China’s amazing wealth of traditional performing arts has survived. Carried overseas and nurtured in free countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, the most essential nature of Chinese performing arts has survived, most notably perhaps in the work of Shen Yun Performing Arts.

arts of china Shen Yun DKNY

Donna Karan, fashion designer and creator of the Donna Karan New York (DKNY) clothing line, poses with Christina Li, a principal dancer, at Lincoln Center, New York. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

How Shen Yun is reviving Chinese traditional culture

Shen Yun Performing Arts has worked to bring not only the classical traditions, but their cultural essence, to life on stage. Dances convey deeply spiritual stories about the legends that guided Chinese morality through the centuries, and performers are challenged to not only perfect the form and bearing of the dances, but maintain a purity of purpose as they go about it.

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.

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 art 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.

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

Shen Yun does touch upon the current situation in Mainland China — they are not treated with anger, but with compassion. The overall message is one that awakens you 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-plus 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.

Shen Yun’s program has in-depth contents with meaningful social significance. (Image via Shen Yun Performing Arts YouTube/Screenshot)

Shen Yun’s program has in-depth contents with meaningful social significance. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts YouTube/Screenshot)

The revival of these arts by Shen Yun Performing Arts, a company founded by Chinese artists living outside the mainland, is much more than an act of self-defence.

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 you 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: goodness is worth defending; winning is possible.

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

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.

Watch this video of audience responses to a Shen Yun performance:

To find out more, please visit: Shen Yun Performing Arts official website.

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