Move Over Prozac, Shen Yun’s in Town

Shen Yun performance showcasing the flowing sleeves of ancient Chinese court dancers, known as 'water sleeves.' (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)
Shen Yun performance showcasing the flowing sleeves of ancient Chinese court dancers, known as 'water sleeves.' (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

Could Shen Yun Performing Arts be an antidote for depression?

I had planned to go see Shen Yun Performing Arts for the first time and was excited about it, but when the day rolled around, I woke up depressed. I had been depressed on and off lately and didn’t know why. So I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay home and binge-watch Netflix and eat chocolate. Another obstacle was the fact that the theater was a two-hour drive away.

But I forced myself to go because I didn’t want to waste the pricey ticket I had bought, plus I was meeting a friend there. She had seen Shen Yun before and raved about how much she liked it, and I wanted to see it for myself. Thankfully, it was the matinee we were going to, so at least I wouldn’t have to drive home late at night.

Color and music

The first thing that struck me after the curtain rose was the colors. The women wore an array of pinks, greens, purples, yellows, and oranges, and although I suppose they were just regular colors, they seemed more vibrant than normal somehow, as if with an inner glow. The colors in the men’s costumes were more muted, which accentuated the vibrancy of the women’s costumes even more. The various backdrops for each piece were also richly colorful. Anyway it was all very pleasing to the eye.

The music also made an impression on me because for one thing, it was just so good, and for another, it was different. I had read the program booklet before the show started and learned that the orchestra combines Western and Chinese instruments, with the Western instruments forming the base and the Chinese leading the melody. I’m no expert on orchestral music, but I found this sound to be not only full and resonant, but also clean and airy and light. That’s the only way I can describe it.

orchestra

The Shen Yun Orchestra blends traditional Chinese and Western instruments. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

But what surpassed everything for me was the solo erhu performance. I just couldn’t get over the beauty and expressiveness of that instrument, which was introduced to China in the 10th century, according to the emcees. It was beyond sublime. It has only two strings, but produces a wide range of sounds. It has a mournful tone to it too, so of course I cried.

I cried often throughout the show actually, but I wasn’t sad, just moved. There were also lots of funny bits that had me giggling along with the rest of the audience.

Depression disappears

Then there was the expertise of the dancers. Everything seemed perfectly done. I have a keen eye for flaws in things, but I couldn’t see any here. The female dancers were graceful even when they did jumps and spins, and at other times seemed to float as they did their little heel-to-toe steps across the stage. In contrast, the male dancers were very athletic and manly.

I think this perfection served to heighten the overall experience, as did the spiritual elements in the show. They added an unfamiliar but interesting dimension. Like for instance, how Chinese culture was said to be handed down from the heavens and is therefore imbued with the ancient Chinese tradition of reverence for and faith in the divine. Or how it explores the meaning and purpose of life through some of the dance pieces and in the song lyrics.

The other thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a kind of energetic force coming from the performers. I could sense it, and I wondered later if it had an effect on me because on the drive home, I was in a completely different state than on the way there.

In fact, after the show, I felt lighthearted, even elated, and the depression was nowhere to be found. Needless to say, this piqued my interest and I wanted to know more, so the next day I did a bit of research online and made some interesting discoveries.

Healing power of music

The first place I went was the Shen Yun website, where I learned that Chinese culture began with the Yellow Emperor over 5,000 years ago. He was a cultivator of the Tao, or the Way, and taught his subjects to live in accordance with this Heavenly Way. Later, Buddhism and Confucianism came along, and the beliefs and values imparted by these three faiths are inherent in Chinese culture.

This would account for the spiritual aspect of Shen Yun. And apparently these characteristics also influenced Chinese music, according to an Epoch Times article I came across with comments by Shen Yun conductor William Kuo. Here’s what he had to say:

“Chinese music is imbued with characteristics from that time period. It is filled with this collective aim for sustaining peace in society. Its music is performed for the good of others.”

Comments in the same article by Jingduan Yang, a fourth-generation doctor of traditional Chinese medicine based in New York City, were even more intriguing. He had seen Shen Yun at the Lincoln Center.

He explained that Chinese medicine has identified five major sounds that have a specific impact on the energy of five corresponding organ systems: the liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys.

“When the five sounds are composed in a smooth, balanced fashion, they positively affect the five organ systems and therefore help balance the energy of the human body and improve physical and mental functions,” he said.

“The composers of the music in Shen Yun have worked very hard to follow Chinese classical music, which always emphasises the balance of the sounds. It generates the energy of soothing, moving, warming, and calming.”

Color heals, too

Mr. Yang also said the colors used in the show can have a positive effect on the emotions. He described the colors of the costumes as “strikingly balanced,” while the use of color in the backdrops “comforts and nurtures one’s whole being.”

“If sound and color affect the energy of human organ systems, it will affect human emotions,” he said.

Wow. After reading this, I believed I had the answer as to why my depression lifted after seeing Shen Yun.

And I may not be the only one. Upon visiting the audience feedback section of the Shen Yun website, I learned that it’s common for people to feel the show has a positive effect. Many said they found it uplifting, inspiring, calming, deeply spiritual, felt a renewed sense of hope, etc.

For instance, here’s what Dr. Michael Meister, the Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Finance in Germany, had to say:

“Shen Yun is perfection in everything: the dancing, the songs and the music. The harmony between performers is of the highest degree… I will return home feeling less stressed, more at ease, and [with] a serenity I won’t experience from anything else I can think of. Besides, I will reflect upon what I have seen for a while and know that it will help me understand myself more deeply.”

And this from calligrapher Hsieh Yung-Tien, who saw the show in Taiwan:

“The creativity I saw had the power to change people’s thoughts. The morals in the stories offer Shen Yun audiences inspiration and life wisdom. For me, after I started watching the show, I opened myself up to my family and friends, and was able to embrace them.”

Traditional Chinese meditation

Some also said they felt a special energy, just like I did. According to the website, all the performers practice Falun Dafa, a traditional meditation system rooted in ancient Chinese culture that generates energy. For thousands of years, Chinese artists practiced mediation and cultivated virtue, purity, and goodness in order to create art worthy of the heavens, and Shen Yun artists follow this tradition.

Of course, the healing power of music has long been recognized throughout history, but Shen Yun has it all in one place: the music, the color, and the wisdom, profundity, and excellence of ancient Chinese culture.

So can Shen Yun help with depression? Check it out for yourself. It certainly did for me. I go see it every year now.

Margaret Morrissey is an editor and human rights advocate living in British Columbia, Canada.

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