A look into the mysterious roots of Shen Yun: Is the Morrison Center unknowingly hosting a front for a cult?

Illustration by Sydney Smith

You’ve likely seen pamphlets or billboards around the Treasure Valley titled “SHEN YUN.” This year, the show’s motto is “China Before Communism,” with advertised images of a woman leaping through the air in a bright pink traditional Chinese dress and long baby blue water sleeves. 

But what the billboards don’t show is the new religious movement behind Shen Yun’s founding, cult accusations, controversial statements made by the group’s leader and a money trail that leads back to Cuddebackville, New York.

The Morrison Center in Boise hosted Shen Yun on Feb. 18 and 19. The Morrison Center told The Arbiter that since 2016, they’ve hosted the performance six times, the one exception being in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

According to the Morrison Center, Shen Yun’s rental expenses over the two days amounted to around $51,000.

Shen Yun is a non-profit started in 2006 by practitioners of the new religious movement, Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa). They host dance performances in major cities from America, to Europe and Asia. 

Falun Gong founder Hongzhi Li lives at the 400-acre Dragon Springs compound in New York, where Shen Yun is based.

Li has sparked controversy over his public remarks, once saying in a speech that heaven is segregated by race and disputed the theory of evolution. The Falun Dafa Info website claims that the Falun Gong practice has “showed marked or complete recovery,” of illnesses such as cancer.

Cult expert Rick Alan Ross has raised concerns over the Falun Dafa group promoted by the show, the leader behind Falun Dafa and how much the dancers are being paid. Ross, the executive director of the Cult Education Institute, spoke with The Arbiter by phone about why he believes Falun Gong meets the criteria of being a cult. 

[Illustration of a Shen Yun dancer performing in front of a line of Falun Gong practitioners.]
Illustration by Sydney Smith

Ross has testified as an expert in court on authoritarian groups in 11 states, including United States Federal Court. Of his 40 years of work in the field, Ross spent more than a decade working with over 50 former Falun Gong members and their families.

Ross is the author of the book “Cults Inside Out: How People Get in and Can Get Out” which includes a chapter dedicated to Falun Gong. He called the Shen Yun dance performance a “cash cow,” with Li generating an enormous amount of money. Ross said he has received repeated complaints from families that say Li pays the dance performers “very little.”

“They are essentially devoted to him, devoted to believing in him, believing in his claims about his spiritual unique superiority, so they give their lives to who they call Master Li,” Ross said.

A volunteer and representative for the Falun Dala Information Center, Larry Liu, spoke with The Arbiter by phone on March 9. He vehemently denied the idea that Falun Gong is a cult and said the label stems from a propaganda campaign waged by the Chinese government. 

Shen Yun comes to Boise 

According to ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer, Shen Yun Performing Arts Inc. posted a revenue of $33,236,932 in 2019, which was the latest year available. The documents show the group is based in Cuddebackville, New York, with total assets in 2019 listed at $144,328,349. 

The Arbiter attended one of Shen Yun’s three performances at the Morrison Center. Before resell prices, tickets ranged from $80 to $150 on Shen Yun’s website. 

After passing through security and admission, directly to the left of the entrance sat a table with books, videos and a streaming service for sale. One book read “Falun Gong,” written by Li. 

On the table, pink and yellow ornaments attached to a lotus flower read “FALUN DAFA IS GOOD,” with small pamphlets on the edge of the table offering free online lessons that read “FALUN DAFA (Falun Gong) A Traditional Self-Cultivation Practice to improve Mind and Body.”

Right next to the merchandise stand sat a news organization by the name of New Tang Dynasty (NTD).  According to NBC news, NTD is an affiliate of the Epoch Media Group, which includes the conservative media giant The Epoch Times, who have come under fire for advancing misinformation on their platforms.

NTD interviewed audience members about the show, later running the headline “Boise Audience Calls Shen Yun Beautiful, Powerful, Amazing.” Interviewees at the Boise productions included multiple business owners and state Rep. Brent Crane, R–ID. 

Li once referred to The Epoch Times and NTD as “our media,” while speaking to Falun Gong “disciples.” 

So what is Falun Gong? Who is Hongzhi Li? What does Falun Gong have to do with Shen Yun? Is the Morrison Center unknowingly hosting a show that works as a front for a cult?

What is Falun Gong/Falun Dafa?

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, started in 1992 by the proclaimed “Master” Hongzhi Li. 

A Washington Post report in which Li was interviewed, translated Falun Gong as “Law Wheel Great Way,” saying that it refers to Li’s belief that he uses telekinesis to implant a wheel of energy in his follower’s stomachs, “a miniature version of the cosmos that is always spinning. The wheel, he said, keeps the person’s energy aligned, making him physically and spiritually healthy.”

In a definition directly from a Falun Dala representative, Liu said the core teachings of Falun Gong center on assimilating the principles of “truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance” in their daily lives.

External research shows that Falun Gong also holds a mixture of beliefs and practices pertaining to Buddhism, Taoism, qigong breathing practices, anti-communism and a variety of stories from the founder regarding aliens.

In a series of answers, Li told Time in 1999 that aliens from “other planets” introduced modern machinery and science with the “ultimate purpose to replace humans” with clones, while introducing legislation to stop human reproduction.

When Time Magazine asked Li if he was human, he said, “You can think of me as a human being,” after being asked if he was from earth, Li said that he didn’t wish to talk about himself at a “higher level,” since people wouldnt understand. 

Li would later tell The Washington Post that his quotes regarding aliens using cloning technologies to take over earth were meant as metaphors to ancient Buddhist thought. 

In a 1996 speech, Li talked about how homosexuality was not permitted by “the principles of heaven,” dismissed evolutionary theory and said that “The races in the world are not allowed to be mixed up.”

When asked about Li’s comments regarding race, Liu told The Arbiter that Falun Gong teachings do not promote racial discrimination and that Li’s comments on aliens are not important to the core principles of Falun Gong. 

Similarly to Li’s reputation with the media, the Falun Gong leader has an adverse relationship with the Chinese government. However, the group was viewed much differently at the beginning of its life.

[The Shen Yun dance and music company rehearses at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. The group was founded by practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline, which is banned in China.]
Photo courtesy of Rick Loomis

Falun Gong initially had a cordial relationship with the Chinese government. According to the Falun Dafa Info Center, in 1993, the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Public Security praised Li for his contributions “in promoting the traditional crime-fighting virtues of the Chinese people, in safeguarding social order and security, and in promoting rectitude in society.”

A New York Times report from April 1999 detailed how 10,000 followers of Li’s gathered in a silent protest outside of the Zhongnanhai government building in Beijing. During this time period, the Chinese government estimated some 70 million practitioners of Falun Gong, while Li placed his estimate at 100 million. 

The New York Times and Washington Post referred to Li’s followers at the time as a “cult.” 

In 1999, Li would be labeled a criminal by the Chinese government and the group itself would be outlawed under an anti-cult law. By this time, Li had already immigrated to the United States.

In the Shen Yun programme, a picture of a man with sunglasses listed only by the initials “D.F.” is credited as Shen Yun’s artistic director, costume designer and founder. Page 25 of the programme listed U.S. Patent No. 9,468,860, “Invention by Shen Yun’s Artistic Director D.F.”

According to the U.S.Patent Public Search database, the applicant and inventor of this patent is Hongzhi Li, from Cuddebackville, New York — showcasing a direct tie between Li and the dance project, which the programme appears to hide. 

Despite hosting Shen Yun performances six times, the Morrison Center told The Arbiter that they were not familiar with Falun Gong or Hongzhi Li. Shen Yun did not respond to The Arbiter’s multiple requests for comment by email.

Cult Allegations 

Family members of Falun Gong members, cult counselors and cult experts have called Falun Gong a cult. The Falun Gong denies this characterization, saying it stems from the Communist Party of China.

Liu said calling Falun Gong a cult is used to justify further persecution of the group in China, persecution which Liu described as a “genocide.”

But family members of practicing Falun Gong followers with no connections to the Chinese government have also called the group a cult. 

A man named Samuel Luo sent a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Sentinel in 2006 calling the group a cult while claiming that his parents refused life-saving medical treatment due to being “brainwashed into believing Li Hongzhi.”

“Last year when the International Cultic Studies Association organized a program on the Falun Gong in which I was one of the presenters, the Falun Gong threatened the organization with a lawsuit and successfully suppressed our freedom of speech,” Luo wrote in the letter.

Ross said that in his opinion, he considered Falun Gong to be a cult because it fits three core characteristics of a destructive cult.

The three core characteristics Ross referenced are based on the published work of Harvard psychologist Robert J. Lifton, who studied cults. The first core characteristic is an authoritarian leader with no meaningful accountability who becomes an object of worship, Ross said Li fits this description.

[Angelia Wang, pictured, is the principal dancer of Shen Yun.]
Photo courtesy of Rick Loomis

The second core characteristic is that the group uses identifiable coercive persuasion, thought reform and influence techniques to gain undue influence over the people in the group. The third is the group does harm and is destructive, using the undue influence to exploit and cause harm to people.

Ross said that families will call him who have loved ones living in the Dragon Springs compound who they don’t feel they can communicate with. 

“The complaints that I receive about Falun Gong are consistent, which is family estrangement, social isolation, lack of communication and most disturbingly, people not taking medication and not going to a doctor when they need care,” Ross said.

In the last intervention Ross conducted, a young diabetic father almost died because he refused to take insulin due to thinking Falun Gong practices would cure his diabetes. The intervention worked and the man would eventually agree to regularly take his insulin, according to Ross. 

This practitioner’s experience was contradicted by Liu’s statement that Falun Gong does not prohibit or discourage taking medicine.

“It’s each individual’s choice whether or not to see a doctor and take medicine, just as one has the choice between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine,” Liu said.

Another aspect Ross finds disturbing about Falun Gong and Shen Yun specifically is the lack of financial transparency regarding how much the Li family profits and pays performers.

Liu also disputed the claims by Ross that Li profits from his position as Falun Gong’s leader, or that people are isolated from their families. 

“Practicing Falun Gong involves meditation, but not worshiping. And Falun Gong, completely free to learn, doesn’t have binding membership. Every person feels free to come and go,” Liu said.

”The Day of Judgment Draws Nigh”

To a casual observer, the promotion of Falun Gong could be easily missed in the bright colors, orchestra music, impressive choreography and cheerful hosts. When one performer sang about end times, the day of judgment and evolution being the devil’s doctrine, audience members appeared unfazed. 

What gets lost in the persistent advertising, colorful billboards and glossy pamphlets that appear in the Boise community year after year is the controversial story behind the performance.

See you next year, Shen Yun.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mike

    The latest financial data can be found https://www.orgcouncil.com/ein/208812402, and Shen Yun Performing Arts Inc. posted a revenue of $30,836,971 in 2021, with the total asset value of more than $196 million.

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