Shen Yun Performing Arts is as much history as anything else. Just as in texts depicting Chinese history, Shen Yun brings history to life. (Shen Yun Performing Arts)

Something too often overlooked when we discuss Shen Yun Performing Arts is how its stories make history tangible.

For music lovers, Shen Yun moves you. For those interested in classical dance, Shen Yun is premier. For those who value storytelling, spirituality, diversity, costumes, colors, wisdom—Shen Yun embodies artistic vision.

With this array, it’s easy to miss the meaningful amount of history presented in every performance. The colors, storylines, and tones make it easy to neglect the whizzing arrows of time laid out to us. The more obvious historical offerings are easier to catch. You will learn, for example, that the age of the Chinese two-stringed violin, called an erhu, is roughly 4,000 years old. You’ll learn about some of the characters in the 500-year-old novel Journey to the West. Or you might take special note of some stories more familiar to the Western palate, like those depicting Hua Mulan, a female warrior from the fifth or sixth century.

But there’s so much more to learn about the history revealed in Shen Yun. It’s an entire history lesson, in fact, with each two-to-three-minute vignette offering insights into bygone times, generals, literature, heroes and heroines, emperors and dynasties, myths and legends, ethnic traditions, philosophies, tragedies, and villains.

5,000 Years as Shen Yun’s Backdrop

These Shen Yun history lessons function more like interactive history books. They are like a set of Encyclopedia Britannica where each page flows into timelines made of live music and dancers depicting Mongolia or Tibet or the Silk Road and the Caves of Dunhuang.

Chinese culture, however, often seems inaccessible to the Western mind. Be it Chinese logograms, instruments, or food, the differences between the outward features of the Chinese civilization and our Western worldview are stark. You add in the daunting length of Chinese history, and we stand before a culture seemingly impossible to enter.

But it’s mystical, and we want to know more about its allure. We just don’t always know where to begin.

And this key facet is what makes Shen Yun Performing Arts so important: it takes 5,000 years of historical richness and gives us a frame of reference to comprehend it more simply. Shen Yun covers historical moments in brief-yet-dynamic ways, all the while satisfying our modern sensibilities in need of crisp visuals and technology.

In short, Shen Yun gives us the chance to grasp something that otherwise feels incomprehensible. Shen Yun’s stagecraft spans 5,000 years of history in a digestible way for our modern world. An incredible feat. Take the United States, for example, which was founded not even 300 years ago in 1776. Yet, when we picture George Washington or Abigail Adams, we picture an entire world apart from where we are, be it technologically, scientifically, or emotionally. To fathom all that’s happened even in a mere 250 years requires more memory power and research time than most of us have.

Knowing Shen Yun Means Understanding Today

And yet Shen Yun presents even more years, using but a stage and some dancers, to represent a perplexing amount of time. Not only does Shen Yun construct a frame of reference for understanding an intricate passage of time, but it also provides another basic premise underlying the value of knowing history: that understanding history helps us understand today.

Yet history keeps piling up. Each day as the history of time grows longer, our ability to take it all in becomes ever challenged. That’s one of the reasons why a genuine view of history always seems so lacking: time keeps moving, and the layers of meaning, people, dates, and places become richer and more complex, and thus further from us.

One little insight into a key moment in history, therefore, can help us frame some context for our understandings of the world today. For example, knowing how Russian author Leo Tolstoy influenced Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jane Addams gives us simultaneous insight into Indian history, civil rights in America, and the formation of the ACLU and women’s suffrage. Minor insights framed well offer a legitimate outline, a heuristics, for understanding something broad and complex—like Chinese history—in a simple and honest way.

Ancient Chinese Worlds

In this vein, when Shen Yun helps us understand the story of Lao Zi and how he created the Dao De Jing, we can appreciate the significance of spiritual cultivation within Chinese civilization. When we understand a tiny bit about the “Immortal Poet” Li Bai, we gain intellectual access to Chinese poets and periods like the Tang Dynasty, and even other elements of Chinese poetry such as calligraphy.

Other Shen Yun stories teach of the Han Dynasty and the emergence of the Three Kingdoms, for example—all fundamental elements of Chinese dynastic history and where China sits politically today.

Another, the Qing, the last Chinese dynasty, was once led by one of China’s greatest emperors, Kangxi. One of Shen Yun’s stories portraying Kangxi, “Defending the Throne,” displays key historical elements such as the imperial dragon robes, which date back to the Tang Dynasty. Surveying Chinese dynasties through Shen Yun provides a vital frame for accessing Chinese history in a straightforward way.

Through just one insight in the long history of China, we are invited to participate in the grander chronology of the Middle Kingdom. Each impression of Chinese culture is linked to many larger insights rooted in antiquity, all of which can teach us something about our world today.

Considering the length of time comprising Chinese history, one of Shen Yun’s greatest feats is making that history both accessible and exciting. And after each performance, we walk away more reflective historians of an ancient culture.

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