My siblings and I took my parents to the Radio City Music Hall "Chinese New Year Splendor" show out of a mix of nostalgia and excitement. Nothing had spelled America more to my Chinese immigrant parents than Radio City's Christmas show, and we were all looking forward, first of all, to revisiting the Art Deco bathrooms. Also, though, we were looking forward to seeing something we never could have imagined when I was growing up: something "Chinese" on the Great Stage. It's true we had never pined for "representation" in such venues; if you gave my father a choice between people who looked like us and the real-live camels of the Christmas pageant, I'm sure he would pick the camels. If you gave him a choice between the typically Asian-legged and the Rockettes, too--well. Still, how amazing to imagine the stage populated with the former, just this once.
Most of the show was the sort of boilerplate Chinese entertainment we might have found on a cruise ship--one part flowing sleeves, one part Intro to Chinese History and Culture. The founding of Chinese culture by the Yellow Emperor 5,000 years ago. The story of the woman warrior, Mulan. Happy minority dances from happy places like Tibet. No bare leg. The Divine Performing Arts group did seem to place more emphasis on the "divine" in their name than one might have anticipated: The Yellow Emperor was flanked by buddhas and bodhisattvas; and, in another number (a most Chinese version of the Prometheus myth), poor earthlings trying to jot things down with chisels were suddenly granted a miraculous "system upgrade" (as the announcer put it). First, an erstwhile solid mountain opened, James Bond-style. Then out of its maw jetted a bodhisattva bearing--ta-daa--a writing brush! Jetting bodhisattvas were, in general, a theme, as were mountains giving way, with one turning into a heap of rubble--an eerie echo of last year's Sichuan earthquake. Mostly, though, the show was, as my father put it, "chow mein." The pretty music and pretty costumes, well-steeped in "authenticity," made for many a happy Asian and non-Asian face in the sold-out hall, my parents' among them. Then began, to our surprise, a program of Falun Gong Dafa agitprop.
A soprano sang feelingly, "For whom do we brave the elements? ... / Standing on the sidewalk, followers of Dafa / Leaflets in hand born of effort and compassion / For but one purpose: to spare you misfortune / Knowing the true picture, the road ahead will be clear to you ... . / We wish only to share with you a hopeful tomorrow." This was followed, a bit later in the program, by "Heaven Awaits Us Despite Persecution," in which wholesome, golden-shirted Dafa practitioners living peacefully in a village were beaten mercilessly by thugs with red hammer-and-sickles emblazoned on their black jackets. Then came "Dignity and Compassion," in which a Dafa prisoner was tortured but appeared as a bodhisattva to his sleeping torturer, who was then converted and redeemed; a glowing, gold-lit land above the clouds, dotted with pavilions and deities, appeared on an enormous backdrop screen, from which more bodhisattvas came zipping down. The grand finale featured a backdrop of enormous rotating cosmic wheels in front of which danced Dafa practitioners with such uniformly beatific faces that with a few changes of clothing--Red Army uniforms for the men, for example, instead of golden shirts and khaki pants--they could have been a dance troupe in the Cultural Revolution.
So much for our great moment of inclusion. Though some in the audience clapped with wild enthusiasm, many clapped, as did we, with an exchange of incredulous looks. "Political stuff," my father commented with a laugh. For myself, I was trying to remember why in the world we'd gotten my parents tickets to this thing instead of, say, South Pacific.
This particular Chinese New Year's show was, of course, part of a more general phenomenon of minorities coming to occupy stages hitherto unimaginable. The Inauguration, with its rich racial panoply, capped an already momentous period that saw, for example, the staging of Toni Morrison's opera, Margaret Garner, in Lincoln Center's New York State Theater in 2007. The event was greeted with such palpable excitement by the many African Americans in the audience that it was impossible not to be moved. And the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics elicited a similar feeling for many Asians and Asian Americans: While I, personally, felt spooked by its exaltation of mass conformity, my mother stood up in front of the television and sang the Chinese national anthem--which, I should say, was hardly typical behavior for her.
I am all for inclusion. At the same time, I do have to wonder if the previously excluded will at times bring more on their coattails than we bargained for. I suspect that, like us, many of the audience members did not realize in advance that their tickets were supporting Falun Gong. (The manager's welcome note in the program does mention that many of the dancers of the troupe are Dafa practitioners, but nothing in its promotional advertising suggested any religious link.) I likewise wonder whether wfas-ny, which advertised the show heavily, or any of the troupe's many supporters (the thank-you list at the back of the program lists some 44 assemblymen, city councilmen, congressmen, and mayors, including Michael Bloomberg) had any idea what was afoot. My guess is that they simply thought, "nice Chinese dance group," and coughed up their blessing.
Meanwhile, this canny arts group now has three large troupes touring worldwide. There is a breathtaking chutzpah to their approach: As my husband observed, it was the first time he found himself paying to be proselytized. Online reactions to the show range from warnings to "avoid, avoid, avoid" this group to ecstatic claims that everything about the show "comes from heaven" and that it will "save us all." My own reaction, besides amazed outrage, included an increased appreciation of why the mainland Chinese government might be leery of Falun Gong. I am, please note, not in favor of its forcible suppression. This is, however, a most worldly otherworldliness, now successfully tapping the West via the large vein that is American ethnic sentimentality: What can a Chinese arts group be, after all, but sweet poor people who of course need a helping hand? As for what inclusion means to them, well: Is not all the world a platform?
Gish Jen is the author of the novels Typical American, Monain the Promised Land, The Love Wife, and Who's Irish?, a book of stories.
By Gish Jen