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Chinese Culture Takes Center Stage
Diplomatic Pouch / January 29, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Zhou Wenzhong, China's ambassador to the United States, beamed with obvious pride as he introduced classical pianist Wu Di onstage.

The event, held Jan. 16, was the first concert ever held in the sprawling new Chinese Embassy — the largest foreign mission in Washington. Co-sponsored by Jerome Barry's Embassy Series, the occasion was marked by the presence of at least 325 diplomats, dignitaries, business leaders and other guests invited to celebrate Sino-American relations.

Before Wu played her first note, however, Zhou called for a moment of silence to remember the 200,000 victims of Haiti's earthquake, which had struck four days earlier. He then told his guests China was "doing everything possible" to provide emergency food, water and relief supplies to Haiti — which curiously is one of the few countries China doesn't recognize, due to Haiti's long-standing relations with Taiwan.

Yet Zhou diplomatically ignored the little irony, and attention soon turned to Wu — a a talented musician who made her professional debut at 14 with the Beijing Philharmonic and came to the United States in 1999. Praised in the Wall Street Journal as "a most mature and sensitive pianist," Wu 's reputation as an elegant yet exciting musician continues to grow.

Winner of a coveted prize at last year's 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Wu has toured widely throughout Asia, Europe and North America. During the 2009-10 season, she's scheduled for a 40-concert tour that's taking her from California to Germany.

At the Chinese Embassy concert, she made the Steinway D grand piano come alive (the Steinway & Sons Piano Gallery at Virginia's Tysons Corner Center was one of the evening's chief corporate patrons).

Wu opened with Clara Schumann's Mazurka, then launched right into "Davidsbündlertănze" (loosely translated as "Dances for King David's Motley Crew") by Clara Schumann's famous husband, the German composer Robert Schumann.

After intermission, Wu played "Miroirs" by French composer Maurice Ravel and concluded with "Parapharse on a Waltz" from Franz Liszt's popular opera Gounod's Faust.

Only three days after Wu's concert at the Chinese Embassy, the Kennedy Center kicked off a musical and dance extravaganza showcasing 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture. But this time, Ambassador Zhou was nowhere in sight.

The show by Shen Yun Performing Arts — which ran Jan. 19-24 — is blatantly anti-communist and, to be perfectly frank, puts the modern-day People's Republic of China in a horrible light.

Its program includes dazzlingly choreographed routines with titles such as "Mongolian Hospitality," "Fairies of the Clouds" and "Tibetan Dance of Praise."

Emceed by Jared Madsen and Kelly Wen — who engaged in lighthearted bilingual banter, he in English, she in Chinese — the colorful program covers the entire spectrum of Chinese history from the Shang dynasty of 1500 B.C. to the communist revolution of 1949, and life in present-day China.

This month's run at the Kennedy Center marked the third appearance of what its promoters call "a brilliant blend of beauty, energy, serenity and grace" in less than a year. The January performance is part of Shen Yun's 2010 World Tour, which will tke it to 100 cities in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Virtually all the performers are members of Falun Gong, a form of self-cultivation also known as Falun Dafa, whose practicioners regularly exercise in public parks and periodically stage protests condemning their persecution by Chinese authorities.

As such, Shen Yun's message is not exactly subtle. At one point, baritone Qu Yue sings "A Message to the World," whose verses translate as follows: "Stepping into this mundane world, one assumes a human body / centuries of reincarnation, awaiting the Lord / Painful it was to await the sacred day / But the will held firm / Quietly I watch this turbulent world / as the Red Regime sinks."

But wait, it gets even more graphic.

In "Nothing Can Block the Divine Path," choreographed by Michelle Ren with music by Junyi Tan, a peace-loving mother and daughter are minding their own business, doing Falun Dafa exercises in a park, when masked policemen wearing huge hammer-and-sickle emblems on the backs of their black trenchcoats beat the helpless women with nightsticks, then drag them to a detention center where the mother is tortured to death.

However, as the program notes point out, "this tragedy does not go unnoticed, as the heavens are watching" and the family is rewarded with eternal happiness in paradise.

Ambassador Zhou and his colleagues are not amused in the least. The Chinese Embassy website calls the Kennedy Center performance nothing but cult propaganda characterized by "tacky taste and low artistic standards."

"Clearly, the so-called Divine Spectaculars is not a cultural performance at all, but a political tool of Falun Gong to preach cult messages, spread anti-China propaganda, increase its own influence and raise funds," it says. "It blasphemizes and distorts Chinese culture, and deceives, fools and poisons the audience."

The website urges potential concergoers to "kindly stay away from this so-called Divine Spectacular so as not to be misled and taken advantage of."

It's a pretty safe bet that Ambassador Zhou — who finishes his tour of duty here next month — will also skip two local performances by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.

"Moon Water," scheduled for Jan. 29 and 30 at the Kennedy Center, is sponsored by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan's equivalent of an embassy here. The title of the show refers to the Buddhist proverb "Flowers in a mirror and moon on the water are both illusory."

Cloud Gate was established by Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min in 1973. It is world-renowned for its sophisticated blend of traditional Asian mythology, folklore and aesthetics with modern sensibility and technique. The troupe has earned global acclaim, with the Berlin Ballet International describing it as "not only on par with the modern dance companies of the Old World and the new, but perhaps even beyond."

So far, the Chinese Embassy website hasn't said a word about "Moon Water." But given Cloud Gate's politically charged history in light of 60 years of tensions between mainland China and Taiwan — which Bejing sees as a breakaway province — Pouch doubts the ambassador would give "Moon Water" rave reviews.

In fact, "Legacy," Cloud Gate's first full-length production, portrayed familes which had left mainland China and emigrated to Taiwan over 400 years ago. According to one reviewer, "this siding with Taiwan was continued in 1997" with "Portrait of the Families," which was aesthetically a declaration of independence by presdentation of modern dance.

"On a screen serving as a backdrop for dancers, there was a range of interviews leading from the Japanese colonization 100 years earlier to the massacre of islanders by the Kuomintang troops which had fled from Mao to the island in 1947," says the review. "In 1990, Lin Hwai-min reacted with Requiem, a solo performance for Lo Man-fei, a former dancer of Cloud Gate and the founding artistic director of Cloud Gate 2, to the massacre on Tiananmen Square."

Says TECRO: "Please come and watch this remarkable team of dancers as they reveal the interplay of yin and yang, real and unreal, effort and effortlessness and, ultimately, a study of time itself."

For more information, visit the troupe's website at http://www.cloudgate.org.tw.

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