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A Chinese Renaissance
Through Falun Gong, people are rediscovering their heritage, and finding joy in sharing it.
Falun Gong Today
It’s frigid this February afternoon. Wind keeps nipping at the cheeks, toes, or whatever it can get hold of.
But there is anticipation in the air, and maybe, even, a humanizing element to the chill. Everyone seems huddled a little closer today. There’s warmth in numbers.
It’s the Chinese New Year, and over a quarter million people are lining the sidewalks of Chinatown, shoulder to shoulder, for the day’s annual parade. Many have traveled from out of state.
For Tracey Zhu, a Connecticut medical doctor, today is something of a thaw, and all she seems to notice is the sun that bathes her and her dance troupe. There’s a joy etched on her face, erupting from beneath her graceful, rhythmic moves.
The occasion is for Zhu and some 400 other Falun Gong joining her in the parade a magical moment.
A Deepening of Roots
Tracey Zhu’s smile runs deep this afternoon.
“When I’m performing, I really enjoy sharing with people the beauty and dignity of ancient Chinese traditions,” she says. “From practicing Falun Gong I’ve come to hold them dear to my heart.”
“It’s not just about doing some dance, but an act of sharing. I want to share that dignity, grace, and har¬mony with the audience.”
For many Falun Gong practitioners like Zhu, cultural performances such as today’s bespeak of a renewal. Of a return.
“Learning Falun Gong, I came to value my own culture more,” says Ying Chen, a 36-year-old systems director. “I was born in China right during the Cultural Revolution and never had much of a connection to Chinese culture.”
Her move to the U.S. at 20 years of age only further severed her from her roots.
“Often Chinese people who do well in American society try to distance themselves with Chinatown and assimilate more to the culture here. But traditional Chinese characteristics are part of me, of my culture, and if I lose those, I lose something valuable—something that gives me strength. I saw that [loss] happening”
Her route back to China, however, didn’t involve overseas flights or genealogy. It consisted of a yoga-like practice, that reaches back to early China.
“It was Falun Gong that did it,” Chen says. “After practicing it a while I discovered that I was getting more in touch with my roots, and I’ve felt empowered by this connection. It not only allows me to excel here in America, but to do so as a Chinese-American who is grounded in my own culture’s traditional values.”
“It’s the best of both worlds.” Chen and others explain that their performances in parades and festivals (Chen plays the flute) give others a chance to connect, too. “I think that through our parades you can see how dignifi ed, virtuous, and cour- teous China’s true culture is. We love to show this to the world.” Chen took up her flute again a few years back, having felt the energy of re-connecting.
Others, like Zhu, have found new meaning in arts they had long since dropped, such as dance, calligraphy, painting, music, and even poetry. But this time around, the performance is different they say. It’s not so much about “self” anymore, but giving—something they attribute to doing Falun Gong. The basis, and quality, is said to be different. And that, Zhu says, is what makes their arts so different.
Bridging Hearts, Cultures
Indeed, here in New York’s Chinatown people seem to be feeling the Falun Gong spirit. This year marked the first time Chinatown parade organizers allowed Falun Gong to participate in the annual parade. Past applications met with disapproval, reportedly under pressure from groups tied to China's Consulate. China, Falun Gong’s homeland, the practice is violently suppressed by the State.
Here in New York the Falun Gong has swelled in popularity over the years. That’s how some 400 practi- tioners came to march in this year’s parade.
But things haven’t always been easy.
“We realized a few years back that many people in Chinatown didn’t understand us. They had read and heard too much nonsense from China’s government, which is trying to wipe out Falun Gong,” says Yun Song of Manhattan.
“I think they were confused, and led to think Falun Gong was something weird, or bad. They lost sight of the ancient culture that it comes from.” In that past culture, however, lay the answer to present tensions.
“So we wanted to show people the beau- ty and depth of Falun Gong, and that it’s a part of our shared culture. Parades were a nice, friendly setting to do that.”
And so it was that the two parties’ shared heritage proved just the right bridge. Importantly, that heritage is what Falun Gong is all about.
“The practice is deeply rooted in the an- cient Chinese world,” offers Erping Zhang, a Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “The idea that a person can do ‘self-cultivation’ to physically and mentally remake himself into someone more whole, healthy, or en- lightened—that idea is very basic, very key, to Chinese culture.”
Many have made the same connection. Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, declared once that, “Falun Gong represents the very best of Chinese culture and values.”
But tragically, before Falun Gong came along, much of that traditional culture was lost, Zhang explains. Beijing’s Communist rulers felt threatened by it.
“They wanted to do away with tradition and Chinese heritage, because to them it undermined or competed with their [Euro- pean] Marxist ideology, which was not in any way Chinese.”
“That ideology wasn’t rooted in China or its traditions,” Zhang says, “and so it had to be pushed on people, drilled into them.”
A Lost Splendor
Renewed For Kevin Wu, a New Jersey software engineer, Falun Gong’s cultural perfor- mances restore something lost.
“We’re bringing to life the essence of China’s rich culture and showing it to the world,” says Wu. “We are showing people the true China.”
The parades began with drum troupes, like the one Wu is part of. Waist drums, dating back several millennia in China, were a natural choice: they resonated with people.
Soon, along came traditional dress and costume, with styles tracing back to China’s legendary Tang Dynasty—a period of tremendous cultural ferment.
Their colors and elegant cuts stir not just onlookers, participants admit. “They’re just so beautiful,” says one dancer, holding up her multi-hued sleeve of purple pastels. She volunteers that she was one of the fi rst Falun Gong practi- tioners to don Tang garb for parades and fairs. “People don’t create things this beautiful anymore.”
Dance, often choreographed by the performers and rehearsed for weeks, was a natural extension. With time many in New York’s Chinatown and beyond came to see their Falun Gong compatriots anew. Not only fellow Chinese seemed to appreciate the rich cultural performances. So too did Americans. “This group is bringing the entire parade to a much higher level. They’re bringing the whole thing up,” said one African-American spectator. Another parade-goer mirrored that sentiment.
“They’re bringing people together, to be peaceful… the world needs more of this.” Perhaps the most unlikely affi rmation, though, has come in the form of accolades. Close to thirty times now Falun Gong groups have won parade honors. From fi rst prize in San Diego’s St. Patrick’s day parade to “best art design” in Boston and multiple awards in Minnesota, the support has been a welcome surprise.
“What’s really meaningful about it,” according to Song, “is that it says we’re part of this [American] culture too, and have something to share with it as Chinese, and as Falun Gong. I think Falun Gong has made us all more giving, and people can sense that energy.”
Song can’t hold back a grin as she goes on. “It also helps people see through the Chinese government’s propaganda… I mean, really, who in their right mind would think ladies who like to do fan dance are ‘jeopardizing social stability’?”
Few, it would seem. At least judg- ing from responses at the last “West Indies” parade.
“They are always welcome here,” said one woman as the Falun Gong group passed by. Another echoed that feeling. “They don’t have to say anything, just look at them: they are good.”
Another onlooker could have looked into Tracey Zhu’s heart, it seemed.
“Look at their dignity,” a gentle- man in his fifties offered.
“They’re not like ‘look at me, look at me’ but just the opposite. They are saying ‘here, this is all that I have and I am sharing it with you.’”
That sharing, the Falun Gong say, is something they plan to continue for a long time. It’s their heritage, after all.
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