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Shen Yun brings the essence of traditional Chinese culture to life

Shen Yun brings the essence of traditional Chinese culture to life

When Zhuge Liang was given just 10 days to produce 100,000 arrows for battle, it was the year 208 in ancient China, when no machines existed that could help the great military strategist produce so much ammunition in such a short time. But Zhuge Liang, revered as the “embodiment of wisdom” in traditional Chinese culture, had no trouble accomplishing this incredible feat. Indeed, his uncommon wisdom told him he needed only three days, with the help of some large boats and a small army of men.

How he succeeded is a fascinating tale among the many cherished myths and legends passed down through the Middle Kingdom’s 5,000 years of history and culture. It made for a captivating performance of classical Chinese dance against a striking animated backdrop presented by Shen Yun Performing Arts as part of its 2015 global tour.

Shen Yun returns to Toronto in February 2017 for its 11th season, gracing the stage for the first time at the acclaimed Four Seasons Centre. As part of the Canadian tour, it will also perform in Kitchener, Hamilton, and Mississauga starting December 29. The timeless story of Zhuge Liang — from the Chinese classic historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” — is just one of many that have been vividly brought to life by New York-based Shen Yun, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company, since its establishment in 2006.

Along with the richly expressive power of classical Chinese dance, Shen Yun’s innovative digital backdrop charmed theatregoers with its animated setting of the banks of the mighty Yangtze River where the story took place. Converged there, some 1,800 years ago, were the great armies of the three rival states at the time. On the river’s south were the 50,000-strong forces of reluctant allies the Shu and the Wu. North of the Yangtze was the massive Wei army, totalling 800,000 troops.

Zhuge Liang, the brilliant chief strategist of the Shu, had enemies in the Wu camp that wanted to bring him down. They challenged him to get 100,000 arrows ready for war in just 10 days. To their shock, with utter calm and confidence he told them that he really needed only three days. He even agreed to sign a pledge that would see his execution should he fail.

How he prevailed with ease was masterfully depicted through the Shen Yun dancers’ seamless interaction with the action backdrop, which transported theatregoers back in time amid the developments of the amazing story.

In the early morning of the third day, a heavy fog was blanketing the river when Zhuge Liang commanded his fleet to sail toward the enemy’s bank while his soldiers pounded their battle drums. Panicked and blinded by fog, Wei archers fired endless volleys of arrows in the direction of the thunderous sound. But instead of bodies of live men, those arrows lodged in the trunks of figures made of straw — fashioned to capture the sought-after ammunition as well as hide the soldier-drummers in the boats. It was a spectacular presentation of a success story loved by audience members young and old, as Zhuge Liang sailed home victorious with boats laden with arrows “borrowed” from his powerful foe.

Sagas such as this one featured by Shen Yun every year not only display excellent artistry and sophisticated entertainment but also reflect the essence of China’s millennia-old culture. It is this essence rich with wisdom that Shen Yun performers seek to revive and embody through classical Chinese dance.

This essence is characterized by moral values vital to human beings such as honesty and kindness, propriety and tolerance, and the concept of harmony between humanity and the universe. The latter refers to a deep respect toward heaven and earth and respectful relationships between people.

The ancient Chinese believed that by cultivating their character to abide by these virtuous principles, they could gradually transcend the human realm to achieve the Tao, or the Heavenly Way. One would then become an enlightened being able to see and gain access to the full wisdom and truths of the universe.

In the 100,000-arrows story, this harmony and wisdom can be seen well manifested in Zhuge Liang’s ingenuous plan and confidence that he needed just three days to achieve his goal. As an advanced cultivator of the Tao, he had the ability to see things others could not see and accomplish things ordinary people could not accomplish. With his supernormal capability he foresaw the favourable conditions of fog on the third day that became a critical factor for his success.

The Monkey King

Another of Shen Yun’s inspired dances is of the Monkey King. During the Tang Dynasty 1,300 years ago, a gentle, good-looking young monk walked to India on a quest to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China.

Along the way, he met with many trials and tribulations, including demons intent on eating him alive.

It’s a true story, although the literary version made the demons corporeal and added epic adventures.

Monk Tang’s tale is told in the legendary Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” published in the 16th century by poet-author Wu Cheng’en (aka the Sheyang Hermit). It is an adventure story entwined with wisdom born of 5,000 years of civilization, and one of China’s four great classic novels.

Monk Tang set off alone on his dangerous journey and faced many tests — hunger, exhaustion, impassable mountains and rivers, and the lure of lust, fame, and comfort. He was also beset by demons that believed the monk’s flesh offered immortality. Against all odds, Monk Tang succeeded. But how did he make it through?

Monk Tang was basically defenceless against the demons, but as fate would have it, a team of disciples joined along the way to assist when help was most needed. One after another, the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy joined his quest.

The Monkey King was the most capable yet undisciplined and hard to control; Pigsy was lazy, gluttonous, and lustful; and Sandy was dedicated though taciturn and reserved.

The demons would manifest as an elderly man needing help or as an alluring young woman, and often the Monkey King was punished by Monk Tang after killing such demons, as he was the only one in the group who had the magical skills to see through the disguises and not be deceived by the demons’ tricks.

Despite being on the brink of dissolution many times along their arduous journey, the team endured and eventually achieved its mission after a total of 81 tribulations. The novel has many morals that remain relevant today, including how a team can achieve an impossible goal.

In the story, all the disciples were seemingly more talented than their master, yet they were lacking two very important characteristics that their master possessed: vision and perseverance. The story reveals that great teamwork employs the full strengths of all members while making each individual’s weaknesses inconsequential.

As is the case with many great literary works, readers of “Journey to the West” appreciate the novel for different reasons. Some enjoy its abundant action and humour, while others find insight for self-improvement in real life.

But given the subject matter, and the true-life journey the real Monk Tang took to India, the story has a deeper meaning. It tells of the process by which the characters obtained the Tao, or reached spiritual enlightenment, by overcoming numerous trials and hardships. These are not only physical ordeals but, more critically, challenges that temper the heart and will, allowing those who forbear, to reach a higher realm of awareness.

“Journey to the West” is a magical story of impossible feats and profound wisdom. Bringing this to life on stage requires an innovation in performing arts and the very best of an ancient tradition.

Classical Chinese dance was born millennia ago and enriched dynasty after dynasty. It is an art form that includes flips, spins, high-flying jumps and tumbling. With these techniques, a skilled performer can give the Monkey King his due capability, but how to travel 60,000 miles in one somersault, fight demons on the ground, in the sky and underwater, and depict the 72 transformations of the Monkey King? Aiding the storytelling are Shen Yun’s groundbreaking digitally animated backdrops, which serve to extend the action beyond the stage. Dance and scene are synchronized together with an orchestra that includes classical Chinese instruments, creating an experience unlike anything else in the world today.

A story from “Journey to the West” will be featured in the Shen Yun 2017 season, along with ancient myths and legends and the profound cultural and philosophical values of the Middle Kingdom’s 5,000 years of civilization.

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