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Shen Yun, an arts and entertainment company that presents traditional Chinese dance performances, has inspired a meme by… well, being popular. It might be more correct to say ubiquitous. Advertisements for the show are everywhere, both in the physical world and online, and that’s exactly what the memes are about.
The company has performed all over the world, and if you live in any major city in the U.S., you’ve no doubt seen its ads.
Shen Yun was founded in 2006 by former Chinese citizens residing in New York. The founders are all followers of Falun Gong, an ancient Chinese religion that draws on elements of Taoism and Buddhism among other practices. Since 1996, the publication of Falun Gong text has been banned by the Chinese government, which has also tried its best to halt Shen Yun’s performances by putting pressure on local and national governments hosting the group.
The Chinese embassy has issued a statement about the group to the U.S. government that refers to Shen Yun as an “anti-society cult” and claims it’s a “political group that is utterly anti-China and seeks to undermine China-U.S. relations.”
Many attendees of the group’s performances, who go in expecting to see traditional Chinese music and dance, have been surprised by the overtly political nature of the show.
Nicholas Hune-Brown, a writer for the Guardian attended a Shen Yun performance and described the following scene:
The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds – helping an old woman with a cane, chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. But when one unveiled a Falun Gong banner, suddenly a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer-and-sickle entered. The communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong followers.
But while the Chinese government has done its best to suppress Shen Yun, the group shows no sign of backing down. In fact, it’s seemingly responded to the pressure with an all-out media blitz, buying up billboard space and social media ads like rich kids in a candy shop.
That’s where the memes come in. Usually memes are based on some inside joke that becomes more and more popular and eventually goes viral, thereby killing the fun and the meme. Even memes based on well-known characters like Spongebob Squarepants or Shrek are actually memes about small niche references to something those characters did—or even a later fan creation based on the original (see Shrek is love, Shrek is life).
In that light, Shen Yun is a bit of a oddity. The meme is all about how oversaturated Shen Yun advertisements already are, and the humor comes from a shared frustration that they seem inescapable.
s2g if I see another shen yun ad pic.twitter.com/iXm3W7YDCw— matt (@matthewhsiung) January 17, 2019
Shen yun is getting pretty ... invasive pic.twitter.com/k1G2xPDxTx— vanessa blah (@myfbstatuses) January 24, 2019
Ps this is a Shen Yun meme account now pic.twitter.com/9WjFBvEVyZ— ag (@unpopulargiant) January 23, 2019
No one:— emily (@squirmytheclown) January 23, 2019
Shen Yun: pic.twitter.com/eRro6eCSCW
the devil works hard but Shen Yun works harder pic.twitter.com/Kmn1jPvIaB— Mrs. Booth Jonathan (@girrl_fieri) January 24, 2019
As one Twitter user pointed out, things couldn’t have gone better for Shen Yun (or worse for the Chinese government). The goal of their media blitz was increase the awareness of their brand, and somehow social media has taken over for them, giving them more exposure then they could have ever paid for.
Shen Yun's perceived ubiquity becoming a viral meme and thus making it more ubiquitous is the greatest marketing trick the devil ever pulled pic.twitter.com/PfoMNoTxpN— Jeremy Childs (@Jeremy_Childs) January 23, 2019
Perhaps the gods are working in their favor?
David Britton is a writer and comedian based in Rhinebeck, New York who focuses on internet culture, memes, and viral news stories. He also writes for the Hard Times and is the creator of StoriesAboutWizards.com.