“After I found out the true meaning of the story, in that performance I could very clearly express it through my movements.”
Eden Zhu has been a dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts since age 14. It is the only dance company in the world that has made its mission the revival of traditional Chinese culture, which embodies divine grace in the human world. Though she grew up in a household steeped in the arts — she was taught piano from age 5, and began her training in dance soon after — Zhu says that it was only after moving from China to the United States that she grasped the deeper meaning of the culture that had surrounded her since youth. In New York, among like-minded peers, she discovered that her culture’s inner secrets were about moral elevation, living a life of virtue — not the showiness that is often presented today. When Zhu trains and performs, she connects with the profundity of the old folk tales that are passed down.
Classical Chinese dance, Zhu explains, has the phrase: “Start from the heart, bring out from the core.” It means that once a performer knows what she wants to express, she begins from the core of her body and transforms her thoughts into dance movements.
Zhu’s journey into the heart of her culture has brought her to the realization that her thoughts should be built on a foundation of goodness. “Our classical Chinese teacher teaches us that if one wants to do great things, three conditions are needed: the mandate of heaven, virtuous conduct, and talent.” The sense that her destiny is arranged, and that doing her job well means acting with virtue wherever she goes, now guides her life.
She says this spiritual reservoir has been neglected in her homeland. “‘Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trust,’” classical Confucian virtues, widely-known in China, “may still be written in the textbooks, but modern Chinese people don’t really recognize the values of traditional culture.” The modern Chinese education system regards China’s traditions, such as belief in the existence of gods and heaven, as “feudal superstition,” she says. And while ancient China is often portrayed as bleak, hopeless, and an oppressive and backward society just waiting for revolution, Zhu begs to differ, having discovered a colorful and diverse society in the pages of literature.
“Contrary to what I was taught in school, the ancients passed to us so much wonderful heritage,” she said, referring in part to artists such as Wang Xizhi, with his calligraphic poems. It was said that he and 42 of his learned peers would compose poetry while engaging in a race-against-the-clock drinking contest. His “Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion,” remains one of China’s most revered pieces of writing and is copied by aspiring calligraphers to this day.
It is this celebration of cultural legacy that Shen Yun’s dancers and expressive East-meets-West-style orchestra bring to life with grace, humanity, and humor, Zhu feels.
She is honoured, she said, to be among talented and dedicated colleagues. “When we’re onstage dancing in locations around the world, I feel a very righteous, very pure energy that is incomparably strong. I want to pass on this power to everyone.”
Text by William A. Reeves
Photography by Larry Dai