“BYU’s Young Ambassadors Delight Thousands in China,” Ensign, Oct. 1979, 76–77
The message was love, sprinkled with Mandarin. And the response was remarkable.
When twenty Brigham Young University performers traveled to China in July, they took 1,000 pounds of lighting equipment and a message of brotherhood. They went on faith, without a schedule of performances. But when the two-week Chinese segment of their four-week tour was over, their preparation and goodwill had taken them before some 17,000 Chinese people.
From the BYU Young Ambassadors’ arrival in China July 3 to their departure July 16, they performed in major halls in Peking, Shanghai, Hangchow, and Canton. They staged nine formal shows and numerous informal, impromptu performances. Millions may hear the group through radio broadcasts of their show, taped by radio stations in four cities.
Long hours of study and rehearsal began weeks before the tour started. Once the tour was approved, the performers were tutored intensively in Chinese language and customs. While the group did not have time to learn written Mandarin, they did learn enough spoken Mandarin to introduce the numbers in their show, to sing some selections in Mandarin, and to converse with Chinese people they met. The preparation paid off.
The performers chosen for the tour were among the most seasoned from several BYU performing groups. Most were veterans of at least one foreign tour with a BYU entertainment group. Most had returned in June from a six-week tour of Poland and Germany or of Canada. The selections the composite Young Ambassadors China group put together were upbeat and varied. They prepared ethnic folk selections and Broadway tunes, mixed with popular songs, an Indian hoop dance, Samoan slap dance, and a Hawaiian fire-and-knife dance.
“The tour was immensely successful,” says Dr. Stephen Durrant, associate professor of Asian and Slavic languages who tutored and traveled with the group. “The Chinese people were most impressed that our group had taken time to learn Mandarin.” Audiences not only applauded, but gave standing ovations and clapped “with their hands held high above their heads.” The Chinese seemed as delighted with the Mandarin introductions as with the numbers themselves, Brother Durrant says.
The first performance, at the Peking Minorities Institute, was a test. Other performances on the tour were scheduled on the basis of that first show’s success. Obviously it was successful, since the group went on to perform in every major concert hall in the four cities they visited. Sometimes Chinese artists’ performances were canceled so that the Young Ambassadors could perform.
The tour included performances at the Peking Music Conservatory, the Red Tower Theater in Peking, and at the Forbidden City concert hall. Several of those performances were before the most talented, trained musicians in the country, many of them “bona fide musical geniuses,” says Bruce L. Olsen, who traveled with the group in his position as assistant to BYU President Dallin H. Oaks.
“It was amazing to me to see the response,” says Brother Olsen, “and a tribute to the Spirit of the Lord to see the way the musical elite of China responded to the performances.”
The Chinese government had been reluctant to schedule performances, possibly because of negative experiences with other United States performers whose shows had been embarrassing to the conservative Chinese people. Before any Young Ambassadors shows were staged, the lyrics and symbolism of the songs were reviewed by Chinese tour guides.
While even the informal shows received enthusiastic receptions, some of the greatest warmth came from person-to-person relationships. As the group traveled, members conversed with Chinese people on trains, in buses, in hotels, and in restaurants virtually everywhere they went. One of the tour guides told tour director Randy Boothe that he had never seen such an outpouring of friendship. The other tour guide cried as she gave a formal farewell speech.
Sometimes the performers met Chinese who had, years ago, been acquainted with Christianity. (One performer, Ken Sekaquaptewa, met his Chinese grandfather for the first time in Shanghai.) For many Chinese, the Young Ambassadors were the first United States performers—and certainly the first members of the Church—they had seen. They may not be the last: the Young Ambassadors have been invited back.