“Making Friends in China,” Ensign, Oct. 1981, 77–78
It was a hazy afternoon in May. The group of forty-two Brigham Young University folk-dancers and their leaders made their way through a teeming crowd in Peking at the Forbidden City, ancestral home of the Chinese emperors. They passed through the gardens and entered a circular pagoda-styled building called the Pavilion of the Thousand Springs. It was near this place in 1929 that Elder David O. McKay first dedicated China to the work of the Lord.
The group formed a close circle and began to sing hymns, including the Chinese version of “I Am a Child of God.” As they sang, a hush fell on the people outside and they gathered at the windows and doors to watch and listen.
So began a memorable visit to China by the BYU International Folkdancers. They were accompanied by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve, BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland, Bruce Olsen, Assistant to the President and director of University Relations, and their wives.
The five-week tour covered thousands of miles and five major cities of western China, complete with extensive media coverage. Chinese television officials estimated that the dancers were seen by 120 to 150 million people across the People’s Republic of China. “We were told more than once by the Chinese that Brigham Young University was the most famous university in all of China,” said President Holland.
The group used the attention to introduce the Church to many Chinese who had never heard of it before. “We were very open about the Church’s sponsorship of Brigham Young University,” President Holland explained. “We wanted them to know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is interested in brotherhood and the international relationships that religion can foster and encourage. That was our motive. We had no ax to grind politically or economically; we came in the name of love and brotherhood and goodwill.”
Through music and dance and friendship, this performing group was able to reach the Chinese people in unique ways. After a fast-paced show, a traditionally reserved Chinese audience reacted with standing ovations. A Chinese government official remarked to President Holland, “We as a people are touched when your young people work so hard with no apparent motive except friendship.”
Standing in a cold wind blowing through the rugged mountains and gazing at the Great Wall stretching for thousands of miles, Dennis Hill, assistant director of the folkdancers, reflected on the past of these people who make up one-fourth of the world’s population. “If that wall could talk,” he mused, “how much it could say about the history of China!” The wall can’t talk, but the troupe was told that 5,000 years of genealogical records are available in China.
Riding by train through the countryside, the folkdancers were impressed with the immaculate fields. In the cities the streets were choked with people, most dressed in the Mao uniform. Their homes were humble, yet no one appeared hungry or destitute. No pornography was seen; crime seemed almost nonexistent; and the people appeared to have very high standards of morality, honesty, and respect.
“The Chinese people we met were humble, sincere, warm-hearted, and eager to learn,” recalled Debbie Linford of Kaysville, Utah. Added Kim Cooper, a performer from Idaho Falls, Idaho, “President Spencer W. Kimball has talked about the Chinese virtues and how we can learn from them, and he has never been there. But when I saw how perfectly his description fit the people, I realized how keenly the president understands them—and how well God knows his children in China.”
At the Fang Chang Commune near Shanghai, the group was invited to visit an elementary school where the children, five and six years old, performed an entire program of “Christmas around the world.” The young students, recalled Wendy Gibby of Orem, Utah, were “very serious, confident, and well-disciplined.”
Walking down the streets, the folkdancers would often stop to look at something and immediately a crowd would gather about them with eager interest. The folkdancers took advantage of these opportunities. “We couldn’t speak much Mandarin,” said Miss Gibby, “but we smiled. When we would hand out our postcards they smiled, and their eyes would light up.”
Some of the Chinese told performers that they were “different” from other Americans they had seen. A nonmember tourist from New England, riding on the train with the group, remarked to President Holland, “If you had gone to central casting at MGM looking for people to come and say ‘This is young America,’ you couldn’t have been more impressive than to take a group of BYU students.”
At two universities, the folkdancers were grouped with English-speaking Chinese students. Michael Todd, a performer from Alexandria, Virginia, talked to several students who asked him to send Bibles, assuring him that it would be good practice for their English. One young woman questioned him about the Church, was given a Book of Mormon, and confided that she often prays to a God in her mind. “They were supposed to give us a tour of the university,” said Wendy Gibby, “but they were more interested in finding out about us than in showing us around.”
President Holland explained that there has been a considerable increase in opportunities available in religion, education, and culture in China. He added, however, that there are yet limitations on the freedoms that can be expressed in that country. “China has a more open and responsive brand of Communism than that which prevails in Eastern Europe,” he said. “But the Church will still have to convey to the Chinese that it is there for the good of the people and not western exploitation.”
During their stay in China, special treatment had become everyday fare for the BYU group. They ate in the best restaurants, stayed at good hotels, performed in the finest halls. Their sponsors, a government organization titled the All-China Youth Federation, had done whatever they could to make the visit enjoyable. “We tried to repay them by performing to the best of our ability,” recalled Kim Cooper, “but we wondered what more we could do for these people who had been so good to us. Elder Packer told us that we could love them. He said that it was possible to love and pray for all of the people of China.”
Before boarding the train that would take them through the bamboo curtain to Hong Kong, the folkdancers bid farewell to their two guides, Chaung Chang and Jing Jing. During the tour the two guides had formed close friendships with many members of the group. “They and many other people in China had told us often that there was something very different about us. We knew that it was the gospel,” reflected Wendy Gibby.
Chang, who had been trained not to show emotion, embraced Kim Cooper with tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “We will not forget. What you have is the truth, and we need it.”