Forty years ago, a group of Brigham Young University student performers traveled to China and put on a show that made history. This summer, the University is celebrating that anniversary with a return tour that highlights the relationship BYU and China have shared since 1979.
Following the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, BYU’s initial tour made the Young Ambassadors and Living Legends among the first Western performing arts groups to enter the country.
The tour was the idea of then–BYU President Dallin H. Oaks who had met with President Spencer W. Kimball, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1978. President Kimball spoke highly of China’s high standards and family values and upon returning from the meeting, President Oaks asked BYU officials to begin making plans for a performing arts group to go to China, despite no established U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations at that time.
But the diplomatic relations did happen in early 1979 and the show fell into place. Newly-launched China Central Television asked to broadcast BYU’s live performance and, even after the group had left the country, the channel continued to rebroadcast the performance.
“A lot of people in China learned about BYU back then, and for many years it was the most widely recognized American university in China because of those broadcasts, and it still is very well known in China from all the continued BYU tours,” said Kory Katseanes, BYU Director of Orchestras.
In the past 39 years, BYU performing groups have returned to China 28 more times.
Now in 2019, a cast of more than 200 BYU students are headed back to China to put on the biggest show to date, combining eight groups to make one grand production. The Chamber Orchestra, Folk Dance, Ballroom Dance, Young Ambassadors and Living Legends teams will be joined for the first time by Vocal Point, the Cougarettes and the Dunk Team. The group will give six performances throughout Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, China at the end of May.
Titled “China Spectacular,” the show is similar to BYU’s homecoming festivities but specifically tailored for a Chinese audience.
“It was a large challenge to undertake,” said John Lewis, head of operations for China Spectacular. “Especially when the language is a huge barrier.”
Lewis and his colleagues worked to supply Chinese performance programs and redesign the BYU logo to include “Brigham Young University” in Mandarin atop “BYU.” But Lewis said the trickiest translation was the narration that runs through the performance.
“In English, we have narrators with deep, rich voices, but it is not that way for the Chinese culture. We spent a lot of time finding the right voice to narrate a performance for our audience,” Lewis said.
Besides performing together, BYU’s performers will participate in various activities with universities, government entities, charities and other organizations in China to reconnect with friends they have made over the years.
“In 40 years, both BYU and China have worked hard to foster an amazing friendship. This tour is not BYU bringing Western entertainment to the East, but BYU showing gratitude for the growth and understanding both sides have worked toward,” Lewis said.
Because of the friendship that has grown over the years, BYU’s academic efforts in Chinese have been enriched. One example is BYU’s Chinese Flagship Program which facilitates a full immersion Chinese language study program that allows students to study Chinese with an emphasis in a particular field of study such as healthcare or business. The program includes a study-abroad experience complete with regular coursework at Nanjing University in China. BYU’s Chinese Flagship students emerge as global professionals in their chosen fields of study—linguistically and culturally.
Preview performances of BYU’s China Spectacular will take place on May 10 and 11. Tickets can be found here.