Brigham Young University's first foray into the People's Republic of China came through performing-arts tours dating back nearly three decades.

And BYU's groundbreaking tour was first proposed before specific student participants were selected, before performance dates and locations were confirmed by Chinese hosts, before a formal invitation had been granted and even before formal diplomatic ties between the United States and China had been restored in January 1979.

Later that summer, BYU realized the first of some two dozen such performance tours to mainland China as 20 students made up a makeshift Young Ambassadors group performing song and dance routines.

In the 29 years since, various BYU groups — with their specialties ranging from show tunes to ethnic numbers, from ballroom to folk dance and from orchestral arrangements to improvised jazz riffs — have sung, danced and performed their way across China on stages, in performance halls and on television broadcasts.

BYU's first tour not only came under the watch of then-president Dallin H. Oaks, it was his idea.

Currently a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, Elder Oaks attended a 1978 meeting of the church's regional representatives in which Spencer W. Kimball, the president and prophet of the LDS Church at the time, spoke specifically of China.

"By comparison with the widespread breakdown of morality and discipline in the western world, the Chinese are a disciplined, industrious, frugal, closely knit people," President Kimball said. "Their moral standards are very high by modern western standards. ... Family life is strong, with old family members still given great respect and care."

During a 1991 devotional at the Provo campus, Elder Oaks recalled the catalyst moments during his tenure as university president that resulted in BYU's first venture into China a dozen years earlier.

Upon returning from a leadership meeting, then-President Oaks asked top university officials to begin the plans for a BYU performing group to go to China, despite no U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations.

Several months later, what seemed to be a far-fetched idea became a possibility when the United States announced it would exchange formal diplomatic recognitions with China at the start of 1979.

Still lacking, Elder Oaks recalled, was a formal invitation from the Chinese, approval from BYU's board of trustees, and an understanding of what performance numbers would be acceptable in China and how technical arrangements and equipment needs could be handled in a country of which little was known.

Connections were made and questions answered, as university representatives visited China and established contact with the China Travel Service, thanks to associations with a group that fostered international relations though the performing arts and its work with Romanian officials, who in turn had arranged for a China tour in early 1979.

While still quietly planning a show production, BYU saw an invitation fall into place, as a Guam businessman and university friend — who was one of the first Westerners to visit China — helped identify appropriate Chinese officials to contact and encouraged BYU to involve key U.S. senators, Elder Oaks said.

In the spring of 1979, BYU received a brief invitation — without commitments or dates — from the China Travel Service, with the group to be considered tourists. Since the university's two Young Ambassador groups and its Lamanite Generation (now called "Living Legends") troupe already had summer-tour commitments, 20 performers were drawn from the three groups and rushed into rehearsals for a 90-minute program that included some songs and narration in Chinese.

Accompanied by Elder James E. Faust, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, and senior university official Bruce L. Olsen, the BYU entourage arrived at the Canton (now Guangzhou) airport at the start of its tour, grilled by Chinese officials and guides about their music, lyrics, and choreography and related meanings. Students answered the questions with a makeshift demonstration, as Chinese onlookers lined the airport balcony to watch the impromptu performance.

The Young Ambassadors had passed that first test and were given another probationary performance the next day, at the Peking Minorities Institute, which in turn led to an opportunity at Beijing's prestigious Red Tower Theater, a 1,600-seat hall to be filled with the artistic elite from China's capital city.

Just before the start, Chinese guides suggested to BYU officials that the future of return invitations for university groups depended on the success of the Red Tower performance.

"Fifteen minutes into the show, people were coming backstage telling us that 'The important people in the audience are pleased,'" Olsen said. "The audience 'oohed' and 'aahed' during dance routines and called back the clever number from the musical 'Shenandoah,' 'Next to Lovin' I Like Fightin' Best,' for three bows and demanded that after intermission we start our show by doing it again.

"Prior to leaving for China, we were told not to expect anything but light, polite applause," Olsen continued, "but this audience demanded four encores and not only gave a standing ovation, but also held their hands high over their heads while clapping. It was the most enthusiastic response I have seen anywhere in the world.

"It was obvious we had passed the test."

In his final year at BYU, President Oaks joined Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, in accompanying the Young Ambassadors back to China for a return engagement in 1980. The following year, first-year BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve led the university's American Folk Dancers to China, with some of that tour's performances broadcast live to an audience of 135 million Chinese television viewers.

That was the start to a BYU invasion of China — eight tours the first six years and 17 over the first two decades. Other BYU performing-arts groups that have toured China include the Living Legends, BYU Ballroom Dance Company, Wind Symphony, Chamber Orchestra and Synthesis.

BYU-Hawaii and BYU-Idaho have followed suit by sending performers to the People's Republic of China over the years. In fact, what is believed to be the first joint appearance of BYU and BYU-Hawaii groups happened last year when the Young Ambassadors and the BYU-Hawaii Concert Choir performed together last summer at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Art Theater.

What Elder Oaks summarized in 1991 about BYU's early efforts to share its performing-arts talents rings true through 2008.

"In these visits," he said, "many ties of friendship have been forged, and much understanding has been gained."

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