“This Is Very Historic”

The Young Ambassadors 1979 Tour of China



On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China. While this commenced a new political organization in China, it marked at least a temporary end of the potential for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to directly proselytize in mainland China.1 While LDS proselyting took place in Taiwan and Hong Kong over the next several decades, there was no formal LDS Church presence in mainland China. The United States government did not officially recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, causing a frosty relationship between the two nations. During this time period there were “virtually no diplomatic relations, no summits, no joint meetings, and no exchanges of tourists, business leaders, or academics.”2

In the late 1960s the United States and China began exploring ways in which the two countries could begin to reestablish relations; these efforts included such circuitous routes as communicating through diplomatic leaders in Pakistan, who had relationships with both countries. As the 1970s dawned, several factors began to bring a thawing to their association. Many in the United States believed that strengthening U.S.–Chinese relationships would have a negative impact on the USSR.3 The Chinese were similarly motivated by a negative relationship with the USSR and also were interested in engaging more broadly with the global community. At least a part of China’s motives for more open relationships concerned developing better technology so as to expand their petroleum industry.4

A breakthrough occurred in April 1971, when China invited the United States ping-pong team to play in China. Later that summer, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China, and in the fall the United States gave up opposing the PRC taking Taiwan’s place as the official country representing China in the United Nations.5 Perhaps most significantly, in February 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China.6 Notwithstanding this forward progress, Watergate and the death of Chairman Mao temporarily stalled deepening relationships between the United States and China. Some evidence suggests that China was still resistant to foreign influences; for example, in 1976 a devastating earthquake struck China, yet China completely refused all foreign aid.7 Nevertheless, in 1978, China sent 480 students to twenty-eight different countries to study; 433 of these students came to the United States.8

In December 1978, significant changes came to China as the government drastically changed its economic, political, and international policies, which allowed for more opportunities for collaboration with Western companies, such as Boeing and Coca-Cola.9 On January 1, 1979, the United States and China announced that they would establish full diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors on March 1 of that same year. This diplomatic change created the possibility that cultural and perhaps even religious relationships could again be established between China and the outside world.

The purpose of this paper is to chronicle a tour of China by Brigham Young University’s Young Ambassadors that many people, including Dallin H. Oaks, consider miraculous. The Young Ambassadors, a performing arts group composed of BYU students, left for China just six months after the United States established formal diplomatic relationships with China. Their tour provided the first opportunity in decades for an organization connected with the LDS Church to be in China. Elder James E. Faust, who accompanied the Young Ambassadors on the tour, frequently said during the trip, “This is very historic.”10 Before discussing how this tour came to be, we first provide context regarding Brigham Young University’s performing tour groups.

Brigham Young University’s Performing Tour Groups

In an effort to help BYU students use their talents to be ambassadors of goodwill throughout the world, Ernest L. Wilkinson established the Public Service Bureau in 1919–20, while he was a student at Brigham Young University. It started quite small, but over the next thirty years it continued to expand; it later became known as the Program Bureau. The Program Bureau provided a great outlet for students to perform wholesome entertainment for positive purposes. In 1952, Brigham Young University administrators, in an effort to increase the scope and reach of its performance groups, appointed Janie Thompson as the director of the Program Bureau.11 Also in 1952, the Delta Phi Chorus was one of the first BYU performance groups to travel outside Utah, as they went on a tour to the Pacific Northwest.12 Several groups were part of the Program Bureau, including the Ballroom Performance Team, the International Folk Dancers, Young Ambassadors, the Lamanite Generation, the Sounds of Freedom, A Cappella Choir, Curtain Time USA Troupe, Holiday in the USA, Startime BYU, and Say It with Music.13

From 1960 to 1974 the Program Bureau accelerated its efforts to perform throughout the world. During these years, “variety groups of the Bureau visited Europe seventeen times, the Orient eleven times, Greenland twice, the Caribbean twice, and the Middle East, South Africa, and South America once each.”14 These tours made a strong impression on those who saw the performances. For example, after seeing BYU’s International Folk Dancers in a performance in the Portugal National Agricultural Fair at the International Folk Festival in 1964, W. Tapley Bennett Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Portugal, wrote, “Several Portuguese groups took part in some or all of these affairs and there were groups from several European countries including Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain. . . . But our young people from Brigham Young University were unquestionably the big hit. . . . I don’t think we need to worry about the broad appeal of our country for people abroad when we have outstanding representatives like the Brigham Young University group traveling and making friends.”15

Indeed, BYU’s performing arts groups were becoming known throughout the world. An article in the California Intermountain News stated, “BYU has served the continental U.S., South America, Europe, and Asia in the performing arts by producing and sending high-class dramatic art and musical troupes to these areas.”16 These significant efforts had created an environment in which a BYU performing group could potentially travel to China.

Attention to a Prophetic Call

Although BYU performing arts as well as U.S.–China relations had been developing for many years, the rapidity with which the opportunity came for the Young Ambassadors to travel to China was due in large part to the prophetic vision of President Spencer W. Kimball and those who followed his counsel. In September 1978, President Kimball gave an address to the regional representatives of the Church on the topic of taking the gospel to “the uttermost parts of the earth.”17 He spoke of nations such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, and others and added that if Latter-day Saints could make a small beginning in these nations, then eventually the gospel would be preached to all nations.

Dallin H. Oaks, then president of Brigham Young University, recalls that upon hearing the address, he “asked [his] assistant, Bruce L. Olsen, to begin planning for a BYU performing group to go to China. That idea was farfetched, because at that time the United States had no diplomatic relations with China, and U.S. tourists were not welcome there. But a prophet had called for beginnings, and this was a beginning BYU could attempt.”18 In 1978, after the Young Ambassadors returned from their tour in the Soviet Union,19 someone had asked Bruce Olsen, “Well, now you’ve been to Russia, where are you going to go next?” Olsen recalled, “I remember saying ‘China!’ I thought to myself, ‘That was one of the dumber things you’ve ever said.’”20 But less than one year later, Olsen was given the task to start planning for a performance group’s tour in China.

At the time, the task seemed impossible, particularly because of the challenging diplomatic relationships between the United States and China. However, two months after Oaks’s direction to Olsen, President Jimmy Carter unexpectedly announced that beginning January 1, 1979, the United States and China would establish official diplomatic relations. Suddenly, the idea of “a BYU trip to China became at least a theoretical possibility.”21

In a series of what Oaks termed “miracles,” doors began to open. In order to perform in China a group would need an official invitation. Brigham Young University sought the help of Frank Church, a United States Senator from Idaho, in securing permission to perform in China. Church accordingly wrote a letter to China’s U.S. ambassador, which in part said, “I would hope that all possible consideration could be given their request. A tour such as this can help strengthen the bonds between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, and on a personal level develop many lasting friendships and mutual understanding and trust that is so essential for our societies to fully comprehend one another.”22

Edward Blaser, the director of Performing Arts Management at BYU from 1976 to 2015, recounted the efforts to obtain an official invitation as follows:

Our first challenge was to develop some contacts in China that would extend to us an invitation. At the time no American tourists could go to China without an invitation from their government and tourism bureau. We heard that a tour operator out of New York, Friendship Ambassadors, which we had used to travel to and perform in Romania two years prior to that, was planning a trip to China via their contacts in Romania. We asked if we could be included in that trip and they agreed.23

Blaser, along with Young Ambassador director Val Lindsay, traveled with the Friendship Ambassadors group to China during the last two weeks of February 1979. Because their connection was through the Romanian government, they had to take a circuitous route that included traveling through Pakistan. Prior to the trip, a colleague in Guam had given Blaser contact information for members of the China Travel Service, which arranged for performing arts groups in China. Blaser met with these individuals while in Beijing and presented them with the idea of hosting BYU’s Young Ambassadors. He showed them video and audio materials and was encouraged at their response.24

After returning from China, Blaser continued discussions with China Travel Service, examining logistics such as schedules, finances, and visas.25 Thanks to countless efforts by Blaser, early in the spring of 1979, BYU received an invitation to come to China.26 Because President Oaks had acted on faith and begun planning even at a time when the event seemed impossible, Brigham Young University would have the opportunity to perform in China. This was not a proselyting venture, and there were very specific guidelines regarding not doing “missionary work” while in China. It was, however, an opportunity to begin building a relationship with China.

Formation of the Young Ambassadors Group Performing in China

In late March or early April 1979, final approval was given for BYU to bring a performing group to China.27 Artistic directors had only a couple of weeks to select the performers, who would be gone for much of April and May on other performing tours. Randy Boothe, a twenty-eight-year-old faculty member who was one of two directors for the Young Ambassadors, was given the assignment to be the artistic director for the China tour. It was determined that they would create a group of twenty students drawn from the Young Ambassadors and Lamanite Generation and would participate in the tour under the name Young Ambassadors. The twenty students selected to perform were Joseph Ahuna Jr., Christy Bates, Lauri Crebs, Michael Farnes, Tami Jeppson, Richard McEwan, Robert Murri, Darla O’Dell, Steven Kapp Perry, Kenneth Sekaquaptewa, Laura Lee Smith, John Stucki, Linda Tang, Timothy Taylor, Pamela Terry, Kenneth Tingey, Chris Utley, Clint Utter, David Weed, and Cindi Whittaker. In addition to the performers, Elder James E. Faust and his wife, Ruth, attended on behalf of the Church Board of Education; Bruce L. Olsen as the senior BYU administrator; Randy Boothe as the performance director; and Kay and Stephen Durrant as cultural advisors.

Many of those selected to perform had special experiences that prepared them to be a part of the tour to China. For example, Kenneth Tingey, who became the trumpet player of the group, was a business student during this time period. Boothe asked Tingey to attend a Young Ambassadors performance and although Tingey had a busy schedule and no prior associations with the Young Ambassadors, he decided to go. Tingey relates: “[The performance] was at the Hotel Utah for the church leaders. I took all my accounting books. It was kind of funny [to be] with all the Young Ambassadors and in that green room [when Randy] announced . . . that things were in the works with China. I had this overwhelming feeling that I would go with them [but I thought] ‘I’m not even a member and I wasn’t even doing music.’”28 A couple of weeks later, on a Thursday night, Tingey was again invited to attend a performance of the Young Ambassadors at the Hotel Utah. On that occasion the group’s trumpet player announced that he was quitting. Boothe approached Tingey and invited him to join the Young Ambassadors. Tingey struggled to decide, weighing his efforts in earning his MBA with the potentially rewarding experiences touring with the Young Ambassadors. Boothe invited Tingey on a trip to Idaho to perform with the Young Ambassadors; the only catch was that the tour left in less than twenty-four hours. Although Tingey had multiple tests, he was able to juggle his different priorities and perform that weekend. On the bus ride back from Idaho, Tingey determined that he would join the group. He later reflected, “I was blessed to go and I know I was meant to go partly because I was going in an entirely different path and I got pulled into that path. They announced it was going to happen and I wasn’t even a member but I knew I was going.”29

Tami Jeppson, another member of the cast, had a similar experience. She has perfect pitch and had been playing the piano for years. When she received her patriarchal blessing, the patriarch told her that she would use her talents to share the gospel throughout the world. The impression that immediately came to her mind was that she would one day perform in China. On the evening that a Young Ambassador tour to China was announced she was dumbfounded. Jeppson recounts, “I just had this flood come over me and I thought, ‘Oh my word. My patriarchal blessing is really happening. I’m going to go to China!’”30 However, Jeppson was not automatically accepted to be part of the China tour. Performers were invited to audition specifically for this trip, and there were two finalists for the position of piano player—Jeppson and a student named Dan. Tami recounts, “[Dan] was an incredible piano player. . . . I went into that interview with Randy and he just looked right at me and said, ‘Well, you know Dan’s a better piano player than you.’ I go, ‘Yeah . . .’ Then he said, ‘But you know you have to go to China don’t you?’”31 Jeppson was shocked because she had not shared her experiences with Boothe and felt blessed that she was invited to participate.

Before the tour to China was even announced, Linda Tang, a former BYU performer who was interning in San Francisco, had a unique experience. Tang was from Hong Kong, and while at work one day, she felt a powerful spiritual impression that BYU’s Young Ambassadors would soon travel to China and that she would be a part of it. Several days later, she called Boothe and shared her experiences with him.32

Of this experience, Boothe recalled,

Tang called me on the phone and said, “Randy, I have a feeling that you’re going to have a tour in China.”

I said, “Linda, there is no way. There’s no way. These tours are planned years in advance.”

She said, “Well, I just feel I have the spiritual impression. When you get informed, I want you to know . . . whatever I need to do, but I want to go to China with the Young Ambassadors.”

I said, “Okay, that will be great. I’ll contact you.”

I had no idea. I hadn’t been brought into the circle at all with Elder Oaks or with Bruce Olsen at that point. [But] sure enough, within just a short time, I got informed that this was being investigated. . . .

I told them about Linda [and received permission to notify her]. I called her back. She said, “I told you so.”33

All of the performers made significant sacrifices to be a part of the tour. As one example, Joe Ahuna was married, and going on the trip would require him to leave his wife and one-month-old son. It would also cause him to postpone graduation by one semester. Ahuna and his wife determined, however, to make the sacrifice so that Ahuna could participate in this historic event. He recollected, “During the trip, I felt that my wife and son were with me while performing and sharing our ‘Aloha’ with the people of China.”34

After the performers were selected, they made intense preparations. Because of previously scheduled tours and other commitments, the newly formed Young Ambassadors group had only a few weeks in June to “learn the complex choreography and music associated with [the] . . . production.”35 Olsen states, “For three grueling weeks the students had four hours per day of language and culture training and eight to twelve hours of rehearsals.”36 Their set list included family favorites such as “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Bare Necessities”; classic songs such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “I Got Rhythm”; and variety pieces such as a fire knife dance, Navajo twenty-two-hoop dance, and Hawaiian war chant, among many other numbers.

Steven Kapp Perry, one of the performers, recalled that in addition to learning about culture and rehearsing dances, the Young Ambassadors were also invited to spiritually prepare. Although they could not proselyte, it was emphasized to them that this was the first opportunity a BYU group had had to perform in China; the significance of this fact was repeatedly impressed upon them.37 While both rehearsals and culture training were vital to the success of the tour, the culture training appeared in retrospect to be particularly valuable. Stephen Durrant, an assistant professor of Asian Languages, provided language and culture training. Olsen reported, “Dr. Durrant’s contribution was vital to the success of the mission. He taught and the students memorized introductions to numbers in Chinese, and this breaching of the language barrier was to save us at the critical point of entry and endeared us to audiences thereafter.”38

A Last-Minute Dilemma and First Performances

On June 27, only four days prior to the group’s departure for China, BYU received a telegram from China Travel Service, the organization that had invited them to come.39 Their instructions from the Chinese organization were clear: “Please bring only simple musical instruments for unofficial performances at schools or factories pending approval.”40 The Young Ambassadors group had assembled multiple costumes and other performance equipment that collectively weighed over one ton. Scaling back to the level of “simple musical instruments” would involve a radical redesign of the performances.

Oaks informed Faust of this development and the two of them, along with Olsen and Boothe, met to determine the best course of action. After prayerful consideration, they determined to travel with all of the equipment and costumes that they had prepared and plan that the Lord would “open the way.”41 Boothe recalled that as he expressed his concerns about this approach Faust said, “Randy, where’s your faith?” To which Boothe thought to himself, “Well, that’s a good question coming from an Apostle.”42

Flying with faith towards China, the Young Ambassadors departed on July 1, 1979. When the Young Ambassadors arrived in Guangzhou on July 3, their Chinese hosts were visibly concerned with the amount of technical equipment carried by the Young Ambassadors. Faust and Olsen expressed to the officials how excited they were to perform in China, how they wanted to give the very best performance, showing pictures of previous performances and explaining why the costumes and other equipment would be necessary.43 Faust called over some students who recited lines in Mandarin and began to perform selected acts, including singing a favorite Chinese song, Mo Li Hua.

Crowds gathered around the performers and the hosts began to soften. Boothe recollected, “They started singing along and clapping. They said, ‘We’ll make a phone call.’ They were basically beaming by the time they had heard the kids speaking in Chinese, singing in Chinese, seeing all the pictures. . . . They agreed to let us bring the equipment on to Beijing and we would have a trial performance the next morning.”44 After a four-hour flight to Beijing, the Young Ambassadors met their tour guides. Upon greeting the group, Mr. Fu, one of the guides, said, “We look forward to your performances. We feel that your visit will turn a new page in the relationship between our two countries.”45

On July 4, 1979, the Young Ambassadors gave their debut performance in China. They had been invited to perform at the National Minorities Institute in Beijing in what was to be a trial performance. The Young Ambassadors would perform for a few students from the institute, as well as several Chinese officials who would determine whether any additional performances would be given. Every line of lyrics had been translated into Chinese overnight so that the officials would be able to fully vet every number.46

Performer John Stucki wrote in his entry in the 1979 Young Ambassadors tour journal of a small challenge that occurred prior to the performance: “We sat at tea with the leaders and it was kind of uncomfortable because we didn’t drink the tea and they were wondering why.”47 However, once the performance got under way the audience appeared to warm up. A testament to the success of this initial performance was that the Young Ambassadors were invited to perform at the prestigious Red Tower Theater two days later.48 The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra had previously played there, and the Young Ambassadors were excited for this opportunity to perform for China’s elite.

After a lunch following their performance at the National Minorities Institute, the Young Ambassadors went to see the Forbidden City.49 Later that afternoon, the Young Ambassadors traveled to the residence of the United States ambassador to China, where more than 1,500 people had gathered to celebrate the first Independence Day since diplomatic relations had been established. There they were introduced to Lucille Sargent, a member of the LDS Church who was working in the American embassy at the time. Olsen recalled Faust reporting that Sargent had lived in Beijing as the solitary member of the Church in the country (so far as she knew).50 Sargent was very happy to have fellowship with Church members and spent as much time as she could with the group.51

On July 5, the group toured the Great Wall of China, and when they returned to Beijing they dined on a local specialty, Peking duck. In the words of performer Darla O’Dell, this dinner consisted of “every part of the duck but the bill.”52 The eighteen-course meal was a new treat for the Americans, although some of the participants were squeamish about eating duck feet and duck brains. Many of the Young Ambassadors didn’t realize that the Chinese custom is to continue serving guests until they leave food on their plates. The Young Ambassadors, however, were following the American custom of politely finishing all the food one is given. Olsen recalled that this led to Sister Faust receiving an inordinate amount of pickled duck feet, which Olsen ate for her, earning for himself the title of her adopted son.53

After the dinner, the group had a meeting in which Boothe told them about a serious concern Miss Wong, one of the travel guides, had expressed. She had said to Boothe, “I don’t want to alarm the students, but I am very afraid for them.”54 Miss Wong explained that at their performance the following evening at the Red Tower Theatre, there would be 1,600 seats filled with the artistic elite of Beijing. O’Dell noted that the Young Ambassadors felt the pressure to perform: “We really got worried [after the meeting] and began to analyze ourselves. If the show failed it could be the last for all performers and groups like ours. We would be the first. We definitely needed the help of the Lord and He always comes through.”55

The Red Tower Theatre was among the most prestigious performance halls in Beijing. In a Young Ambassadors tour journal entry, Tim Taylor referred to it as the “#1 hall” in the city.56 The performance was a great success; Olsen recalled that the “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.”57

This show, as with many aspects of the trip to China, was filled with little miracles. Michael Farnes recollected that during this performance, one of his contact lenses fell out. Losing that contact was going to make it much harder for him successfully complete the tour. While standing off stage, he noticed a spotlight hitting the floor at just the right angle so that his contact lens reflected the light. He ran back on stage and retrieved his contact. He said, “It was just a small miracle, but it’s so many things that you see things come together and you know the Lord’s watching out for you, just in those small and simple ways that are just very gratifying.”58

Over the next eight days, the Young Ambassadors would continue to tour China, performing in Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In many instances they were told that they were the first American performers that their audience had ever seen,59 and they performed for sold out crowds.60 Among the favorite songs of the crowd was “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music because nearly everybody had heard it. The Chinese also responded especially favorably to the Chinese folk songs that the Young Ambassadors performed.61 The musical accomplishments were both a tribute to the talent of the Young Ambassadors as well as the incredible skill of Randy Boothe. Speaking to this latter point, Olsen recorded, “Randy Boothe is truly a genius. I have to take my hat off to him at accomplishing so much in 28 years.”62

Interactions between the Young Ambassadors and the Chinese People

Of all the interactions between the Young Ambassadors and the Chinese people, perhaps the most significant took place when performer Ken Sekaquaptewa met several of his relatives for the first time. Sekaquaptewa grew up in Phoenix, Arizona; his father was Native American and his mother was Chinese. He said, “The Chinese side of my family took a backseat to the Indian side of the family in Arizona, and my mom really didn’t talk a whole lot about her childhood or much about China.”63

When the China Young Ambassadors group was assembled, Sekaquaptewa was asked to highlight Native American culture, specializing in the hoop dance. He could not believe his good fortune to visit his ancestral country. His mother immediately contacted her family members in Shanghai and let them know of the opportunity to see Ken. Sekaquaptewa’s first encounter with a relative came as the Young Ambassadors arrived in Shanghai. As the train pulled into the station he noticed a woman running to keep up with the train. As Sekaquaptewa disembarked he saw the woman and guessed it was his mother’s half-sister. He recounts that after he called out to her that she smiled and rushed to him. Sekaquaptewa said, “I smiled back at her, quickly gathered my things together, and as I stepped from the train she greeted me with a hug, her eyes still moist and her smile growing bigger and bigger.”64

Sekaquaptewa only had a few minutes to visit with his aunt and other relatives who came to the train station before needing to depart on the tour bus with the Young Ambassadors. The next morning he and Olsen traveled to meet Sekaquaptewa’s grandfather, who lived in Shanghai. Other relatives had traveled hundreds of miles to visit Sekaquaptewa. Sekaquaptewa recounted:

As we entered the room on the sixth floor many of the people that I met the night before at the train station were there. But there was one special new face. Rising slowly from a chair, his bright eyes gleaming and a broad smile on his face was my 86-year old grandfather. He was short and frail, and moved slowly over to me to shake hands, and then we gave each other a long hug, as though we were renewing a long lost friendship. . . . I was told that he had been quite ill and confined to a bed several months ago, but letters from my mother and myself telling of my brief chance to visit were like good medicine for him. During my visit, he walked around the room and seemed to be quite alert and healthy.65

Sekaquaptewa had grown up surrounded by Native Americans and had always thought that he looked like a Native American; however, sitting next to his grandfather he felt that he looked Chinese, the image of his grandfather.66 Although China Travel Service said it could be difficult to obtain tickets for Sekaquaptewa’s family to come to a performance, Sekaquaptewa was able to obtain sixteen tickets for his family members to come to the Communist Party Central Committee Theatre in Shanghai. Sekaquaptewa wrote, “My Grandfather rested up all day so that he could come to the performance. It had been months since he had even been out of his apartment. I felt great that we had done one of our best shows of the tour that night and afterwards I was able to gather all my family members in a room off the stage to visit with them and take pictures.”67 For Sekaquaptewa, this time with his family was the highlight of the entire trip.

Sekaquaptewa’s grandfather, Chen Su Ming, wrote a letter to the Young Ambassadors, which one of Sekaquaptewa’s uncles translated into English. In part the letter reads:

I am the grandfather of Sekaquaptewa. I am 86. Despite my old age and ill health, I have come to attend your concert. I must say it’s worth it. . . . I am so excited that I have to say something from the depth of my heart. You have travelled such a long way to China bringing with you the dear friendship of the American people, including the regards of my relatives. This is the best proof of the friendship between our two peoples. . . . I wish that the friendship between the people of China and America will live forever.68

In retrospect, Sekaquaptewa noted that “about six months after the tour, [my grandfather] passed away so it was really a tender mercy to be able to meet him and have that experience with relatives before he passed away.”69

While Sekaquaptewa’s experience with the native Chinese was certainly unique, others on the trip experienced special exchanges with the local people with whom they interacted. Some of the specific instances that participants recalled related to conversations surrounding Christianity. While the Young Ambassadors strictly observed the rules forbidding proselyting, there were a few occasions when gospel topics came up. For example, during some free time in Shanghai, Olsen and Cindi Whittaker were exploring the city and taking some photos. They met Mrs. Sung, a woman who spoke English who introduced herself as an artist. They went to her home to receive some paintings from her. As they conversed, Mrs. Sung told them that prior to the Cultural Revolution she had been educated at a Baptist college. In response, they told Mrs. Sung that they were a part of a school with twenty-five thousand Christians. Olsen stated, “I will never forget the sadness with which she said, ‘I used to be a Christian.’”70 After giving Olsen and Whittaker a watercolor painting and some small wooden dolls, Mrs. Sung took them back to the street. Olsen recalled, “As we parted we thanked her for her hospitality and generosity and then looking into her eyes, I said, ‘God Bless You.’ She hesitated for a moment and then looking back into my eyes she said, ‘And God bless you too.’ I knew she was still a believer. . . . It was one of those beautiful experiences where the spirit of the Lord was very strong.”71

Boothe wrote that while waiting for preparations to be made in an auditorium in Hangzhou, he met a student who asked him if the BYU students were Christian. Booth recounted, “I answered in the affirmative. He said, ‘Do they read the Bible?’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, they love to read the Bible’ and he said, ‘I think that the Bible must be a very good book, and I would like to read it, I am very eager to read it. But, unfortunately, in China there is no such book.’ I then said, ‘I am sure that one day you will have an opportunity to read it.’”72

One other experience relating to Christianity occurred in Shanghai, after a banquet. The Young Ambassadors sang “Love at Home” to show appreciation for their hosts, telling them that it was a special song. “One lady just lit up and with tears in her eyes quietly asked for a copy of the words. ‘I used to sing that hymn,’ she said.”73

Many of the exchanges that the Young Ambassadors had with Chinese people were simple expressions of mutual love and friendship. For example, performer Chris Utley felt a deep connection with people that he saw, as he recognized that they shared common hopes and dreams. For him, an important lesson was recognizing that regardless of political, economic, or cultural differences, they were all children of God. He recalled, “Because of the language barrier, I didn’t connect with that many of the native Chinese that we encountered. However, there were occasions where I would make eye contact and smile and get a smile back or have some connection that wasn’t through language or words or speaking.”74 Such experiences were, to him, particularly significant in light of Utley’s future missionary service in Taiwan (he received his mission call while on the return trip from China).

Olsen recounted an example of a simple interchange that represents hundreds of warm moments between the Young Ambassadors and the Chinese people they met. While on a long train ride, the Young Ambassadors had invited the train personnel to come to their car and watch a brief performance. However, because of their work schedules there was never a time when all of the employees were able to assemble. Toward the end of the trip, an employee invited the group to the dining car, where all of the staff had gathered together. Olsen recalled, “As we entered they clapped for us and we clapped for them and then the BYU students sang. I could tell that Elder Faust was certainly moved by it and I was too. A couple of our girls took the hands of some of the Chinese girls as they sang. But it was a beautiful expression of warmth and love on the part of our students which was certainly reciprocated by the young Chinese.”75

Boothe felt proud of his Young Ambassadors. While on the tour he noted that he was traveling with a “fine group of young people who have been exemplary in every way. . . . I thrill as I see them work by talking with people, giving, sharing, trying to use their Chinese.”76

Perhaps the closest relationships the Young Ambassadors developed on the tour were with their guides. Christy Bates recalls that there were tears when the time came to say goodbye. Both sides exchanged gifts and expressions of love and best wishes. Olsen recorded that “Miss Wong cried and Mr. Chen had tears in his eyes [and] read a formal speech. [Later] Miss Wong said, ‘I have been a guide for a year and a half. I have met a lot of wonderful and very nice people, but this is the first time I have ever shed a tear. I want you to know that I love you and appreciate all you have done since we met you for the first time with your beautiful command of the Chinese language. I fell in love with you.’”77

Memorable Events

In addition to the exchanges with Chinese citizens, members of the group recalled many other memorable events. One of these involved a dilemma with a Sunday performance. It was not until the Young Ambassadors were already in Beijing that they realized that a performance was scheduled for Sunday in Hang Zhou. Olsen had been instrumental in setting rules that prevented Sunday performances and was stymied when discovering that there was no possibility of moving the performance to a different day. Elder Faust suggested if there were an honorable way to excuse themselves from the performance that that would be the best course of action. Olsen proffered a variety of reasons why the performance should be cancelled, stopping short of specifying their desire to honor the Sabbath day. But the Chinese resolved every objection that Olsen raised, and Olsen was not sure what to do. While pondering the matter, he thought about how students studying in Jerusalem had their worship services on Saturday, as is the custom in Israel. He realized that Monday in China would be Sunday in Utah and proposed that they hold their Sunday services on Monday instead of Sunday. Faust agreed and this course of action was taken.78

For the Young Ambassadors, a unique aspect of the trip involved interactions with the Elder and Sister Faust. For example, Perry recalled that during one dance he would do split leaps. While doing one during a performance, his pants completely ripped. He said, “[Sister Faust] ran over and took off her sweater, and said, ‘Tie this around your waist!’ . . . I did the rest of the show with her sweater on.”79 Back at the hotel, Sister Faust volunteered to sew his pants for him. While she was sewing, Perry had the opportunity to visit with Elder Faust. He recalled being so impressed that the Fausts would reach out to him when he knew how badly they must have wanted to sleep.

Utley also remembered a treasured experience with Elder Faust. One day, Utley entered an elevator and was surprised to find Elder Faust already on it. Faust told Utley that he was about to give a blessing to another member of the group and invited Utley to participate. As a newly ordained elder, this was a new experience for Utley, who recalled, “My very first blessing of the sick was done with Elder Faust. It was a very special experience.”80

Farnes remembered a time when the group was hurrying to get to a flight. He noticed that a member of the group had his shoes untied and Farnes was about to make a sarcastic comment when Elder Faust stopped the participant and knelt down and tied his shoelaces for him. Farnes recalled, “I thought, what a great example of a Christian.”81

While Faust was clearly there in a presiding role, he also was a warm, friendly part of the group. For example, Tingey said that one of the performers was teasing Elder Faust about how he was wearing a suit coat and invited him to relax with the group. He said, “Elder Faust ditched the coat, ditched the briefcase and he came back in the bus with the rest of us! The funny thing is he did and he became one of our buddies. He joined the gang! I thought it was really great that he joined the group and we got to know him really well.”82

The trip was not easy for the Fausts, but they were an example of patience, kindness, and gratitude to the participants. Boothe recounts, “[The Fausts] were just so grateful and so head over heels taking every opportunity to recognize and acknowledge people and things [people] were doing for them.”83

For Boothe this gratitude was particularly impressive considering the physical challenges faced by the Fausts. He continued: “[Sister Faust] . . . had a lot of [knee] pain. . . . You would see it was hurting. . . . Elder Faust had asthma and had to use an inhaler quite frequently and sometimes . . . you could hear the labored breathing. . . . Never once did it slow him down from doing what he was there to do. [He] Didn’t ever worry about it, just kept smiling and being grateful and being a great representative.”84

The Impact of the Trip

The influence of the Young Ambassadors trip to China appears to have reverberated throughout China in many ways. A letter from Jiao Yen, director of the Shanghai Song and Dance Troupe, dated September 27, 1979, illustrates the feelings of some of the Chinese who saw the Young Ambassadors perform. In part Jiao Yen wrote, “You brought us the profound emotion and deep friendship of the American people and brought us a step closer in the friendly relationship of our two countries. To you, unashamed ambassadors of friendship, I must represent myself and all the comrades of our song and dance troupe in expressing to you our sincere sentiments and regard.”85

Irving Mitchell of Los Angeles wrote a letter dated August 17, 1979, and effusively praised the Young Ambassadors. He had been part of an organized tour group in China and saw the Young Ambassadors perform in Shanghai. He wrote, “The audience, overwhelmingly Chinese, applauded very little for the preliminary acts of Chinese performers. By the time the Brigham Young group was on for ten minutes the Chinese audience had lost their reserve and were clapping and stamping their feet. . . . [The Young Ambassadors are] a credit to the university and our country.”86

Marion D. Hanks recorded praise regarding the Young Ambassadors performance in China. Hanks was in a meeting with Dr. Sammy Lee, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner for platform diving, who had been present for one of the performances. Lee wrote to Hanks, “During my visit to China, I had the pleasure and inspiration of seeing the America I believe in and love. . . . You can be mighty proud of your group and your church. . . . Their singing and their demeanor made USA number one.”87

One of the most significant results of the 1979 tour was an invitation for the Young Ambassadors to return in 1980. On that occasion the Young Ambassadors were recorded, and performances were aired on television. Boothe said, “[People] knew BYU because of this show. They almost all had the music memorized. They just watched it over and over and over again. That was a phenomenal experience. Anyplace we would go, they would know the numbers. They would know the songs that we had done.”88 Clearly if the 1979 tour had not been successful, there would have been no 1980 tour and no televised broadcasts of the BYU Young Ambassadors. Boothe’s words were echoed by many others.

For example, Performing Arts director Edward Blaser wrote, “BYU quickly became well known in China mainly due to extensive TV coverage. At the time Chinese Central Television did not have access to very much programming so they would tape the BYU shows and broadcast them over and over again. . . . Over the years I have heard many Chinese say that ‘BYU is the best known American University in China.’ Our performing groups played a key role in that.”89

These type of accolades were also stated by those who lived in China during the late 1970s and early 1980s. One recent and significant example of this came in the public remarks of Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He said, “I first got to know something about BYU . . . more than 30 years ago. . . . There was a TV broadcast of the Young Ambassadors performance from BYU in China. That was my first opportunity to be exposed to American culture. . . . Ever since then I have had the dream that someday I could come here.”90

Many others in China can attest to the significance of the 1979 Young Ambassadors tour and the televised broadcasts that came as a result of its success. For example, Wu Man, currently a famous performing artist in China, wrote, “In early 1980s, the first time I saw BYU student performance on Chinese television I was in high school. That show left me a deep impression of the talent and positive spirit of the young generation of Americans. Since then, there are several generations of Chinese that still vividly remember BYU’s Young Ambassadors visiting!”91

JingJing Lin was a university student in Beijing during the 1979 Young Ambassador tour. Although Lin did not attend the concert in 1979, she heard about it from her friends. Lin recalled, “I don’t think people had seen this kind of performance before in China. The Young Ambassadors were probably the first university group from another country—so the young people thought they were amazing.” Lin saw the Young Ambassadors on TV several times, and in 1983 Lin was able to see a live performance. What stood out to Lin the most was the enthusiasm of the Young Ambassadors. She said, “They were very warm to the Chinese people—they would come down from the stage and talk to the people and shake hands. That was the first time in China I had seen any professional group do that.” Lin eventually traveled to the United States and became employed by Brigham Young University. She reflected on the influence of the BYU tours by stating that as she accompanied various BYU groups to China in the 1990s, the hosts would frequently remark, “Oh, you are from BYU. You have very good performing groups.”92

Jiamin Huang was a student at the elite Beijing Dance Academy in 1980 when she first heard of the Young Ambassadors. While she did not personally get to attend as all of the tickets were sold out, her friends told her how amazing it was to see performers who could sing, dance, and act. She recalled that her friends were impressed with the passion and energy of the Young Ambassadors. Huang felt that the first Young Ambassadors tour was particularly significant because of the tenor of that time period. She noted that because China had only recently concluded the Cultural Revolution, many people were still suspicious of Western culture. However, the Young Ambassadors’ clean and uplifting performance opened people’s eyes to the positives of Western culture. Huang said, “I think BYU Young Ambassadors really set that good example and gained great trust, not only from ordinary people, but from government officers and the arts education field.”93

The success of the Young Ambassadors tour in 1979 not only opened the door for their 1980 tour and television broadcasts, it created the opportunity for many other BYU performing groups, including International Folk Dance Ensemble, Living Legends, Chamber Orchestra, and Ballroom Dance Company, to tour in China. In total, BYU has sent twenty-eight tours to China since 1979. “Thousands attended each concert and millions more have watched on TV,” wrote Blaser.94 Collectively these performances have helped build bridges between Brigham Young University and the People’s Republic of China.


Following the trip, Faust wrote Oaks saying, “Everything went unbelievably well. . . . The Young Ambassadors . . . were everything that is finest in our young people. They were disciplined, responsive, and were open, warm and friendly. Their talent was great, but their spirits were even greater. . . . I have nothing but commendation for Brigham Young University and its leaders who have produced such a fine group of young people. . . . Ruth and I were proud to be with them.”95

President Kimball asked for a report of the Young Ambassador tour to share with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Olsen and Boothe created a series of slides highlighting the trip and summarizing what had been accomplished. Oaks, as president of BYU, later received a letter from Ezra Taft Benson, who was then serving as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve. This letter said in part, “As you know, the First Presidency and Twelve had the privilege of seeing the slide presentation of the BYU Young Ambassadors’ cultural exchange visit to China. . . . The Brethren were very impressed with the conduct of these fine young people and the opportunities which they brought to the Church and country.”96

At the conclusion of the trip, Elder Faust said, “I can think of no better way to introduce our people [the Latter-day Saints] to the Chinese than through what has been accomplished by the Young Ambassadors on this tour.”97 This commendation was echoed by Benson who wrote, “The Brethren express their unanimous appreciation to the Young Ambassadors and their leaders for the great contribution they made in advancing the work in China.”98

About the author(s)

John Hilton III is Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He has a master’s degree from Harvard and a PhD from BYU, both in education. Besides being with his family, his favorite hobbies are reading, writing, and learning Chinese. He has recently published in Educational Researcher, Educational Technology Research and Development, and Religious Education. He has also published several popular books with Deseret Book, including 52 Life-Changing Questions from the Book of Mormon.

Brady Liu is an undergraduate at Brigham Young University studying physiology and developmental biology. He appreciates being invited by Dr. Hilton to participate in this project. He found and interviewed several of the 1979 Young Ambassadors and helped write the article. In the process, he developed a deep connection to the project.


1. These latter-day efforts had been initiated in 1852, when Hosea Stout and two companions were called to establish a missionary presence in China. Although Stout traveled to Hong Kong, he and his associates found the language and culture barriers to be too great; less than two months after arriving in Hong Kong they determined that it would be too difficult to preach to the Chinese. Juanita Brooks, On the Mormon Frontier: The Diaries of Hosea Stout, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), 2:477–82. Other attempts to initiate the establishment of the Church in China include the tours of Alma Taylor and David O. McKay. Reid L. Neilson, “Alma O. Taylor’s Fact-Finding Mission to China,” BYU Studies 40, no. 1 (2001): 176–203; and Reid L. Neilson, “Turning the Key That Unlocked the Door: Elder David O. McKay’s 1921 Apostolic Dedication of the Chinese Realm,” Mormon Historical Studies 10, no. 2 (2009): 86–92.

2. Margaret Macmillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2007), 105.

3. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 576.

4. Lianyong Feng, Yan Hu, Charles A. S. Hall, and Jianliang Wang, Chinese Oil Industry: History and Future (New York: Springer, 2011), 7.

5. Spence, Search for Modern China, 566.

6. Macmillan, Nixon and Mao.

7. Spence, Search for Modern China, 583.

8. Spence, Search for Modern China, 589.

9. Spence, Search for Modern China, 590–92.

10. Bruce Olsen, Journal, July 5, 1979, copy in possession of the authors.

11. Ernest L. Wilkinson, Bruce C. Hafen, and Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, 4 vols. (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 4:363.

12. Edward L. Blaser, “The World Is Our Stage,” BYU devotional address, May 9, 2006, available online at http://www.byutv.org/watch/d6e1ff14-2ec3-442d-a7a7-ec89861c31c6/byu-devotional-address-edward-blaser-5906.

13. Wilkinson, Hafen, and Arrington, Brigham Young University, 3:644.

14. Wilkinson, Hafen, and Arrington, Brigham Young University, 4:363–66.

15. W. Tapley Bennett to Wallace F. Bennett, June 28, 1967, Wilkinson Presidential Papers, cited in Wilkinson, Hafen, and Arrington, Brigham Young University, 4:370.

16. “BYU Students Donate More Service Time Than Any Other School in U.S.,” California Intermountain News, July 29, 1976.

17. Spencer W. Kimball, “The Uttermost Parts of the Earth,” Ensign 9 (July 1979): 2–9.

18. Dallin H. Oaks, “Getting to Know China,” BYU devotional address, March 12, 1991, available online at https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks_getting-know-china/. As part of these initial efforts, Gene Bramhall, working in BYU’s Office of the General Counsel, contacted his friend Alfred C. Ysrael in Guam. Ysrael had contacts with China through business and through the All China Youth Federation. Ysrael wrote a letter to Wu Hung-Fan, who was a council member of Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Ysrael wrote in part, “Attached are some of the newspaper clippings of their recent performances, which you will note have been outstanding. They would like to be invited to China sometime during April of 1979.” Alfred C. Ysrael to Wu Hung-Fan, October 17, 1978, copy in Dallin H. Oaks, Office of the President Records, UA 1085, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. In appreciation for Ysrael’s kindness, the Young Ambassadors visited Guam and performed there. Bruce Olsen, email to John Hilton III, August 8, 2016.

19. “News of the Church: First BYU Performers Tour in Soviet Union,” Ensign 8 (September 1978): 78–79.

20. Bruce L. Olsen, interview by Brady Liu, June 8, 2015, Provo, Utah.

21. Oaks, “Getting to Know China.”

22. Frank Church to Chai Tse-Min, January 5, 1979, copy in Oaks, Office of the President Records. Oaks would later write to Church, stating, “This trip would not have been possible without the Chinese invitation secured by your strong recommendation of BYU to the Chinese Ambassador.” Dallin H. Oaks to Frank Church, August 17, 1979, copy in Oaks, Office of the President Records.

23. Edward Blaser, email to John Hilton III and Brady Liu, May 4, 2016.

24. Blaser, email.

25. Blaser noted, “Following our return to Provo, the only successful way to communicate was via Telex. With a language barrier, it was important to have things in writing. China Travel Service had access for Telex. At the time, the bookstore was the only place on campus for Telex so my office purchased a small computer and subscribed to a Telex service so we could communicate back and forth.” Blaser, email.

26. Blaser, email.

27. Oaks, “Getting to Know China.”

28. Kenneth Tingey, interview by Brady Liu, August 15, 2015, Provo, Utah.

29. Tingey, interview.

30. Tami Jeppson, interview by Brady Liu, August 15, 2015, Provo, Utah.

31. Jeppson, interview.

32. Oaks, “Getting to Know China.”

33. Randy Boothe, interview by John Hilton III and Brady Liu, May 21, 2015, Provo, Utah.

34. Joe Ahuna, email to John Hilton III and Brady Liu, October 28, 2015.

35. Bruce L. Olsen, “A Small Beginning,” address to Annual University Conference, Brigham Young University, August 28, 1979, L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

36. Olsen, “Small Beginning.” These rehearsals were, of course, on top of significant individual preparations that participants had previously made to perfect their showmanship.

37. Steven Kapp Perry, interview by John Hilton III and Brady Liu, May 20, 2015, Provo, Utah.

38. Olsen, “Small Beginning.”

39. Olsen, “Small Beginning.”

40. Olsen, interview.

41. Olsen, interview.

42. Boothe, interview.

43. Olsen, Journal, July 3, 1979.

44. Boothe, interview.

45. Olsen, Journal, July 3, 1979.

46. Boothe, interview.

47. John Stucki, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 4, 1979, original in possession of Randy Boothe, copy in possession of the author.

48. Later in the tour, the tour guides opened up a bit more about their perspective of this moment. Olsen recorded, “Miss Wong . . . said that when we arrived that they were greatly upset that we had brought all the equipment even though they had tried through letter and through telegram to discourage us. It was obvious that we had come with a serious intent to perform. . . . So the first show in Peking was a real test to see what we could do. When they saw how good the kids were and the show content, they were determined at that point to do whatever they could to place us in fine auditoriums.” Olsen, Journal, July 13, 1979.

49. During this afternoon, Elder Faust performed a special prayer. Oaks, “Getting to Know China.”

50. Olsen, Journal, July 4, 1979.

51. When the group left Beijing, Sargent came to the airport to see them off. Jeppson states, “We sang ‘God Be with You’ for her and I do remember that being very, very touching. She was just in tears.” Jeppson, interview.

52. Darla O’Dell, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 5, 1979.

53. Olsen, interview.

54. Olsen, “Small Beginning.”

55. O’Dell, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 5, 1979.

56. Tim Taylor, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 6, 1979.

57. Olsen, “Small Beginning.”

58. Michael Farnes, interview by Brady Liu, June 12, 2015, Provo, Utah.

59. Bob Murri, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 9, 1979.

60. At the Hangzhou performance more than 3,000 people gathered to watch a performance at a theater that only could seat 2,500 people. Boothe reports that the Chinese officials “showed the movies outside in another area of the park to make them feel better about not getting a seat.” Randy Boothe, Journal, July 7, 1979.

61. Wendy Gougler, “China Impressed with Y Singers,” Daily Universe [BYU newspaper], August 7, 1979, 1.

62. Olsen, Journal, July 14, 1979.

63. Ken Sekaquaptewa, interview by Brady Liu, June 2, 2015, Provo, Utah.

64. Ken Sekaquaptewa, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 12, 1979.

65. Sekaquaptewa, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 12, 1979.

66. Sekaquaptewa, interview.

67. Sekaquaptewa, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 12, 1979.

68. Chen Su Ming to the Young Ambassadors, July 12, 1979, in 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 14, 1979.

69. Sekaquaptewa, interview.

70. Olsen, interview.

71. Olsen, interview.

72. Boothe, Journal, July 8, 1979.

73. Olsen, Journal, July 12, 1979.

74. Chris Utley, interview by John Hilton III, July 22, 2015, Provo, Utah.

75. Olsen, Journal, July 3, 1979.

76. Boothe, Journal, July 5, 1979.

77. Olsen, Journal, July 16, 1979.

78. Olsen, Journal, July 8, 1979.

79. Perry, interview.

80. Chris Utley, interview by John Hilton III, July 22, 2015, Provo, Utah.

81. Michael Farnes, interview by John Hilton III, June 12, 2015, Provo, Utah.

82. Tingey, interview.

83. Boothe, interview.

84. Boothe, interview.

85. Jiao Yen to Randy Boothe, September 27, 1979, copy in possession of the authors.

86. Irving Mitchell to BYU’s public relations director, August 17, 1979, copy in possession of the author.

87. Sammy Lee, quoted in Marion D. Hanks to Dallin H. Oaks, February 5, 1980, copy in possession of the authors.

88. Boothe, interview.

89. Blaser, email.

90. Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Public Address Given at Brigham Young University, October 6, 2015.

91. Wu Man, email to John Hilton III and Brady Liu, May 2, 2016.

92. Jingjing Lin, interview by John Hilton III, April 29, 2016, Provo, Utah.

93. Jiamin Huang, interview by John Hilton III, May 4, 2016, Provo, Utah.

94. Blaser, email.

95. James E. Faust to Dallin H. Oaks, July 17, 1979, copy in Oaks, Office of the President Records.

96. Ezra Taft Benson to Dallin H. Oaks, September 7, 1979, copy in possession of the authors.

97. Bruce Olsen, 1979 Young Ambassadors Tour Journal, July 28, 1979.

98. Benson to Oaks.


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