PROVO — Six years after Mao Zedong’s turbulent Cultural Revolution, BYU students Michael and Merriam Conte were dancing in the heart of China.
It was 1982, and the relationship between Brigham Young University and China was in the early stages. Prior to leaving for China, the Contes — who were then members of the group now known as Living Legends — and other BYU performing arts students spent a semester studying Chinese government and culture. The performers were told to be on their best behavior and that their Chinese audiences may be more reserved than what they were used to.
“We were going to China not many years after the Cultural Revolution, so I think there was some nervousness there because there were so many sensitivities that we had to be aware of,” Michael Conte said. “China wasn’t open to too many people back in that time. We had to really kind of watch what we said.”
But any apprehension Conte felt dissipated when, during a performance in a packed Beijing concert hall, an audience member abruptly cried out, "Yang Bai Han, we love you!"
It was Chinese for “Brigham Young.”
“All that scariness went away. We were accepted there,” said Conte, who spoke with the Deseret News alongside his wife, Merriam, from their home in Mililani Town, Hawaii. “They knew the name of BYU. We weren’t strangers; they knew who we were.”
That was a highlight for the Contes, who took part in BYU’s fourth performing arts tour to China. Since BYU’s first tour in 1979, the university’s performing arts groups have returned to China more than two dozen times, including a recent 40-year anniversary tour — BYU’s biggest tour to date — that kicked off in May and concluded earlier this month.
The Contes’ son, Adam, was part of that 40-year anniversary tour. It didn’t take long for him to discover what his parents learned 37 years ago: BYU was no stranger to China.
‘Living a miracle’
On a large scale, BYU’s 2019 trip to China marked a milestone — a 40-year relationship that began not long after then-President Jimmy Carter's formal diplomatic recognition of China. But for Adam Conte, the recent tour also carried personal significance.
Growing up, he often heard his parents’ Living Legends stories and sifted through photos from their China tour and other travels. That’s all it took to inspire him to go to BYU so he could continue his family’s tradition of performing with Living Legends. But fulfilling that goal ended up being a lot harder than he anticipated.
“It took me seven tries to finally get accepted to BYU-Provo,” he said with a laugh. “So it took a while, but it was something I always wanted to do, and I kept striving and going for it.”
Adam Conte danced with Living Legends for just a year before graduating in 2017. Thinking his time with the group was over, he was surprised when BYU reached out to him and other alumni for its bigger-than-ever, 40-year China tour anniversary.
“I just felt like I was living a miracle,” he said.
Michael and Merriam Conte were equally emotional when their son told them the good news. His phone call brought back a flood of memories from their 1982 trip to China, including how, during one devotional, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the BYU performers that years later some of their children would return to China to continue the story they were writing.
“It was exciting to think that a comment that was made (more than) 30 years ago was actually happening and being fulfilled,” Michael Conte said with emotion. “These tours are momentous events in your life that you just never forget.”
37 years later
Through FaceTime, the Contes were able to relive their China tour as they watched their 28-year-old son explore some of the very places they had traveled in 1982. But even through a small phone screen, the couple could tell China was a drastically different place from 37 years ago.
As their son walked around the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an, the Contes caught glimpses of high-end fashion brands such as Gucci and Chanel, large LED screens and downtown life that resembled Las Vegas and New York.
“I don’t remember my parents saying it was like that,” Adam Conte said with a laugh.
“There was no class structure that was visible (when we were in China). They all wore the same Mao outfit, and so there was still (his) very strong influence there,” Michael Conte said. “I also noticed (the BYU students this time) had more of the luxury and the freedom to travel about and walk on their own, where everything we did we had to stay as a group because we had a government guide that was with us the whole time.”
But for all of the technological and cultural differences, BYU’s tours then and now had the same goal in mind: to bridge gaps and develop friendships with the Chinese people through the performing arts. On tour, both Adam Conte and his parents did cultural exchanges where BYU students would watch Chinese performing arts groups following their own performances. And while on tour, although 37 years apart, both Adam Conte and his parents closed out their shows the same way — by having all the performing arts groups come together on stage to sing the Chinese folk song “Mo Li Hua” (“Jasmine Flower”).
“In Beijing, when we started singing it for the first time … and they all started cheering, I got pretty emotional because it kind of made it real for me, why we’re really here,” Adam Conte said. “Performance is a universal language. It’s like a smile.”
‘Keep those relationships alive and well’
Before former BYU basketball star Jimmer Fredette took the CBA by storm, averaging almost 38 points a game with the Shanghai Sharks in 2016, China knew the name BYU.
Before BYU’s Museum of Art became one of the first places outside of China to display the country’s artifacts back in 1995 — including the terracotta warriors from Xi’an — China knew the name BYU.
And even before an enthusiastic audience member shouted out “Yang Bai Han, we love you!” in 1982, as Michael and Merriam Conte performed with their fellow students in Beijing, China knew the name BYU.
That recognition all started with a groundbreaking performing arts tour in 1979, when BYU’s Young Ambassadors and a few members of what is now known as Living Legends became some of the first Western performing arts groups to enter the country, according to byu.edu. That tour set a precedent, leading to a continuous string of BYU performances in China over four decades — including the 40-year anniversary tour that brought together Living Legends, Young Ambassadors, Vocal Point, the Cougarettes and more. And because BYU’s arts groups have repeatedly returned to China — 29 times in 40 years — the school’s relationship with the country has solidified; when it comes to naming U.S. universities, BYU is high on China’s list.
“When people in China talk about good colleges, they always say BYU, and it’s mostly because … (students) came and showed their performances,” Adam Conte said. “A good performance is highly valued (in China). Performance is important to them, and they’ve been very impressed with the level of performance that BYU’s able to provide.”
“Performing creates a bond and an understanding, and it takes away all the differences. It’s sharing your soul without politics or whatever else comes between a people and our country,” Merriam Conte said. “It’s a beautiful way to share and to lift one another, and it’s just an amazing thing to be a part of the continuation of the relationship between BYU and the country of China, to keep those relationships alive and well and positive.”