This spring, The College of Idaho Chamber Singers and string quartet took a musical tour of China. Professor Brent Wells and President Charlotte Borst accompanied the students, who performed concerts and learned valuable lessons about Chinese history and culture, the power of music and, most importantly, themselves. Recently graduated senior Caitlin Fellows chronicled the journey, including a Flickr photo album.
We arrived in China exhausted and exhilarated after a crazy rush that included finals week, packing and, for many of us, graduation. No one really cared though. We were ready to see a new part of the world!
We spent the first day immersing ourselves in Chinese culture by visiting Beijing’s most famous tourist attractions. We started out in Tiananmen Square, and then traveled through the beautiful and impossibly detailed buildings of the Forbidden Palace, taking in the bright colors, beautiful carvings and painted ceilings. That afternoon, we enjoyed the Summer Palace and had a chance to walk down the Long Corridor, with hundreds of unique paintings lining the eaves. For our first Chinese dinner, we had Peking duck—a classic dish featuring thin slices of duck wrapped in a thin rice pancake along with spring onions, cucumbers and hoisin sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and as I kept eating and eating, I realized I was going to love the food in China.
Our first musical exchange was at Beijing High School 35, and it was amazing! The campus was a beautifully arranged combination of traditional and modern buildings. Dr. Wells said Beijing High School 35 is the Chinese equivalent of a U.S. high school being a prep school for Harvard. You could definitely see that these were the top students in Beijing. They did research on nanotechnology and big data, and even had their own wind tunnel! We performed a concert with two of their choirs that night, and it was amazing to walk into the auditorium and see a huge red banner reading “U.S.-Sino Art Education Interflow Concert” in both English and Chinese.
One of the most interesting things to me about China was its incredibly rich history. In the United States, we see buildings or artifacts that are a couple hundred years old, and we are amazed. In China, we were seeing buildings and artifacts that had been preserved for thousands of years. The time scale is just incredible. This struck me most when we saw the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors. When we visited the Great Wall, it stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction; thinking about how something that amazing was built by hand over 500 years ago was incredible. Here’s something not many people can say: I have performed on the Great Wall of China! Dr. Wells had the great idea to do an impromptu performance on the Wall, so we all wore Yote shirts, brought along our hand bells and finger cymbals, and sang “Mo Li Hua,” a traditional Chinese folk song. Other tourists gathered around to listen and film us. It was one of the most amazing experiences of the trip.
When we went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, it was just as mind-blowing as the Great Wall. Archaeologists have uncovered 6,000 warriors buried under the ground from the time they were found about 40 years ago. They were discovered by a farmer who was digging a well. One of the most interesting things was that they almost weren’t found; the farmer uncovered the soldier in the very first row, and if he’d dug his well just one meter in the other direction, they might never have been discovered. The biggest pit of soldiers was the size of an airplane hangar, and there were just so many soldiers, all unique, and all so well-preserved. It was absolutely incredible.
We had so many cool experiences that I can barely cram them all into one article. Riding an overnight train; listening to some students perform the traditional Peking Opera; visiting a jade factory; going to the Night Markets in Xi’an; trying our hand at traditional Chinese calligraphy in an art museum; visiting museums, ancient pagodas, temples, and so much more! Everyone especially loved going to Pingyao, which is one of the only ancient walled cities that is still well-preserved in China. We stayed in a courtyard hotel with traditional Chinese beds in our rooms. We saw the old county government offices as well as the first bank in China. We also got to explore the city with all its little shops and street foods. We tried unique things like date juice, which is apparently orange—you learn new things every day!
Our last exchange and concert at Shanxi University was the most memorable of the trip. We rehearsed with the university choir and got to sing part of Mozart’s Requiem together. We also made some great personal connections. A group of us were sitting outside practicing, and one of the students from Shanxi came out and talked with us for a while. We were trading songs back and forth, seeing which songs we knew in common, and singing together. It was such a unique cultural exchange. At another school, two violinists from our string quartet had a “Violin Battle” with a Chinese musician. Both of these experiences really underscored music’s ability to cross and transcend cultures.
Our trip to China really showed us the power of music in connecting people and experiences around the world. I’m so happy that I had the chance to go to China with The College of Idaho Chamber Singers. From the Forbidden City, to the streets of ancient Pingyao, to the halls of different Chinese universities, the experience was absolutely life-changing. It was something I will never forget.