COLUMBIA — An Jiahui, a 14-year-old student from Beijing Haidian Shiyan Middle School, sat nervously in her black dress, jeweled headband and performance makeup as she watched the end of the rehearsal for the Chinese Culture and Art Night on Friday night.
Despite having practiced cello for at least one hour a day over the past two years, An said she was very, very nervous about her six group performances.
She was one of 65 visiting Chinese middle school students from two Beijing schools. They had been touring the U.S. for just under a week.
"People are so friendly," An said. "It is very beautiful."
The students performed 18 different acts Friday night in Jesse Auditorium to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which is Monday. Among the performances were traditional music, ethnic dances, martial arts and Peking Opera.
“It is a lot of pressure, but there’s good and bad,” Handy Williamson, Vice Provost for International Programs at MU, said. “I was told some time ago when I saw my first diamond that it came from charcoal subjected to a lot of pressure, and that’s how diamonds, precious things, are created.”
In past years, the Chinese New Year program has included performances by students, faculty and visiting performers. Williamson said he was excited that the 65 visiting middle school students would perform this year’s entire program.
“The performing group was recommended by our partners at Shanghai Normal (University), and they were recommended because they are highly acclaimed across China for their abilities, and so upon receiving that we, of course, happily welcomed them,” Williamson said.
When the MU Confucius Institute was opened in April 2011, Williamson said he promised, among other things, to foster courses of exchanges between the two countries. He said he hopes those who attended the institute's opening ceremony in April would attend the Chinese Culture and Art Night and be pleased with the fulfillment of that goal.
“These students are from the top 3 percent in terms of academic abilities of the middle school students of Beijing, so they are very special,” Williamson said. “We are excited that they are here for this activity because some of them may elect to apply to go to school here in four years or so."
Williamson said the Chinese government funded the trip. This is the first activity the MU Confucius Institute has put on, making it a landmark event for the new institute.
The beginning of the show caused the audience to murmur in surprise as energetically paced music pounded through Jesse Auditorium. Four students in silky red outfits raced onstage wielding thin metal swords that made cracking sounds as the performers swung them and stabbed the air around them.
The first martial arts performance ended with one of the students executing a series of flips and bowing to the audience using a traditional Chinese bow to show gratitude and respect before jogging off stage.
In the bow, a closed right hand meets the palm of an open left hand. Wen Ouyang, co-director of the Confucius Institute, explained to the audience. The closed hand represents force, and the open hand represents society and friendship. The left thumb is folded down to show humility. The gesture indicates that wisdom and friendship govern us, not force.
Ouyang said this year has extra excitement because it is the Year of the Dragon, the mightiest of the 12 animals that symbolize the years in the Chinese lunar calendar.
“The dragon is symbolic of China, even a totem of China, so people usually pay higher attention to the Year of the Dragon,” Ouyang said. “They like to get married in the Year of the Dragon, have babies in the Year of the Dragon, and do some important things in the Year of the Dragon."
Although the dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese calendar, Ouyang said that many Chinese people believe that at one time, all the animals of the Chinese calendar were real.
“Most people believe a long time ago, probably a thousand years, we had dragons,” Ouyang said. “We call ourselves the offspring of the dragon.”
People born in the Year of the Dragon are seen as strong, lucky, imaginative, energetic, humorous and self-disciplined, Ouyang said.
The performances Friday night were executed with grace and precision in true Year of the Dragon style.
When the red curtain drew back for the second time to reveal a group of students holding violins and cellos, An, in keeping with the spirit of the other performances, smiled slightly, took a deep breath and confidently began to draw her bow across the strings of her cello.