Published: April 3, 2012

By: Larry Robinson

On the evening of Saturday, February 11th, 2012, Adjunct Associate Professor Chi Li received a call from the executive director of the UCLA Confucius Institute, Susan Pertel Jain. Dr. Jain stated that the institute needed Professor Li's musical expertise. The vice-president of China, Xi Jinping, and the vice-president of the United States, Joe Biden, were coming to visit Los Angeles, and their itinerary would include the International Studies Learning Center (ISLC) located in Watts, which has a Chinese language program. The school had few resources and needed help in preparing for the visit of Vice-Presidents Xi and Biden.

On behalf of the school’s principal, Dr. Guillermina Jauregui, Dr. Jain asked Professor Li to help prepare a program of Chinese music for the two vice-presidents. Professor Li said yes to this request, realizing that this would be an opportunity for her to share her knowledge of Chinese music with people. Professor Li also wanted to help her colleague Susan Jain, and she had a personal interest in helping as well: she had performed in the past with Vice-President Xi’s wife. The vice-presidents’ wife is a singer, and before Professor Li came to the United States, they had performed together.

Thirty-three students were selected by the school’s principal to participate in the performance. These students, twenty-five of whom were from middle school and eight of whom were from high school, had no previous experience studying Chinese music. In addition, they had a very short time to prepare – four days, to be exact. Professor Li, however, was well prepared and had experience in putting together important events quickly, since she was the chief music director for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic torch relay race that took place in San Francisco. Professor Li quickly decided that the students would perform the Chinese waist drum dance. (The waist drums and many costumes were provided by UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology with the support of the department chair, Helen Rees). The ISLC already had a large dragon puppet; however, the students did not know how to use it. Professor Li found that the dragon would be useful for creating an exciting performance for Vice-Presidents Biden and Xi. Together the waist drum and the dragon would create a performance complete with both sound and theatrics.

In addition to having only a few days until the visit, Professor Li had to work within the strict school schedule of the students. In the short time allotted, Professor Li taught the students the names of the instruments, how to hold them, how to play them, and how to attach them to their bodies. At first, Professor Li taught the rhythms to the students without using written music. Then, as a tool for review in their free time, Professor Li wrote the music out for the students. Most of the students did not read music, but they were very willing to learn. On the third day of rehearsal, the students learned to line up in formation for their performance. The students’ arrangement when performing on the Chinese waist drum is similar to a marching band formation. Professor Li gave the children freedom. She wanted the students to develop their own personalities.

For the performance, which took place on February 17th, the students created an eight-person dragon. There were twenty students playing the waist drums and five students playing auxiliary percussion. This performance was hard work for the students. Whether a student had a waist drum, an auxiliary percussion part, or performed as a dragon puppeteer, part of the performance aspect of these roles included Chinese martial arts movements. Therefore, the students’ job was physically demanding. However, during practice, the students were never discouraged, and they continued to work hard. During the dragon dance performance, Professor Li asked the students to show their happiness and bring their spirit out. These were the principles the students were taught to remember while performing.

In China, the waist drum and dragon dances are often used in festivals. Vice-President Xi stated afterward that as soon as he heard the drums playing, he felt as if he was revisiting his childhood. Vice-President Biden stated that when he visited China several years ago, he was shown something very beautiful. Now, in return, he was very happy to show Vice-President Xi something very beautiful during his visit to the United States. Vice-President Biden thanked the students for making America look so good. Professor Li stated that, in the end, the music filled many gaps: the gap between the nations, the gap between different age groups, and the gaps among the students performing.

For more information, please visit:

“China’s leader in waiting heads home after a little Laker magic” (msn.com Today News), 18 February 2012 <http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/46438263/ns/today-today_news/t/chinas-leader-waiting-heads-home-after-little-laker-magic/#.T0FLvnk0hBk

“Chinese leaders Xi, Biden promote Chinese-U.S. trade” (usatoday.com News), 19 February 2012
<http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-02-17/US-China-Trade/53137866/1>

“习近平参观洛杉矶一中学 用中文与学生交流” (ifeng.com Phoenix News), 18 February 2012
<http://news.ifeng.com/mainland/special/xijinpingfangmei/content-3/detail_2012_02/18/12601262_0.shtml>

http://news.ifeng.com/photo/special/xijinpingfangmei/detail_2012_02/18/12602577_1.shtml