Beneath the gentle persona that reflects traditional virtues of ancient Chinese women, Shen Yun dancer Meijing Tu carries a strong-willed spirit to achieve.
The trees seemed to catch fire in the sunlight and play hide-and-seek with the autumn foliage. Flaming red and golden leaves danced in the breeze before falling on the shimmering lake. Dong Meijing walked confidently down the steps toward the water. In a crisp white dress, her slim silhouette stood out from the burst of green, gold, and crimson.
From afar, one could clearly see Dong knew where she was going — to the wooden bench by the grassy bank where we met to talk. She walked with the same enduring determination that turned her into a professional artiste with the world-class Shen Yun Performing Arts group.
Dong’s voice was warm and engaging. When asked which language she’d like to converse in, the New Jersey native paused for a couple of seconds. Then with a twinkle in her eye and a luminous smile, she replied, “Can we speak Chin-glish? I mean Chinese with a sprinkling of English.”
Retaining traditional values
Dong, a fluent Mandarin speaker, said her parents come from Hong Kong and speak Cantonese at home. But she and her older sister, a musician in the Shen Yun Orchestra, grew up steeped in Western culture. She began speaking Mandarin predominantly after joining Fei Tian Academy of the Arts — the school that trains most of the Shen Yun Performing Arts dancers.
“My mother was very strict with us about our manners and behaviors. She followed all the traditional Chinese culture requirements” to make sure that Dong and her sister grew up with the temperate nature of Asian girls.
Dong’s strict upbringing caused her to be reserved rather than outgoing. She was shy at school, awkward in social activities, and “never expresses her own opinions strongly,” she says. But underneath that meekness smoulders a strength and tenacity to endure, to remain steadfast, and surpass her aspirations.
“My mother loves art and has studied dance and music. When we were growing up, she encouraged my sister and me to learn the ancient Chinese musical instruments — dizi (Chinese flute) and Guzheng (zither).”
Finding her way
Dong’s life has been peppered with obstacles. Instead of deterring her, however, these stumbling blocks have made her more determined to achieve her goals. When she realized her forte didn’t lie in creating captivating music with traditional Chinese instruments, she turned to ballet. When she faltered and fell, she got up and kept going.
The resolute dancer said she auditioned three times before finally gaining acceptance to the prestigious Fei Tian Academy of the Arts. After she failed twice, she felt depressed and disappointed.
But she refused to accept defeat or give up. She really wanted to learn Chinese classical dance. So, “mother found me a new dance teacher for specific training and I finally succeeded on my third attempt.”
It was 2008 when Dong was accepted and finally reunited with her older sister who was already in the Shen Yun Orchestra. Within three months of arriving at the Academy, she was selected to join Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Honing her skills
Dong soon found her path strewn with fresh ordeals. For the first time, she appreciated her mother’s strict upbringing; it braced her for the rigors and challenges of dance training.
Dong recounted her experience perfecting the art of Qian Ting (head-down forward flip without using the hands). This is the most difficult technique that every female Shen Yun dancer must accomplish.
When she didn’t feel brave enough to attempt the intimidating flip, she persevered. “I practiced flipping with my hands touching the ground continuously every day, 50 to 100 times. Then I did hundreds of jumps to strengthen my legs.”
The team spirit among the dancers is powerful, Dong noted, as though they’re all of one mind.
“Everyone would gather to practice Qian Ting. And everyone would be tumbling back and forth on the mats. It was an awesome sight,” she said.
“Suddenly I did it one day and I felt incredible. It took me one year to master this technique.” With this mastery, the determined dancer’s confidence catapulted higher in every aspect of her life.
Strong, feminine roles
Dong’s teachers noticed her determination, maturity, and growing confidence and assigned her exceptionally strong yet feminine roles that highlighted traditional virtues of Chinese women in ancient times. In that year, on the world’s most revered stages, Dong played the title role of Hua Mulan — a devoted daughter who disguised herself as a man to take her aging father’s place to fight for her country. In 2014, Dong performed the role of a hero’s mother in Ne Zha Churns the Sea.
The accomplished dancer reminisced about the early days, how she didn’t prepare the drum stand well before going on stage — it would fall apart with a slight push — or she’d put her hairpiece on backwards.
“It’s lucky that my classmates and teachers helped me every time, so no big problem happened. Every time when I made those mistakes, I recorded the glitches and checked them again before each performance,” she added.
Now, Dong reaches out to mentor novice dancers, helping them to walk the same arduous path to becoming a professional classical Chinese dancer.
As we talked, the sun dipped lower in the sky and the colours in the trees burned their brightest. When our tête-à-tête came to an end, the young woman in white stood up, bade farewell and made her way up the stone steps with a poised, purposeful gait.