At a time when many other American performers have been banned from China, Bob Dylan was allowed to play Wednesday night in Beijing, but with a program that omitted Dylan’s most famous ballads of dissent.
Conspicuously absent from the program at the Workers’ Gymnasium were “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan’s set list had to be sanctioned beforehand by the Ministry of Culture, which in its formal invitation decreed that he would have to “conduct the performance strictly according to the approved program.”
Still, the 69-year-old musician, clad in a white panama hat and drainpipe trousers, sung and strummed before a welcoming crowd of 6,000. He worked his way through a repertoire that included “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate.”
The only time Dylan paused in the workmanlike performance to address the audience was when he introduced the members of his band.
The concert comes in the midst of a crackdown on Chinese intellectuals, activists and artists in which dozens of people have been arrested or investigated. The outspoken Beijing artist Ai Weiwei reportedly was last seen Sunday in police custody after trying to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong.
Dylan avoided coverage of the event by the foreign media. The concert promoter, Live Nation Asia, did not return telephone calls requesting information about the concert. Larry Jenkins, who in the past has served as publicity agent for Dylan, said only: “He’s on tour. He’s not doing any interviews.”
Rock stars and other performing artists are frequently censored in China, especially since 2008 when Icelandic singer Bjork shouted, “Tibet! Tibet!” during a performance of the song “Declare Independence.”
While the Rolling Stones received permission from the government to perform in 2003 and 2006, they were forbidden to play some of their most popular songs, including “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Woman,” because of the risque lyrics. This year, Janet Jackson and Eric Clapton played in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, but skipped mainland China.
“Foreign acts coming into China are watched much more closely than native Chinese bands,” said Nevin Domer, booking manager at D-22, a mecca for student rock in Beijing. “Even when bands on our label play big festivals with hundreds or thousands of people, they don’t need to submit lyrics [to censors].”
Dylan is so unknown in China that one newspaper, the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News, ran a story about his upcoming concerts alongside a big photograph of country music star Willie Nelson.
During the height of Dylan’s popularity in the 1960s, China was entirely closed off to the West. Only in the 1980s did social and economic liberalization allow Chinese to hear rock music. But none of Dylan’s albums have ever been officially released in China.
At the Beijing concert Wednesday, many Chinese attendees admitted they knew little of Dylan’s music or legacy.
“His music is OK. But I don’t speak English, so I can’t understand what he’s singing,” Gao Mingwen said outside the stadium. “I hear he’s very famous though.”
Haas is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Barbara Demick contributed to this report.