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BEIJING — Despite the threat of censorship, American music legend Bob Dylan will try to scale the musical Great Wall of China in April, a year after he scrapped planned concerts here for reasons still unexplained.
Overnight Tuesday, popular online ticket agent Mypiao.com began taking reservations for tickets to see Dylan, in concert in Beijing and Shanghai on Apr. 6 and 8, respectively.
Although the Ministry of Culture has yet to publicize its necessary approval for the concerts planned by Beijing-based promoter Gehua-LiveNation, a MyPiao agent reached by telephone said the company already had taken 2,000 reservations for the Beijing appearance.
“The tickets are not yet on sale but we think they might be later this week,” the ticket sales agent said. “We will call you back when they are actually available.”
But neither of Dylan’s planned China shows was listed on the official website of the 1960s rebel icon, a site which does list his planned appearances in Taipei, Taiwan, on Apr. 3, and in Hong Kong, where he has played before, on Apr. 12. Live events industry site Pollstar.com lists the Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong shows, but not Taipei.
Historically, media monitors from China’s one-party central government have proven wary of countercultural influence, especially when it’s imported.
In 2006, authorities asked seminal British rockers The Rolling Stones to cut five songs including Let’s Spend the Night Together from their first ever concert in China, in Shanghai, citing lyrics inappropriate for Chinese audiences.
In March 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics that August, when the world was watching China’s emergence onto the world stage, the Icelandic singer Bjork stirred up a firestorm in by shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of her encore number, “Declare Independence,” at a Shanghai concert. It was her second China appearance and probably her last. Some point to Bjork’s declaration about Tibet, the territory China has governed since 1950, as the root cause of Dylan scrapping his planned China appearances last year.
At the time, Jeffrey Wu, of the Taiwan-based promoters Brokers Brothers Herald told Hong Kong newspaper The South China Morning Post, that the Ministry of Culture was wary of Dylan’s political past.
“The Ministry of Culture will have their fingers crossed,” said Teng Jimeng, who wrote his masters thesis about Dylan at Beijing Foreign Studies University where he now teaches courses on American culture. “It’s their job to filter through all Dylan’s work to see which songs can be played in China and which cannot.”
Dylan’s lyrics often encourage individual questioning of authority, such as in his 1965 hit Subterranean Homesick Blues.
“Watch the plain clothes,” Dylan sings about undercover policemen, and: “You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows,” a reference to the American anarchist group of the period that advocated violence as a form of anti-government protest.
Would that song be cut from any Dylan set list? “Absolutely. If they can read through all the lyrics and understand Dylan’s subtleties,” said Teng. “He’s 50% anarchist and the other half poet. For Chinese, he’s not that easy to understand.”
Also in danger from the censor’s scissors for references to politics, sex and drugs are the songs Blowin’ in the Wind, Rainy Day Woman, and Mr. Tambourine Man, Teng said.
“Religion could also be a problem. The Ministry will have been briefed on the second half of Dylan’s career when he became a gospel singer singing about God,” Teng said.
Kelly Cha, a young Beijing-based musician, said, “Dylan has probably got more fans than all the other acts that have visited China from overseas.” Cha would know. She hosts bilingual TV and radio shows, toured China with Linkin Park and last week interviewed The Eagles in Taiwan.
Asked if it was important for Dylan to be able to play whatever songs he wanted in China, Cha said: “There are always compromises that artists and promoters must make when playing in certain countries around the world. Every song Dylan is able to sing here will mean the world to his Chinese fans.”
Tickets to see Dylan, who will turn 70 in May, perform at the 12,000-seat indoor Beijing Workers Gymnasium and the 8,000-seat Shanghai Grand Theater, start at 280 yuan ($42) each.
MyPiao advertised the most expensive tickets at 1,961.411 yuan ($300), an amount paying tribute to Dylan’s breakthrough show with blues giant John Lee Hooker in New York on Apr. 11, 1961.
If the shows go on, Prof. Teng said he’ll be waiting by the door in Beijing for an autograph: “He’s a huge inspiration to all of us. It’s going to be a pilgrimage.”
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