BEIJING Counter-culture hero and 1960s protest singer Bob Dylan got a rapturous welcome from fans on Wednesday at his first gig in China, despite agreeing to sing an approved set so as not to offend political sensitivities.
Famous for his songs against injustice and for civil liberties and pacifism, Dylan struck a cautious line in Beijing and did not sing anything that might have overtly offended China's Communist rulers, like "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
On stage for almost two hours at the city's Worker's Gymnasium, Dylan brought the audience to a standing ovation with his penultimate song, "All Along the Watchtower," and came back for two encores. "Like a Rolling Stone" also proved popular.
He spoke only once directly to the crowd of some 5,000 people -- mostly young Chinese though with a strong foreign presence -- and that was to introduce his band.
"I was a little disappointed that he didn't sing many of his songs because of the politics," said Zhang Tian, 30, a Beijing lawyer. "What is the government so afraid of?"
Dylan's gravelly voice, which made his lyrics hard to pick out even for native speakers of English, would have flummoxed many Chinese in the crowd in any case.
Promoters tried to bring Dylan to China last year, but the Culture Ministry did not give its approval, as is required for any concert in the country.
China's agreement this year came with the proviso that Dylan "performed with the approved content," according to a brief statement issued last month by the ministry, which gave no other details.
Dylan's concert comes at a sensitive time in China, where musicians and artists have always had to contend with at least a measure of government control and censorship.
Over the weekend renowned Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was taken into custody at Beijing airport and has not been heard from since, in the latest part of a sweeping campaign to stifle dissent.
Beijing perhaps ought not to have been so worried. While some Western artists such as Lady Gaga and Celine Dion are wildly popular in China, especially with young people in the big cities, the aging Dylan is much less well-known.
"I know his songs from karaoke, but I'm really not that familiar with him," said advertising executive Yin Yang, 24. "Still I think this was a historic concert and I'm glad I've seen him."
One state-run newspaper, the Global Times, a popular tabloid run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, sniffed that Dylan had nothing to say to the man on the street in China.
"The subject of Dylan's songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person, who is more interested in taking care of his or her family," it wrote in its English language edition.
However, American studies professor Teng Jimeng said Dylan's musical messages of justice and world peace were just as meaningful today as when he first sang them.
"Dylan is still relevant to us because ... 'Blowin' in the Wind' is an anti-war song and also 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' is an anti-war song," Teng said. "And Dylan means a lot to us still because the world is still at war."
"Baobo Dilun," as he is known in Chinese, will also perform in China's commercial capital Shanghai later in the week.
China's censors are notoriously sensitive not just to subversive political content, but also references to sex, drugs and religion.
In 2006, Beijing demanded the Rolling Stones exclude five of their racier numbers for their first show in China, including "Brown Sugar" and "Let's Spend the Night Together," due to lyrics deemed too risqué for mild-mannered Chinese.
Visits by Western singers and bands to China are still fairly rare, though increasing.
Their shows don't always go off smoothly.
In 2008, Icelandic singer Bjork shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" at a Shanghai concert after performing her song "Declare Independence," angering the government and local fans alike.
But Dylan's words were lost to many in the crowd.
"He has songs the government could consider sensitive? Really?" asked Xiao Shu, 36. "I just like the music."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)