Tan Jing sweeps into the hotel room in a fluorescent yellow anorak, fresh from a photo shoot at the nearby Royal Albert Hall. She seems, in fact, still to be on set as we settle down to talk; her conversation, though animated, is as carefully polished as her performance at the London venue the night before.
Passing on the baton from Beijing to the London Olympics, Tan was the headline act in a show with the Swedish solo artist Robert Wells, backed by a stellar line-up from China and the UK. She sang a compilation of traditional Chinese songs against the rocking rhythms of jazz piano. The pentatonic sound was accessible, even catchy. But in spite of the shrill perfection, the music lacked warmth, and a long line of cameras formed a wall between audience and performance as they beamed the concert to millions of viewers across China watching China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster.
The strikingly beautiful musician, in her mid-thirties, is a well-known name on China’s music scene, but she is not a mainstream pop singer. Instead she is a soldier-singer in the People’s Liberation Army who rose to fame when she performed at Beijing’s Olympic opening ceremony in 2008. Classically trained, she is also known for her TV and film appearances, and is now something of a cultural ambassador.
China’s pop scene is dominated by saccharine love songs, with pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan topping the charts. For homegrown singers, the talent shows that have been on Chinese television since the mid-2000s have become one of the main avenues to fame. Talents such as Tan, who have been groomed through official channels, lag far behind in popularity. Although their presence at key events broadcast by CCTV gives them national coverage, social media sites suggest that they are not universally admired: on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the Taiwanese actor/singer Wang Lee-hom has 10.75m followers; Tan, by contrast, has a mere 317,481.
Beijing keeps tight controls on pop music just as on every other area of culture. Lyrics must be submitted for censoring before an album can be produced, and even anodyne mainstream Chinese pop – known as Mandopop – is carefully monitored. “It is proven, tolerated and liked by the government and there is this perception that this is the kind of stuff that people like and should listen to,” says Michael Pettis, owner of the D22 music club in Beijing as well as China’s second-biggest indie label, Maybe Mars. “The indie scene tends to be much smaller, very urban and highly educated whereas the Mandopop scene is very widely distributed,” he adds.
Music has shaped Tan’s life from the beginning. She was born and grew up in Houma City, Shanxi Province, not far from Beijing. Her mother was a singer. “I grew up behind the stage,” she says, laughing coyly. “I started learning the piano when I was eight, but after a while I turned to singing.” She gave her first musical performance aged nine with her parents, and began singing aged 11.
She was first spotted by the People’s Liberation Army when she was studying at the Chinese Conservatory of Music. “I was lucky to get very good grades, which helped me to become a soldier-singer,” she says. They duly recruited her to become an army singer in 1998, when she was 21.
Tan’s sense of patriotism is evident both in her music and in the way she conducts herself. Asked whether she enjoys her role, she responds in a crisp, impassioned voice. “It’s lots of commitment – it is hard work, but most importantly I enjoy it. I love it – every time I think about music I love it – I never feel tired of it.”
Such statements are as pat as her stage style: talking to her, it is difficult to get any sense of whether she could step beyond her officially demarcated boundaries into a genuine exchange of views. The line between freedom of expression and media control in China is probably at its thinnest with people like Tan.
Yet her patriotism does not come across as blind or naive. She clearly has a strong intellect. Asked whether she might also have a career in politics, or consider living abroad, she hesitates: “I think about it but for now I prefer to continue with my music. If I left the stage the audience would miss a very important singer, so it’s important to stay on the stage,” she says without a trace of irony.
Another of Tan’s seemingly endless duties is her role as vice-chairman of the Pop Music Association in China, where she aims to foster talent. “I like to involve all the artists – I travel all around the regions in China, from village to village. I try to give some extra tips to help musicians to progress in their careers.” She discusses her love for traditional music. “I am a promoter for the Chinese national style.” I ask her what she thinks about the fact that Supergirl, the main Chinese equivalent of the talent show Pop Idol, is due to be taken off air next year. The regulator’s explanation of the decision to the broadcaster of the show, Hunan TV, was that entertainment should take a back seat to “values, responsibility and quality” – although other talent shows in China remain on air.
“I think it is good for the young people to be encouraged to develop talents,” she says. “I hadn’t heard it had been stopped though ... maybe it’s just that the government wanted to alter it?” she asks. When questioned further on her relationship to the government, Tan’s reply is brusque. “My relationship to the government is very close. Ever since university I have received all my support from the government so it’s a title that I have to work for.”
Halfway through our meeting, the music in the background switches from jazz piano to the erhu – the fine-toned Chinese violin. Asked about her favourite song, Tan is unequivocal: “‘On the East Mountain Top,’” she says without hesitation. “Very famous song,” she adds, bursting into English. “It’s a Tibetan love song. So this love song is about Chinese people who have visited Tibet, get the culture, the ideas and then come back and wrote the song.”
I round off our discussion with a question as to what she sees as her most important role in life. “China is developing, and the cross-culture is getting important,” she replies, “so I’m really pleased to be a cross-cultural ambassador to help the Chinese music industry to import and export from China.” Then she smiles and says, again in English, “Welcome to China. Welcome to Beijing. Beautiful Beijing.”
And with that, in a blaze of yellow, she is gone.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Stevenson