Peddlers sell her picture on street corners here. Faint tapes of tapes of her songs are passed around all over China. Not long ago police in Peking arrested several young men for selling her songs in black-market cassettes fresh from Hong Kong. Her name is Deng Lijun, 26, admired by one fan for her "pretty, little babyish face." To China's youth, she is Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton rolled into one.
Yet the reigning pop star has no official Communist Party approval, has never openly visited China and is not heard on the state radio. Young Chinese feel a bit daring listening to her wailing love songs -- for Deng Lijun is from that sworn enemy of Chinese Communism, the island of Taiwan. Her popularity is only one sign of China's changing musical taste. After decades of listening to thumping Communist marches and revolutionary odes to Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese -- particularly the half billion of them under 30 -- are turning more and more openly to what many here feel has been their musical preference for years: the syrupy love ballads of Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the same time, in a country where songs have had tremendous social and political impact for centuries, American country-western and East Indian dance tunes are also filtering in, along with U.S. movies and Japanese tape recorders. The underground music boom has created a thriving private market here for blank cassettes. Youngsters strolling Shanghai, Peking and Canton carry their tape recorders, some huge models bought from foreigners or relatives, with the same casual air of their American counterparts in Santa Monica or Bethesda. Most have some access to shortwave radios that capture music-rich programs from Radio Australia and the Voice of America. Chinese and English-language VOA broadcasters cater to a growing Chinese interest in country-western music.
"The words are fairly simple, the tunes are strong and those who know English can follow the stories in each song," said Voa Hong Kong correspondent Wayne Corey, a frequent visitor to China whose name is instantly recognized by young Chinese.
Simple words and love themes also enliven Deng Lijun's Taiwanese songs. But they have far greater impact than American country-western because she sings in a pure, mandarin Chinese dialect. That is the national language both for Taiwan's 17 million people and the nearly 1 billion Chinese on the mainland. "You'll always find young Chinese who have a tape of a tape of a tape of a Deng album somebody brought in from Hong Kong a long time ago," one longtime Peking resident said. Deng, who also records in Hong Kong and Japan, sings saccharine, high-pitched ballads with lyrics such as these: "Can't tell if these are tears or rain./I remember, remember that it was raining when you said goodbye./Your tears fell, you cried at our parting./It will be hard to meet again,, I hide your love deep in my heart." The songs usually lack the hard-edged lyrics and rock beat of American female singers, but young Chinese find Deng's arrangements pleasant and exciting.
The free-market peddlers who are now tolerated on city street corners do a good business in selling small photos of her and some Hong Kong and Japanese singers and movie stars. Deng's picture will often have a tiny page of sheet music from one of her hit songs next to it so that fans can follow the words. On Peking's frozen canals and pounds this past winter, ice-skating rinks were set up with public address systems. Some Hong Kong love songs -- similar to Deng's but not sung by her -- could be heard played at the rink behind the Forbidden City recently, a measure of unusual official tolerance for the underground musical taste of ordinary Chinese.
The new interest in pop musical forms extends to the instruments themselves. Classical and jazz music devotees here note with alarm a growing affection among Chinese youth for Hawaiian guitars and the electric organ. Arrangements familiar to American cocktail-lounge habitues now fill the Marxist-Leninist airwaves. There have been electric-organ concerts on television. Said one American scholar, appalled at the musical tastes of his many Chinese friends: "They've gotten so sophisticated they have risen to the level of Muzak." One Chinese says: "We like it because it's light music and you can relax."
During the last two decades, official Chinese composers were led to believe that relaxation was counterrevolutionary. Popular music revolved around rousing choral numbers like "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman." There were some softer ballads, but the lyrics usually were not conductive to creating a romantic mood on a summer night.
If there had been a Peking Top 40, the No. 1 hit of the 1960s would have been "Dong Fang Hong" ("The East Is Red"), a clever and stimulating tune with rather single-minded lyrics: "The East is red. The sun has risen. China has produced a Mao Tse-tung. He gives people happiness. He is the people's great savior."
For a while the song was unescapable and oppressive. Factory, army and student dormitory loudspeakers blared it out at 5 a.m. Clock steeples chimed a few notes every hour. The first Chinese satellite beeped out the tune from its orbit. It is associated with the now-discredited policies of the Cultural Revolution, but government songwriters have yet to find a suitable replacement.
Meanwhile, offical Chinese radio busies its listeners with foreign exotics -- in particular, American country-western music. "Kan-wei Te-wei-di" and "Da-lei Pa-er-duen" have become featured singers on some Peking radio shows. Startled Americans find they are listening to Conway Twitty and Dolly Parton. "Country-western sort of sounds like Chinese folk music," said one American who has pondered this cross-cultural fascination. Many country songs do have a Chinese-style sing-song delivery. And many are also what Chinese call "soft and mellow," a quality of leisure music keenly sought by Chinese retreating from streets full of car and truck drivers honking their horns. Country-western themes also often celebrate pervasive features of Chinese life -- railroad trains, family trouble and early rising.
Chinese listening to country music to improve their English have some complaints. After hearing the song "I Don't Need No Man," an English-speaking Chinese protested: "That's a double negative!" But to Chinese who often endure long separations from their families, the song's lyric had meaning: "The fastest train I ever seen was 100 coaches long, and the only man I ever did love was on that train and gone."
There are some hints that the Chinese may be reviving what was a budding fascination before the chilling xenophobia of the Cultural Revolution -- when singing foreign songs was dangerous. In fact, some Western songs have been here long enough to loose all trace of their origins. When I tried to tell a Chinese friend the English lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne" as we listened to it on the radio, the man said, "But that's a Chinese song!" Radio stations around the coundty regularly play the melody of "Red River Valley," but apparently somewhere in the foggy past of the Chinese Communist party, a friendly foreign leftist brought here lyrics that transplant the old cowboy song to the Spanish Civil War. The Chinese lyrics now translate: "The national flag flies over the mountain. They protect Spain's freedom, vow to safeguard the country until death and kill the fascist swine." On a long train ride from Lanzhou to Xi'an, the loudspeaker softly woke me with that song, plus a series of pleasant Chinese adaptations of Western tunes, including Gordan Lightfoot's "In the Early Morning Rain" and a tune from "The Sound of Music."
Songs from "The Sound of Music" are heard everywhere, although the musical and movie have not been seen here except in private showings. "Do-Re-Mi," well on its way to becoming the most frequently sung American song in China, was performed for Vice President Mondale and his entourage twice during his one-week visit here in 1979. The Chinese lyrics are a clever and faithful translation of the English, but perhaps somewhat confusing to Chinese listeners. "Doe" in Chinese is not a female deer, but a humble bean.
The Shanghai newspaper Wen Hui Bao complained: "'Do-Re-Mi' is not a bad children's song, but at the moment it seems that every musical concert must include this popular selection. Are there no other American musical works that are worth introducing?"
With the changing musical climate, Chinese standard tunes -- the equivalent of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Night and Day" -- have returned after a decade or two in limbo. "We just didn't listen to the radio, or to music -- there wasn't any you would want to listen to," said a young man who was a university student in Shanghai in 1975 when light music was still proscribed. The Chinese songs that have returned to popularity still seem too stiff and political to young people who hoard Deng Lijun tapes. But they are better than usual and appeal to the over-30 generation who remember many of the tunes from their own youth. "In the past there was trouble on the grasslands," says one optimistic lyric. "Now everybody has a smiling face. I urge my horse on. The sun rises in the east. Tall buildings replace old tents. Girls have new clothes. Golden wheat waves in the breeze."
Young Chinese, mostly men in their 20s with thick winter coats and sometimes wispy mustaches, are jammed three deep at the record counter on the second floor of Peking's main department store. The big hits recently are movie themes, particularly music from the new tear-jerker "Little Flower," the story of a Chinese girl separated from her family in the tumult of war in the 1930s. Tian Yu, a helpful store clerk, plays a bit of the thin blue plastic record, which costs 35 U.S. cents. Well-known female vocalist Li Guyi warbles: "The little sister looks for her brother, tears roll down her cheeks." The now fashionable electric organ brings up the melody in the background. Some of the young men waiting to buy records hum along.
"Actually, we don't have any of this one to sell right now," Tian says. "We got in 2,000 copies yesterday, but they've sold out."
The song placed second in a recent popularity poll -- an extraordinary step taken by "Song" magazine, a new Peking publication, and the government radio. tMore than 1 million people sent in their choices from a list of 600 songs played on the state radio in the last three years. The winner: "Sing a Toast," an ode to the fall of the Gang of Four.