Ruhan Jia: China's state-sponsored pop

  • 28 January 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Ruhan rehearsing

Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to promote China's cultural "soft power", and this applies to pop music too. The singer carrying the state's hopes for success in the West is Ruhan Jia - but can the Communist Party machine create a star?

"I'm going to kick off my shoes tonight," Ruhan Jia tells me, backstage before a concert in Shanghai. "It makes me feel more wild, I can jump around."

Feeling wild is not something that comes naturally to the 31-year- old classically trained musician.

She doesn't drink, smoke, or go to nightclubs. Her life is dominated by one aim, to become a global hit in the West - and she has the power of the Chinese state behind her.

But success means learning to adopt the confidence and attitude of a Western pop star. Starting with the shoes.

In 2011, Ruhan became the first artist to be signed to Earth's Music, a state-backed initiative to produce Chinese musicians that can crack the international music market.

It's part of an attempt to increase China's soft power - its cultural appeal around the world. The Earth's Music project is seen as so important that it's even said to have been included in the current five-year economic plan.

"If you have a strong economy, people think of you as a big country, and we have a strong economy," explains Bill Zang, Vice President of Synergy, Ruhan's record label.

"But only when you are strong culturally are you seen as a superpower."

Trained at the Shanghai Music Conservatory, one of China's leading classical music institutions, Ruhan's soaring soprano voice has won her a role in several high profile projects, including Damon Albarn's rock opera, Monkey: Journey to the West.

"My childhood was playing my piano," she says. "Every day after school I would practise for four hours… that was all I did."

Now though, she must relearn, turning her classically trained voice into something less refined, more uninhibited.

For the evening's concert she performs with American rock group Edisun, and true to her promise, the shoes are neatly flicked off, mid-duet.

Synergy thinks that East-West fusion music is the key to cracking the global music market. That's why Ruhan is collaborating with Edisun. Her songs combine elements of Chinese music with Western pop.

But so far Western bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Metallica have had far more success in tapping into the enormous and increasingly wealthy Chinese market, than their Chinese counterparts have had in the West. In terms of cultural exports, China has a long way to go to reach superpower level.

Media captionListen to an excerpt from Time To Grow

"Between 1930 and 2013 there are only songs I can think of that have crossed over to the West," says David Liang, music producer and founder of the Chinese electro-jazz group, Shanghai Restoration Project.

"They're Rose Rose I Love You, a Frankie Lane cover of a 1940's Chinese pop song, and a 1952 composition, Dance of the Yao People'- very similar to the one sung by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in The Prince of Egypt."

To date, Ruhan's success has been modest. She has 500,000 followers on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, but the sales of her first album Time to Grow - a mix of ballads, pop and Chinese folk - were not as strong as hoped.

In Synergy's Shanghai headquarters - its gleaming corridors lined with larger- than-life posters promoting her album - Ruhan and the team behind her are working hard to increase her impact.

She is the only artist on a full contract with Synergy, and her rehearsal space, paid for by the government, is vast. It's just for her.

It's here that she composes her songs, writes lyrics, hones her stage performance, and practises those unfamiliar vocal techniques.

Each month, Synergy brings Ruhan a range of new CDs for her to listen to - something Ruhan describes as her "musical education".

"It's hard for her," explains manager Jean Wernheim. "I have to tell her to listen to more rock, more hip-hop and R&B - she'll tell me she was never allowed to listen to this music growing up."

In the space of 10 minutes she rattles through her lyrics book, belting out renditions of Elvis, Queen, Christina Aguilera, Kesha. Above each of the songs Ruhan has drawn diagrams and made notes about how she should feel.

"Western music is like a very strong man. Full of power, brave and wild," she says. "And Chinese musician is like a lady wearing Chanel, very graceful. From Michael Jackson I get the beat, it's powerful. And Keisha teaches me to be more wild."

Why was Ruhan chosen for this role? She says it may be because she's "in line with the image of the Chinese Government" - an image that "should be about sunshine".

This question of imagery will have been central to the selection process, says Andrew Field, associate dean of Hult International Business School.

"The messages that the great American pop stars tend to carry are about freedom and rebellion and the right to be who you want to be - these are precisely the messages that the Chinese government does not want to broadcast, to Chinese people or to the world," he says.

On the contrary, he says, its priority is likely to have been to project China's own image of itself - as a "benevolent country".

Ruhan is not the only musician in China trying to make it internationally. The popular indie band Carsick Cars toured Europe with US rock band Sonic Youth in 2007, and had been due to perform with them in China, until the government put a stop to the idea.

"To this day we still don't know why," says the group's 26-year-old lead singer, Shou Wang, rehearsing in an underground car park with whitewashed walls.

Carsick Cars has done well without government endorsement and Wang is sceptical about the idea of the state grooming and creating stars.

"If you are supported by the government, you're trapped, you're not free to write songs against them," he says.

"The artists the government chooses to promote - people in China haven't even heard of them…"

Ruhan is not bothered by this kind of criticism.

"I never think about this too much," she says. "My only wish as a singer is to find a company to promote my music. So my company say they want to make albums, the government say they like this, I say why not?"

On my final day in China I stop by Synergy to say goodbye, and find Ruhan chatting with three men in suits. They don't look like typical rock music fans.

What did they want? I ask. Ruhan tells me they're government officials. "They tell me they like my style and my voice," she says. "I just say thank you very much, I hope you enjoy my music."

Rebecca Kanthor joins China's quest for a state-approved global pop star on The Documentary. Listen here on BBC iPlayer Radio.

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