Psy, the K-pop sensation and king of YouTube views, achieved an uncommon level of success in the West. While he may be the best example of an Asian pop singer breaking through the so-called “bamboo ceiling,” Asian artists face an uphill struggle attracting support from English-speaking fans.
Ruhan Jia, a Chinese pop singer, is hoping for Gangnam Style-level success – a seemingly impossible feat. But Ruhan has a secret weapon: the support of the Communist Party of China.
According to a biography entry on her official website, Ruhan began studying music at the age of four. She started with piano, then delved into classical, jazz and Chinese folk dance at age six. Ruhan transitioned into Chinese opera singing at only nine years old and added “bel-canto” (Italian opera singing) to her repertoire at age 10.
At the Chinese Conservatory of Music, Ruhan honed her skills as a soprano before entering the Shanghai Conservatory of Music – one of the country’s most respected musical institutions.
“I grew up in something like a work camp. My parents pushed me very hard,” Ruhan said. “All I did was go to school and study music.”
Ruhan would go on to perform across the globe, with her rise to stardom including collaborations with famed composer Damon Albarn (known for his work with Blur and Gorillaz), recording the theme song for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and participating in the 2011 Grammy Award-winning album “Calling All Dawns.”
Her international success attracted the attention of record label Shanghai Synergy – a state-backed entity that is producing a series of ten “Earth’s Music” albums as “part of China’s 12th Five Year National Economic Development Plan.”
Shanghai Synergy doesn’t shy away from Ruhan’s purpose as the group’s only artist, with her biography stating that “the goal is to release these productions in the worldwide market.”
Bill Zhang, Shanghai Synergy’s vice president, stressed the importance of music in projecting Chinese soft power.
“If you have a strong economy, people think of you as a big country, and we have a strong economy,” Zang told the BBC. “But only when you are strong culturally are you seen as a superpower.”
Despite having half a million followers on Weibo, Ruhan’s debut album Time To Grow didn’t sell as well as expected – though it was praised in a five-star review on Amazon.
“[Ruhan’s] performances are similar to Celine Dion, Josh Groban and Il Divo,” it said. “If this is your cup of tea, then pour a cup and enjoy.”
Ruhan – who doesn’t drink, smoke or go clubbing – provides a stark contrast to her musical peers in the West. Just this week, top-selling pop idol Justin Beiber was arrested for drunk driving and illegal street racing (although those charges were subsequently reduced to a lesser charge of resisting arrest). Her innocence is almost comical, with a BBC Magazine profile describing her most rebellious act as kicking her shoes off at a concert.
In order to reinvent herself as a pop singer, Ruhan has had to distance herself from classical and opera-style singing. Her record label provides a monthly heaping of CDs from popular Western artists – ranging from Elvis to Ke$ha. In her lyrics book, Ruhan writes notes about what feelings she should express to an audience – adding a further layer of sterilization to her made-for-export image.
When asked why she was chosen to be the poster child for Chinese pop, Ruhan told the BBC that it was likely because her musical persona is “in line with the image of the Chinese government.”
“The government definitely wants to be number one in everything,” Zang said in an interview with Bloomberg in 2012. “But to find artists who fit in, who speak English, there’s not too many to choose from. Then we heard Ruhan’s song. We hadn’t heard this kind of singing before.”
Only time will tell if Ruhan Jia catches on in the West. But with the Communist Party behind her – and against artists like Cui Jian – don’t expect any protest songs making it into the top ten.