China may be the arriving superpower, an economic and military giant finally stirred from centuries of slumber. But in one area of their Long March to global leadership, the inheritors of Mao remain unreconstructed minnows: the world of pop music.
Yet, if some commentators are to be believed, all that could be about to change. This summer a telegenic former Mongolian nomad who sings in Tibetan and fuses the sound of the zither and horse-head fiddle with appealingly dreamy electronic dance music is hoping to become the first Chinese pop star to crack the Western market.
The initial staging post in Sa Dingding's quest for international fame and fortune will be Britain. Already hailed as the oriental equivalent of stars ranging from the ethereal Hibernian crooner Enya to the fiery Icelandic chanteuse Bjork, she will arrive in the UK next week where she is confidently expected to pick up a prestigious BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, a move coinciding with the re-release of her first album, Alive.
The campaign to bring modern Chinese music to a mainstream British audience is being masterminded by the global music giant Universal. It will continue through the summer when the 25-year-old Buddhist performs at a televised Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, then appear before a sell-out crowd at the Womad festival. She also plans a major appearance in Beijing to coincide with the Olympic Games where she will be a target for the massed ranks of the international media as they train their cameras on all things Chinese.Listen to 'Alive (Mantra)' by Sa Dingding
Courtesy of Wrasse Records
Her fans insist Sa is a million miles from her homeland's adolescent army of teen-queen poplets and clean-cut heavy metallers, blending a unique mix of indigenous cultures with haunting, ambient electronica that industry bosses are gambling would fit rather nicely on the iPods of well-heeled Western consumers relaxing to exotic chillout sounds.
Evoking the wide-open spaces of the Chinese interior, a land still strange and remote to Western tourists, her music has caught the attention of the top British DJ Paul Oakenfold and the former producers of Madonna and Kylie Minogue. By phone yesterday from her record company office in Beijing, Sa said it had always been her ambition to share her music with a wider audience.Listen to 'Lagu Lagu' by Sa Dingding
Courtesy of Wrasse Records
"Now I have the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to fulfil my dream, for people from far away from China to listen to my music and see me perform," she said. "I feel very lucky to come to Europe and particularly to the UK market and I hope I will bring great pleasure to audiences."
Sa believes she can help break down what seems like an everwidening gap in understanding between China and the West, perhaps even helping to reverse the controversy engulfing her native country in what was hoped would be its showcase Olympic year.
But, despite her championing of Tibetan culture in her music, she is no political critic of the regime in Beijing, which has faced growing international condemnation for its brutal crackdown on recent anti-government protests in Tibet, a position which could easily dog her as she becomes increasingly exposed to the questioning gaze of the Western media.
"I am a musician so I concentrate on making music, but I am also Chinese so I definitely support our government policy on this issue," she said. "I think everyone has their own country and they will hope their country can be peaceful and develop well."
China's restrictions on free speech are proving something of a hindrance to its emerging musical culture, with artists unable to pursue the traditional rock and roll themes of rebellion and excess while also being forced to avoid contentious political and social subjects. The end result is, to many, a saccharine procession of Identikit stars with little crossover appeal outside the Chinese mainland. Yet Sa, who shot to fame after winning a China Central Television singing contest in 2000, has carefully skirted possible areas of controversy, encouraging fans to explore the limits of their imaginations rather than the political system. She has championed instead the indigenous cultures she first became aware of as a child growing up in Mongolia to a Mongolian mother and Han Chinese father.
She spent her first six years in a nomadic existence with her grandmother. Later, she travelled through Tibet and Yunnan, ending up in Beijing where she studied at university. On the way she learnt Sankskrit, Tibetan and Lagu, a language rapidly disappearing from the remotest villages of southern China.
To this she added her own language, one she says she created based on buried memories of her grandmother talking to her as a baby and which, she claims, prompted hardened studio engineers to burst into tears when they heard it. Add to this heady brew studies in Buddhism and a smattering of Dyana yoga and the result is a unique melange of styles and traditions that has already shifted some two million albums in Asia.
But not everyone is buying it and some voices have declared the dressing-up of Sa Dingding in ethnic clothes to be little more than a cynical record company marketing ploy.
The international music expert Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines magazine, is more open to her undoubted charms but he believes she is vulnerable to criticism that she is exploiting her exotic ethnicity to stand out in China's overwhelming Han culture, with the music and performance bordering dangerously close to pastiche.
"The good thing about her is that she is genuinely half-Mongolian," he said. "But there is a naivety about the way this music is perceived in China and it makes it uncomfortable for us in the West because it exposes China's neo-colonialist attitude to its minorities. But if she was to say anything she shouldn't it would torpedo her career. Given what is happening in Tibet at the time, this makes it extremely awkward for her."
Of course, there are those who have seen it all before. Zhu Zheqin, better known as Dadawa, was also hailed as the first big thing to come out of China when in 1996 she became the first Chinese singer to secure an international release for 40 years. She too revelled in the nickname the "Chinese Enya", even going so far as to tour and record with the legendary Chieftains. Zhu, who is ethnically Han, also experimented with the sounds of Tibet. But for her it was a fusion too far. Signed by Warner Records, her career stalled amid a welter of criticism over her apparent attempts to appropriate the culture of the oppressed nation, not least when she appeared in the maroon robes of a Tibetan nun, and accusations by campaigners that she was legitimising Beijing's repressive rule in the mountain kingdom.
Less controversial but arguably artistically considerably more egregious is China's other recent musical export, Twelve Girls Band. Formed in 2001 from more than 4,000 classically trained contestants studying at Chinese conservatoires, the 13-piece TGB (there are only ever 12 on stage at any one time) was assembled by the Chinese rock Svengali, Wang Xiao-Jing.
Bringing traditional instruments such as erhu (flute), yangqin (dulcimer) and pipa (lute), they successfully reworked modern Western tracks such as Coldplay's "Clocks" and – you guessed it – Enya's "Only Time" to complete two highly successful tours of the United States, as well as playing the Shanghai leg of 2007's Live Earth extravaganza.
Luckily for British audiences, they have yet to arrive on these shores. Those with a penchant for Chinese sounds will have to satisfy themselves with the photogenic charms of Sa Dingding. Whether she is able to break out of the world music ghetto remains to be seen. The initial signs are promising. Her music is being taken seriously by critics in Britain. She was described this week by one reviewer as "an impressive addition to the ranks of world divas".
But for Sa, success, she says, is all about a more noble cause. "I hope I can be a cultural bridge connecting the Western people and Chinese people and show them what is happening in China right now as well as bring back from the West a little bit of what is happening here," she said.