Dylan played the Worker’s Gymnasium in central Beijing to a warm reception from a mixed crowd of Chinese and foreign expatriates who brought the icon out for a pair of encores after a roughly two-hour set.
Dylan heads to Shanghai tomorrow and then Hong Kong for two more shows next week on a tour commemorating 50 years since his first major performance on April 11, 1961.
After Dylan was reportedly banned from playing here last year, China’s culture ministry last month gave the green light, but only if his songs were vetted by censors.
Dylan is best known for the politically-inspired songs of his early career, including The Times They Are A-Changin’ and his anti- war anthem Blowin’ in the Wind — neither of which made it into his Beijing set.
However, dressed in a grey panama hat and black suit, Dylan did play some of his edgier tunes, such as the protest song Hard Rain, but he made no comment on China or the significance of his appearance here.
China’s leaders — criticised by rights groups and Western governments for human rights violations and repression — are widely believed to be nervous about the potential for politically provocative songs or statements by foreign rock acts.
Iceland’s Bjork closed a 2008 Shanghai show by shouting “Tibet!” at the end of her song “Declare Independence”.
But state media have given wide coverage to Dylan’s China tour.
The influential Lifeweek magazine ran a cover story chronicling the 69-year-old’s early folk music and its influence on the American civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War era.
“Bob Dylan is playing in Beijing, an iconic voice of dissent in a nation that values harmony,” the English- language Global Times said.
“The subject of Dylan’s songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person.”
The culture ministry reportedly axed the Rolling Stones’ sex-and-drugs anthem Brown Sugar from the set list when they played Shanghai in 2006.
Yet although Dylan’s career and his importance in shaping modern popular music is not widely understood in China, some Chinese familiar with his work revere him.
In comments to the Beijing News, Chinese musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou called Dylan the “most gifted and talented folk and rock musician of the 1960s”.
“He was sharply critical of the government and he saw rock ‘n’ roll musicians as being the voice of the weak and of the lower classes.... I am very thankful of the influence he has had on me,” he said.
On Sunday, Zuoxiao was questioned by police in connection with the detention of outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, a close friend whose disappearance comes as part of an ongoing government crackdown on dissidents and activists.
Dylan is scheduled to perform in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday — between the shows in Shanghai and Hong Kong.