Each day at dusk, scores of Chinese couples converge on the ancient, vermilion-walled Temple of the Sun in central Beijing. Dressed in everything from blue Mao suits to silk-print skirts, they meet near the ziggurat-shaped altar to join a collective ritual: learning how to dance to music that originates on the other side of the globe.
A white-haired instructor guides the dancers to the rhythms of waltzes and renditions of Western pop tunes. "The park is sponsoring the evening dances to promote 'socialist civilization,' " says the teacher, who calls himself Old Gao.
But Mr. Gao is hard pressed to explain how music from the capitalist West might boost Chinese socialism, except to say that it "boosts friendship among all the comrades who meet at the dance."
Long isolated by great walls of xenophobia and fear of change, "China is being transformed by an invasion of Western pop culture," says Lu Lingtao. As a disc jockey on Beijing's most popular radio station, Mr. Lu regularly tracks the cultural pulse of the capital's youths.
"China's [two-decade-old] market reforms and opening to the world initially focused on changing economic institutions," says Lu. "But the reforms have also given birth to an entire generation of young Chinese who grew up with the West, and we tend to see the world differently than our parents did."
Until five years ago, the Beijing People's Broadcasting Station transmitted only government-approved news and "hit songs." Like the rest of the state-owned media, its main aim was to help shape a Communist-planned society.
But as economic reform sweeps across China, the station is becoming a musical Tower of Babel to grab market share in an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan Beijing. "[It] is becoming a much more global city, and it's natural for the station to reflect that trend," says fellow disc jockey (DJ) Zhang Youdai.
Now financed by ad revenues rather than government subsidies, Beijing Music Radio's programming of Western pop has skyrocketed to keep in step with the changing tastes of urban Chinese youths. Mr. Zhang, who hosts a show called "New Music Magazine," says he plays "alternative Western music that can't be found anywhere else on the Chinese airwaves."
The program has featured singer David Bowie's first experiment with Chinese lyrics, the British band Pulp, and the latest US grunge bands. "But mainstream pop now dominates the airwaves," Zhang laments. Lu agrees: "Most young people just want to hear Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys - music that sounds pretty but doesn't mean anything."
Sugary Western pop now dominates the charts in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. In a survey of Beijing music stores, American and European pop accounted for seven of the 10 bestselling compact discs. The "Titanic" soundtrack grabbed first place for 12 weeks running.
Beijing's own rock subculture is small but growing, and some local bands have cast their gaze at the rich American market. "While American music is flooding into China, no Chinese band has successfully crossed the Pacific in the other direction," says Beijing Music Radio programmer Zhu Lingxiang. "Many budding rock stars here are now wondering if they will be the first to launch China's counterinvasion of the US."
Although American music began infiltrating China more than a decade ago, cultural commissars have periodically attacked it as "spiritual pollution," or the corruption of communist morals. But the Communist Party now seems to be resigned to allowing young Chinese to march to the beat of a different drummer - as long as they do not challenge the political system.
Most music experts and listeners agree that the unprecedented cultural invasion is largely apolitical.
"Kids pick up new musical trends just as they do the latest fashion or film," says station programmer Zhu. "Just because they wear leather jackets, eat hamburgers, and listen to rap music, it doesn't mean they are going to change into Americans overnight."
Yet a recent graduate of Beijing Teachers College says, "Some Chinese like American music of the 1960s, or the later punk movement, because of its spirit of rebelliousness.
"Much of China's past has been destroyed and the present is dominated by materialism, and that is creating a backlash among some young people," she adds.
During the radical Cultural Revolution from 1966 to '76, Chairman Mao Zedong called on millions of young Red Guards to destroy China's Confucian traditions and Western influences by beating scholars, burning books, and razing churches. Since then, China's economic reforms have destroyed Mao's communist culture, and the whole country seems to be searching for a new set of values and ideals.
"The past century in China has been marked by a series of canceled identities," says Orville Schell, a China scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. "So it's nearly impossible to predict where Chinese culture might be headed in the 21st century."
"There is something like an American 'beat generation' taking form in China," says a student at Beijing University. "We are adrift - and our music could almost be called a counter-Cultural Revolution."
The teachers' college graduate adds: "In terms of living styles, musical tastes, and fashion, our generation is much more individualistic than perhaps any other in Chinese history. But it's hard to gauge what proportion of youths actually think independently or merely follow their peers in embracing Western culture."
The infiltration of Western music has been followed by the march into China of everything from American films on video discs to Microsoft software.
DJ Zhang Youdai, a product of Beijing's increasingly hybrid culture, seems to straddle a bridge between East and West. He juggles hosting his Western-oriented radio shows with managing local bands and running a music store, sorting out his schedule with a Palm Pilot minicomputer.
Like Zhang, DJ Lu Lintao keeps constant watch for new music releases via the World Wide Web. Although a handful of Chinese newspapers have begun writing about mainstream pop from the West, "using the Internet is the only way to keep in touch with the newest currents in music," says Lu.
"Most youths are now content to explore the airwaves and the music stores for Western pop," he says. "But even that is likely to change as globalization and the computer revolution gain ground here."