ROCK AND PUNK GROUPS IN CHINA
Archetypal Chinese rock band,
Tang Dynasty One of the most popular bands in China in the 1990s was Tang Dynasty, a Led-Zeppelin-influenced heavy metal group. After the bass player in the group died in a car accident in 1995, he was buried near the tombs of four Qing Emperors, including Pu Yi (the Last Emperor) and his predecessor Emperor Guangxu. Other famed rock bands include Miserable Faith, the Reflector and Twisted Machine.
Among the happening Beijing-based bands in 2008 were P.K. 14, Joyside, Hedgehog and Carsick Cars. The later has opened for Sonic Youth. Among the influential people in he Beijing indie scene are Michael Oettis, a former Wall Street investment banker who opened the club D-22 in 2006, and Zhang Shouwang, who also goes by the name Jeffray Zhang, who is skilled guitarist who sometimes plays his instrument with a violin bow. Other underground groups include Lonely China Day, Joyside, SUBS, Guai Li, PK-14, Brain Failure, Snapline, Re-TROS, and Flying Fruit.
The Taiwanese heavy metal group Mayday is popular in mainland China and throughout Asia. The members of the group are named Stone, Monster, Ashin and Masa.
Good Websites and Sources: Rock in China rockinchina.com ; 2009 NPR Piece on Punk In China NPR.org ; Brain Failure brainfailure.com Beijing Punk Film spinearth.tv ; 2009 Wall Street Journal article about Beijing Underground scene online.wsj.com ; Hip Hop in China www.hiphop.cn ; 2009 New York Times article on Hip Hop nytimes.com
Links in this Website: CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; LANG LANG, YO YO MA, CHINESE WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSICIAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE POP MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE ROCK, PUNK AND HIP HOP Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DANCE Factsanddetails.com/China ; PEKING OPERA, CHINESE OPERA AND THEATER Factsanddetails.com/China
1) A serialised version [in 8 parts] of Rock in Berlin: The Chinese Avant-Garde, eaturing Cui Jian, Cobra, Tang Dynasty and Wang Yong, is on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=806C931221D68E53. 2) A three-part video on Beijing’s independent music scene: http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/03/24/beijingbands/index.html#cnnSTCVideo 3) The rockumentary film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. was made by Andrew Field. 4) Maybe Mars Presents: A Showcase of the Chinese Underground http://www.maybemars.com/index.php/usa-tour-2009/
China's Contemporary Music Scene Takes off
In June 2012, Robert Saiget of AFP wrote: “After decades struggling with official censorship, China's contemporary music scene is finally taking off, fuelled by live shows, the Internet and a government eager to cash in on a growing market. Chinese indie bands came late to the music scene, largely missing out on the lucrative days of vinyl records, cassettes and compact discs, and also suffered enormously from state broadcasters' preference for pop. But from rock to rap and hip hop to grunge, the independent music scene has blossomed in recent years as the Internet and an explosion in live venues have given an outlet to acts long shunned by state-run television and radio. [Source: Robert Saiget, AFP, June 18, 2012]
"Since I have been here, everything has changed," said Helen Feng, the lead singer of the electronica band Nova Heart who returned to her native Beijing in 2003. "The changes in the music scene have been massive. Everything has gotten better, personal liberties have gone up, the numbers of bands have gone up, the numbers of venues have gone up, financial support has gone up, fans have gone up.” [Ibid]
“Veteran music producer Kenny Bloom agrees with."The government has become supportive of the music industry... no one is banned in China and no one is arrested for singing a song, at least not to my knowledge," said Bloom, who runs an Internet platform promoting Chinese indie bands. [Ibid]
“While available sales data is thin, bands get by on what they make from concerts and fairly low-level CD sales in a market notorious for piracy. Meanwhile, bands are smart enough to know that mixing music with sensitive political issues could be a fast way to end a career, Bloom said. "There are thousands of bands, indie bands, hiphop bands, ethnic bands that are really pushing the envelop in music. They are starting to write great songs, their arrangements are good, they are playing better," Bloom said. "The bands aren't stupid, they want to play music, the fans want to hear music, it is nothing more complicated than that. Not everything has to be political, music is music.” [Ibid]
“Qi Zihan, lead singer of the electronic folk band Mountain People told AFP: "Years before, the music was restricted in China, but now things are better...They (the government) realised that overall the music and the music industry didn't have such a big influence on society. They realised there are no problems (with rock music). Overall they want the music industry to develop.” [Ibid]
Major Figures in China's Contemporary Music Scene
Born in Beijing to Chinese parents, Helen Feng spent most of her childhood in the United States where she was raised on the likes of Natalie Cole and George Gershwin, eventually graduating from University of Southern California where she minored in music.Since returning to China, the blonde diva has been at the centre of the Beijing music scene, fronting three different successful bands, while working jobs with state radio and television and American music video giant MTV. Her bands have toured throughout China, playednumerous outdoor music festivals in China and toured overseas. [Source: Robert Saiget, AFP, June 18, 2012]
Music producer Kenny Bloom used to produce albums for Cui Jian, one of China's biggest music stars and known as the "Godfather of Chinese rock and roll". He set up Mogo.com.cn in 2009 to promote independent music in China and the website now features footage of thousands of live performances from about 300 indie bands, which users can access for free.At the moment the site is mainly used by industry insiders and musicians themselves, but Bloom plans to introduce presenter-led programming that would appeal to a broader audience. [Ibid]
“To build up content, he has a simple arrangement with the bands: they allow him to professionally record their performances in his cramped Beijing studio for free and he uploads it up to his website without charge. "The Mogo Internet platform is really cool ... it is a professional video site. It allows us to see what other bands are doing,"Qi Zihan, lead singer of the electronic folk band Mountain People told AFP at the Mogo studio. [Ibid]
Cui Jian is widely regarded as the father of Chinese rock music and today remains China's most popular rock star. Known for blending Western and Chinese instruments with veiled political lyrics, he is periodically banned from appearing on television and and his concerts are often canceled at the last minute. He is popular in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as the mainland and has played concerts in Europe and the United States.
Cui (47 in 2008) is of Korean-Chinese descent and is a classically-trained trumpeter. He wrote in Time, "My musical odyssey began early. My father, a trumpeter in the People's Liberation Army, began teaching me when I was 14. My taste were strictly classical." In 1981 he joined the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and played trumpet in it for seven years. During the Cultural Revolution he performed with the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe; in the 1980s, he recorded an album of Hong-Kong-style pop songs. Cui said in an interview,”In '81 I became part of a song and dance troupe in Beijing, which eventually became the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. After '87 I left the orchestra.”
"Things began to change in 1985...when the group Wham! gave a concert in Beijing,” Cui wrote. “A year later I heard my first Beatles tape. I learned to play the electric guitar." In 1986 "I formed a band and made rock my life." In the late 1980s, he developed his distinctive style after being introduced to New wave artists like The Police and Talking Heads.
His groundbreaking album, Rock on the New Long March, attacked the party with clever between-the-line lyrics, and featured a unique sound that merged rock with traditional Chinese zheng and suona music. Some of his later music was influenced by xibie feng. Among his other albums are Power to the Powerless and Egg Under the Red Flag.
On music Cui said in an interview, “I think purely coming together in music is a little superficial, it's just a skill. This is easy to do and many people in China are like that. They put Chinese opera together with Western arrangements. But what they come out with is not all that. It's a little empty and commercial. I think a real coming together is the coming together of culture. Chinese young people understanding more about the West, and Western young people understanding more about China. The two cultures mutually understanding and mutually influencing. I think a real combination is in content, not form, and in the mind.”
Cui Jian and Tiananmen Square
Cui wrote, "I performed at Tiananmen in 1989, 15 days before the crackdown...The students needed me, and I needed them.” Cui's Nothing to My Name, a political song masked as a love song written in 1986, became the anthem of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. It goes:
For a long time I kept on asking
When will you come with me
But all you do is laugh at me
For I have nothing to my name
I want to give you my dreams
To give you my liberty too
But all you do is laugh at me
For I having to my name.
Insulting someone name in China is like telling them to have sex with their mother. Commenting on the song, the Chinese general Wang Zhen once said, "What do you mean you have nothing to your name? You've got the Communist Party, haven't you?"
Cui also angered authorities by performing another popular song, A Piece of Red Cloth, with a red blindfold covering his eyes and donning a PLA uniform and a red blindfold his album jackets. The strip of red fabric across his eyes to symbolized not wanting to see what was going on in China. The song goes:
That day you used a piece of red cloth
To blindfold my eyes and cover the sky
You asked what I had seem
I said I saw happiness
The feeling really made me comfortable
Made me forget I had no place to live
You asked where I wanted to go
I said I want to follow your road.
Cui Jian’s Performance at Tiananmen Square
Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post, “On May 20, 1989, a Chinese singer and guitarist named Cui Jian walked onto the makeshift stage at Tiananmen Square. Thousands of protesters had held the square for weeks; their calls for political and economic reforms had inspired similar protests in dozens of Chinese cities, panicking the Communist Party leadership. The mood, though tense because of the troops surrounding the square, was still hopeful. No one knew that troops were to massacre hundreds of civilians 15 days later. Cui was already in famous in China, where his rock-and-roll attitude had shaken up a staid pop music scene and captured the imaginations of Chinese youth eager for something new and free-spirited. The crowds at Tiananmen were thrilled to receive him. “If you were there, it felt like a big party,” he later told the British newspaper the Independent. “There was no fear. It was nothing like it was shown on CNN and the BBC.” [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 \-\]
“The singer, ever a showman, wrapped a red blindfold over his eyes, a symbol of both the Communist Party and its attitude toward the problems that, according to the protesters, needed urgent reform. He later wrote in Time, “I covered my eyes with a red cloth to symbolize my feelings. The students were heroes. They needed me, and I needed them.” \-\
“He sang two songs. “Nothing to My Name,” quickly became an unofficial anthem of the protest movement and, later, a symbol of its tragic defeat. The song, which tells the story of a poor boy pleading with his girlfriend to accept his love though he has nothing, had made him famous three years earlier. Though Cui insists the song has no political meaning, it captured the changing – and politically charged – mood among China’s increasingly activist youth. It conveys disillusionment and dispossession but also a sense of hope: exactly the attitudes that electrified Tiananmen and the similar protests across China. \-\
“Back then, people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual they picked up on it,” he told the Independent, in explaining the success of “Nothing to My Name”. “When they sang the song, it was as if they were expressing what they felt.” At Tiananmen that day, Cui also sang “A Piece of Red Cloth,” a video of which is below (lyrics in English at bottom) and which he called “a tune about alienation” in his Time article. It refers to a red blindfold, like that he wore in his performance, and though the lyrics are vague it certainly sounds like a reference to the Communist Party’s sternly authoritarian rule. Recall that the violent Cultural Revolution had ended in 1977, a decade before he wrote the song; the Party’s totalitarian era was over by 1989 but was not as distant then as it is today. \-\
“I was really clear about standing on the students’ side,” Cui told the BBC. “But not everyone liked what I did. Someone said, ‘Get out of the square. Don’t hurt the students’ health – they are very weak.’” He left Tiananmen by June 4, when troops from the 27th Army Group moved in and shot hundreds of civilians, clearing the square and abruptly ending the protest movement in a crackdown that so shook China that censors still forbid even the most oblique reference. But they could never stop people from listening to “Nothing to My Name.” The song is just too popular, even if not all of its listeners still remember its significance.
Cui Jian said he made two visits to the Square during the protests there before playing a four-song set concert. A 24-minute video clip of posted on Internet (http://www.songtaste.com/song/1471086/) shows the concert. The four songs played by Cui Jian and his band are Once Again From the Top, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, Like a Knife , and A Piece of Red Cloth' . According to one description of the video: “There's a little bit of a tuning problem at the start, but then things get going with an energetic concert that has the listeners singing along to “Once Again From the Top” and “Rock and Roll on the New Long March” (both from the album Rock and Roll on the New Long March).”
“After the second song, there's a bit of disagreement over whether they should be playing at all: one voice is concerned that about the state of the hunger strikers. The crowd disagrees, Cui says, “Most of the hunger strikers are over here,and I've got to be responsible to them.” Then the band launches into “Like aKnife” (which, like the fourth song, was included on the 1991 album Solution.”
“Before the next song, voices in the crowd reassure the band that they're OK with the boisterous music. Cui says, “If there's one student who doesn't want me to perform, I won't; it's about the safety of every person.....I came with about a 20 percent hope of performing, and 80 percent of just coming to see you all.” There are shouted requests for the fourth song, “A Piece of Red Cloth.” Prior to singing, Cui reads off the first verse, and people in the crowd call for everyone who has a piece of red cloth to put it on.”
Cui Jian After Tiananmen Square
After Tiananmen Square, Cui was forced to keep a low profile. His concerts were banned and he played instead at "parties," unofficial shows at hotels and restaurants. In 1990, he reemerged to help the government raise money for the 1990 Asian games. Afterwards his concerts and recordings were banned again because they were perceived threats of "dangerous disorder." Altogether his music was banned for a decade because of his sympathies for the students that died at the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post, “After the crackdown, Cui was still a big Chinese star. The authorities, perhaps not anticipating the anger around the June 1989 crackdown or the rebelliousness of rock musicians, allowed him to go on tour the next year. He performed in peasant clothes and wearing a red blindfold, an obvious nod to the protests and massacre. “Nothing to My Name” quickly became not just an anthem of the protests but their elegy, a way to remember the crackdown. A September 1990 show before 10,000 fans in Beijing’s Workers Stadium was the last large-scale concert that Chinese authorities allowed their country’s biggest rock star to make. [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 \-\]
Cui told Time that his songs are not political. "They are more personal. It's just truth, the modern truth. I think about our life in China...Chinese culture is like a river without an outlet. We need to unblock this river so that it can flow freely into the sea and mingle with the world.” In response to accusations that he is too negative, he says that he is simply expressing his feelings. "Rock 'n' roll us about equality,” Cui wrote in Time. ‘some Chinese are slaves to Western culture; other look East. I say f--- all of them and be yourself. That's what I like about rock 'n' roll. You can talk straight."
Cui Jian Today
Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post, ““The man known as the grandfather of Chinese rock and roll is still playing in his home country, though rarely in venues larger than a bar or hotel lobby. A scholar of Chinese pop music, Jonathan Campbell, has said, “I can’t think of someone who has ever been more worthy than Cui Jian for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Campbell explained, “He’s Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen, whose songs made people suddenly realize that there are things going on about which we don’t know and ought to, and singing with the voice of the people not often represented in popular culture.” [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 \-\]
“In a recent interview with Vice , Cui lamented that Chinese youth today listen mostly to Western music. “China has such huge history and culture, and then [Chinese people] just want to leave that alone and listen to the Western music or culture,” he said. Like the Tiananmen crackdown itself, Cui’s anthems are both remembered and forgotten, too significant to ignore but increasingly repressed by a government eager to move on and youth who have other, more present concerns. \-\
Cui Jian who usually appears in quite a few concerts yearly, including ones overseas. In 2009 he played in Madrid and Barcelona, but played relatively few in China because of worries by authorities about tie in with the anniversary with Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese culture scholar, Geremie Barmé wrote in his book In The Red : “The quality of [Cui Jian’s] later work and the corpus of his music probably would have condemned him to a short-lived career in a normal cultural market, but the unsteady politics of mainland repression lent him a long-term validity and the appeal reserved for a veteran campaigner.”
Lyrics for “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth”
with Rolling Stones Lyrics for “Nothing to My Name”: “I have asked endlessly, when will you go with me? But you always laugh at me, for having nothing to my name. I want to give you my dreams [goals], and my freedom, but you always laugh at me, for having nothing. Oh! When will you go with me? Oh! When will you go with me? The ground beneath my feet is moving, the water by my side is flowing, but you always laugh at me, for having nothing. Why is your laughter never enough? [Why does your laughter never end?] Why do I always have to chase you? Could it be that in front of you I forever have nothing to my name. Oh! When will you go with me? Oh! When will you go with me? I tell you I’ve waited a long time, I give you my final request, I want to take your hands, and then you’ll go with me. This time your hands are trembling, this time your tears are flowing. Could it be that you’re telling me, you love me with nothing to me name? Oh! Now you will go with me! [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 \-\]
Lyrics for “A Piece of Red Cloth”: “That day you used a piece of red cloth to blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky You asked me what I had seen I said I saw happiness This feeling really made me comfortable made me forget I had no place to live You asked where I wanted to go I said I want to walk your road I couldn’t see you, and I couldn’t see the road You grabbed both me hands and wouldn’t let go You asked what I was thinking I said I want to let you be my master I have a feeling that you aren’t made of iron but you seem to be as forceful as iron I felt that you had blood on your body because your hands were so warm This feeling really made me comfortable made me forget I had no place to live You asked where I wanted to go I said I want to walk your road I had a feeling this wasn’t a wilderness though I couldn’t see it was already dry and cracked I felt that I wanted to drink some water but you used a kiss to block off my mouth I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to cry Because my body is already withered and dry I want to always accompany you this way Because I know your suffering best That day you used a piece of red cloth to blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky You asked me what I could see I said I could see happiness. \-\
Super Girl Sings Cui Jian
In one edition of popular television show, Super Girls , a contestant named Huang Ying who normally sings mountain folk songs and “red” songs sang Cui Jian's Nothing to My Name. This was truly an unexpected choice. Beijing-based blogger Fang Kecheng wrote: “Maybe it was purely out of consideration for her voice and singing style, and she was given a song that would let her show off. I at least cannot believe that entertain-or-die Hunan TV would have had anything else in mind.” [Source: Fang Kecheng, a Beijing-based blogger]
‘so the curtain rose on a scene fraught with symbolism: Huang Ying, accustomed to performing things like “A 10th Blessing for the Red Army” entirely dispelled the significance of “Nothing to My Name”. Even though ELLE's Xiao Xue said, after the performance ended, “It's not easy for someone Huang Ying's age to understand the background, frame of mind, and mood this song had back then. A generation of people sang along with this song and danced to it.” But it seemed like this widely-detested woman's words fell on deaf ears: no one cared what she had to say, but everyone was just waiting for her to shut up and cast her vote for someone.”
“Twenty years ago, Cui Jian sang and turned red songs indecent ; twenty years later, a Super Girl turned an indecent song red . Twenty years ago, Cui Jian tried to use rock music to dispel things, destroy things, and also to build some things; twenty years later, Cui Jian has been dispelled by entertainment, rock music has been dispelled by entertainment, everything has been dispelled by entertainment. Twenty years ago, people sang and danced on the square, choked with emotions. Twenty years later, everyone waits in front of the television every Friday night in a frenzy to see which girl will win a singing competition.”
Zhang Shouwang and the Carsick Cars
Cui Jian Fake Monk Zhang Shouwang, singer-songwriter and lead guitarist of the Beijing rock group Carsick Cars and experimental band White (with musician Shenggy), is possibly the most famous musician in the so-called “Beijing underground music scene.” Their song Zhongnanhai has been called the “anthem” of the Beijing underground scene. In addition to that Shouwang has composed widely acclaimed composer for classical music ensembles.
According to The Guardian: “Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 represent two of China's most visceral new acts.” The New Yorker named Carsick Cars as one of the “The Ten Best Classical-Music Performances of 2008," saying “the brilliant young guitarist-composer Zhang Shouwang casts minimalist spell in a Beijing rock club.” A review in the Wire said: “White’s first album satisfyingly different metallic beauty and resonant thunder of tuned machinery percussion.”
Carsick Cars have played major festivals and concerts in China and abroad with the likes of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Ex Models and These Are Powers. Employing the ferocious aural attack of one of China’s most brilliant guitarists and composers, Shouwang, they tear through their beautifully crafted songs in a thrilling but almost religious orgy of violence. Carsick Cars released their second CD in 2009, which was produced by Wharton Tiers, who also produced CDs for Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, and Dinosaur Jr. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. ]
Carsick Cars is an indie-rock trio formed in March 2005. Michael Pettis, finance professor at Peking University and founder of one of Beijing's most influential record labels, Maybe Mars, helped influence a young Shouwang by playing him the 1960s band Velvet Underground. Pettis said, ‘shouwang will be one of the most famous Chinese musicians in the world in 20 years, and not just in China but everywhere.” His cult-like status has inspired many meta-bands to spring up, all of which have a similar sense of drawing inspiration from surroundings rather than from rebellion.
White has toured Europe to wild acclaim and were one of Beijing’s first, important, experimental-musical exports to the world. Cold, intelligent, mechanical, minimalist, and among the most intensively creative bands in the world, they mix New York and Düsseldorf minimalism with Chinese obliqueness and No Wave energy, they have consistently found themselves at the center of the noise vortex taking over particular corners of the Beijing music underground. They recently released their first critically acclaimed CD which was produced by Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. ]
Internet Sources: Carsick Cars
Carsick Cars and Politics
One Carsick Cars song Guang Chang (‘square’) by the popular band Carsick Cars, is about Zhang’s experience one morning at Tiananmen Square. On his blog, Shouwang wrote about a dawn trip by him and a friend to the square, where they milled around for a while. The police noticed them, saw them as suspicious-looking characters and placed them in the back of a police van, from where Shouwang looked miserably at the square in the rising morning light. The result was one of the most popular songs on their debut album, in which he sings: “This is a square without hope.” However, it is this kind of introspection that is at the heart of his music, rather than intense political angst of the sort that can affect the fate of a nation. [Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]
Shouwang is also clear about this: “We're not into the politics and don't care that much about the older generation: for them it was like religion. I don't really listen to their music, including Cui Jian. As new bands come, the old ones demise.” One of the things that Shouwang reacts against is Internet censorship. On Carsick Cars' second album, there is a instrumental song with the classic title of “The Firewall Killed My Cat.” Without lyrics or any particular sentiment, the song may be beautiful, but it is hardly talkin' about Shouwang's generation. [Ibid]
Esquire Interview with Zhang Shouwang of the Carsick Cars
Carsick Cars As part of the “New Youth” feature in the May issue of Esquire, Micheal Pettis asked Shouwang , whose name means “to keep watch”, ten questions about composing a very famous song, rock music today compared to the '80s, traveling and “new Chinese music”.[Source: Michael Pettism Danwei.org, May 11, 2009. Pettis is finance professor at Peking University, China Financial Markets blogger, and owner of live music venue D22 in Wudaokou, Beijing]
When asked when he decided to become a musician and why, Shouwang said, “When I was 17, after I heard the first Velvet Underground CD. Until then I didn’t know that it was possible to make music like that. It sounded like everything that was harsh, beautiful or ugly about normal city life and made me realize that music and poetry could come from the streets and factories of every city, even my own city. Until then most music I had heard was either empty or had nothing to do with my life and the lives of the people I knew.[Ibid]
On making music in modern China, Shouwang said, “I think China is changing very quickly and many young people don’t think we fit into the culture and society of our parents. We are trying to build the China that belongs to us and that we can understand. That is why we all listen to each other and are influenced by each other. [Ibid]
On the popularity of the song Zhongnanhai, Shouwang said, “Maybe it's because it is the first song they heard about something very real and ordinary in their lives. Everyone in Beijing knows Zhongnanhai.” On make a living as a musician, he said, “It is very hard to make a lot of money as a musician, but if I can make just enough money to be able to continue writing and performing for the rest of my life, then I think I will have had a very successful life. [Ibid]
On musicians or artists in Beijing that influenced him the most, Shouwang said: “Of course Yang Haisong (PK14) and Joyside have had a big influence on me and on most of the young musicians in Beijing, but there are so many great artists in musicians right now. For example, Snapline and Ourself Besides Me are some of the most innovative bands in the world, Gar writes really amazing songs, and bands like Ma Fei San are breaking all the limits for the rest of the musicians here. [Ibid]
On politic in music, Shouwang said: “Of course we all want to make things better for China and for the world, but I am not comfortable with all those people who talk so loudly about what they are doing for China. It is the people who help in small ways and who don’t get rewards for it, who do brave things when they are alone, who refuse to believe in lies. I want to be like them. [Ibid]
On songwriting, Shouwang said: “Normally I write the songs first and then I try to find words whose sounds fit into the song. Sometimes it's easier to do this in Chinese and sometimes in English. The meaning of the words is important but I don’t think people should dig too deeply for my meanings. Different people read my lyrics differently, and that’s fine.” [Ibid]
Shouwang was born in 1985, when Chinese rock first started. When asked about Cui Jian, Shouwang said: “I admire him very much. He spoke for his generation and was a good artist, but I think what he was singing about and the experiences he had are so different from what my friends and I have had. I think his music fit a more idealistic generation who knew less about music and city life and cared more about changing the world. I think we are maybe more pessimistic and also more interested in finding art that challenges us and makes us expand our thinking. [Ibid]
Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. wrote: “Ask any of the younger bands about their influences and it is pretty obvious that P.K.14 has had the biggest impact of any local band on the growing Beijing scene. However, their artistic intensity and the care with which they write their songs do not keep them from completely rocking out, and their shows in China and abroad regularly receive critical acclaim. Often referred to as China’s best underground band, P.K.14, more than any other band, set the stage for the Beijing musical explosion. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. ]
According to The Guardian: “Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 represent two of China's most visceral new acts.” Time magazine said the group was one of Asia's Best Bands and one of 5 Asian Acts to Watch in 2008.
PK14 has been performing since 1997. Their sound has been compared to the US southern rock band Kings of Leon. The group’s singer Haisong told the Asian Times, “Our pressure has nothing to do with Cui Jian's. The stars of the Moyan [rock label] and the [heavy metal band] Tang Dynasty really used politics as a weapon in that age. But it's different now. Three out of the four of us have regular jobs, and after you're used to it, it becomes comfortable,” Haisong said.[Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]
Haisong is surprisingly soft-spoken when he does interviews. He told the Telegraph that “True individualism” was behind his decision to quit the engineering degree that back in the early 1990s guaranteed him a job, so he could learn to play guitar and go on to form P.K.14. He said, “The youth culture in China was never mainstream, you can't even say it's a counter-culture, in fact we have no youth culture, because everyone is subject to the media and external influences they do not have their own point of view...For us when we were kids, music was like a religion, it took us to a new place, to a new world of opportunity, a different lifestyle. We had no hope of becoming rock stars, we played because we loved to play. Now there's a TV show to make you a rock star.
Haisong describes his relationship with the government with relative detachment. “We haven't been suppressed by the government, and we don't really understand what they are doing. And because it has not yet happened, I'm not really scared,” he said. [Ibid]
P.K. 14 Concert
Peter Foster wrote in The Telegraph,”It could have been any other night on China's burgeoning underground rock scene, a group of close-packed, sweaty Chinese kids pogo-ing deliriously in a dark club to the sounds of post-punk rock served up Chinese-style. On stage Yang Haisong, lead singer of P.K.14 is half-eating a microphone, wailing out the trademark, strangled vocals that have made his band one of the icons of China's burgeoning alternative music movement.” [Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009]
“The sound may be a bit retro for Western ears--- you could describe it as The Clash meets The Cure---but it is also, say marketing analysts, the way to the heart of a new brand of young Chinese consumers that many Western brands are looking to for their next big growth opportunity.” [Ibid]
“However, the audience that night in 2008 in Nanjing, on P.K.14's “Love Noise” tour was different in one crucial respect from those that fill the music clubs of Beijing--- they had won their tickets through a brand promotion scheme for Converse shoes.” [Ibid]
Cobra, China's First All-Woman Rock Band
Cobra is five-member all-woman alternative Chinese rock band, with a saxophone player and a lead guitarist and singer named Xiang Nan, who shrieks out lyrics like: "Escape right now into the storm, and don't fear the loneliness/ Cause the old lies will soon be the truth."
Not surprisingly, Cobra gets little air play on China's state-controlled radio and television. In the provinces they play in sports stadiums; in Beijing, they are confined to playing primarily in cramped clubs and coffeehouses that can squeeze in only a few dozen people. To get their first CD Hypocrisy released they had to take out a song about the Cultural Revolution called 1966 (the year the Cultural Revolution began).
Cobra was formed in 1989 by four friends (the saxophone player was added later). By the mid 1990s they were in their thirties and single, and earned enough money from their music to quit their day jobs. The question they are most frequently asked by the Chinese press is "Do you have husbands?"
In 1996, Cobra played before a packed house at CBGB's, the grungy New York punk club where groups such as the Ramones and Talking Heads launched their careers. Nam appeared at the show sporting huge pigtails and a shirt printed with images of Mao. Cobra has also toured the United States, Germany and Hong Kong.
In 1997, Malcolm McLaren, the promoter of the Sex Pistols, was promoting an all-woman band of Chinese-extraction called Jungk. All five members were models skilled in Kung Fu.
Hang on the Box
The Beijing punk group Hang on the Box is led by singer Wange Yue, who has been described a Chinese Siouxsie Sioux. The group itself was described the Japan Time described as having “the energy of X-Ray Spex with faster and better tunes.”
The Hang n the Box’s debut album was called Yellow Banana. One song on it called Kill Your Belly goes: “Kill your belly/ Kill my belly/ Kiss your belly/Kiss my belly/ Keep your belly/ Keep my belly/ F**k you, I don’t need you! O Oo Oooooo.”
Hang the Box have said they earn maybe $10 or $20 to do a gig. The all have day jobs and sometimes need to call their parents to get taxi money for a ride home after the gig.
Xiao He and Snapline
Xiao He has reached deep into the surreal folk traditions of a fast-disappearing China in much the same way Tom Waits immersed himself in the apocalyptic Christian mythologies of the American Deep South. With his combination of southern Chinese mysticism and Beijing gruff he has created a strange, stirring vision of a 19th-century China crashing violently into a 21st-century China of boiling rivers and crumbling factories. Xiao He has released many CDs over the years but continues to astonish audiences, including one recently at the Barbican in London, with his progressively eclectic sound that draws upon traditional instrumentation and vocal arrangements looped within his live performances. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. ]
Internet Sources: Xiao He
Snapline is one of Beijing’s most admired but most uncompromising young bands. Their music is dedicated to taking the sounds and ideas produced by the downtown Manhattan noise and minimalist movement of the 1970s and reinterpreting them in the context of contemporary Beijing, a city constantly being torn down and reconstructed in a maze of twisted steel, cranes, and huge holes in the ground, all manned by the dark and nearly-invisible army of migrant workers who flood into the city every day. Equally drawn to the dark, industrial music coming out of Manchester during the same period, the band performs strange, drum-machine-driven music over dark, minor chords. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. ]
Internet Sources: Snapline
Xu Song's 'Rule-Breaking Animal'
‘Rule-Breaking Animals’ is a song by 27-year-old mainland singer-songwriter Xu Song (aka Vae Xu). Released in August 2013, it obliquely discusses the conflict between chengguan (city management officers) and street vendors. By early September it had generated 12,763,803 listens on QQ Music. [Source: China Smack, September 8, 2013 <^>]
According to China Smack: “The music video presents a non-linear narrative of a little boy and his father, a street vendor who sells watermelons off the back of his three-wheeled bicycle. Much of the first half of the video shows the boy preparing to write an essay for school and imagining of what he would be like as a chengguan, municipal employees tasked with supervising and enforcing local ordinances usually involving use of public spaces and whom have a notorious reputation for clashing with street vendors and peddlers. In his imagination, chengguan would be kind-hearted like his own father. Upon meeting an old man selling apples on the street, he gathers up the apples but instead of confiscating them, he merely moves them across the street and invites the old man to continue there. The boy laughs as he finishes imagining this. <^>
“Halfway through the music video, the father has come home after a day’s work and the boy notices pieces of shattered watermelon on the back of the father’s cart. The father quickly comes up with a story to explain what had happened, that a zebra had escaped a zoo and crossed a zebra crossing
It is then suggested that the boy may have seen what really happened that day. While on his way to bring his father a meal, the son notices something wrong and hides around a corner where he watches his father apparently trying to protect his stock of watermelons during a struggle. Who the father is struggling with is not explicitly shown, but what follows is a scene of the hand scale thrown on the ground and snapped, while a broken piece of watermelon lies beside it. Huddling on the ground clutching the lunch tin and bottle of water, the son cries for his father. The music video ends with a voiceover of the boy reading from his essay, describing his wish that people “protect hardworking people, treasure fruits and vegetables, be more patient, and guide zebras when crossing the street.” <^>
The Lyrics (Pinyin Romanization and English Translation): wo’ mù du’ jie- jia’o de hú dié fe-i shàng le qi-ng tia-n — I witness the butterflies of the street corner flying into the clear sky
yào shàng fa’ng qi-ng tia-n dà la’o yé — to appeal to “Grandpa of the Clear Sky”. [Note: "The clear sky" is symbolic of Bao Zheng
Xia-ng gua-n yá mén tí chu- le yì xie- zhi’ da’o xìng yì jiàn — The relevant government offices gave some guidance/ jie- fa’ng wán mìng zhua’n bo- zhe-n xiàng yu’ liú yán — and the neighborhood eagerly relayed the truth and the rumors./ mài hóng shu’ de gu- niang xia’ng zài xué táng mén qián ba’i ta-n — The girl who sells sweet potatoes wants to sell in front of the school.
Nà bù ke’ yi’ méi qián ye’ bù ke’ yi’ bù péi xiào lia’n — If so, she can’t not have money, nor can she not put on a smiling face [to butter up government officers]. / yo’u dia’n xia’o quán de shí shí kè kè do-u xia’ng yào yòng shàng xia’o quán — Those with a little power, they want to take advantage of that little power at all times,/ ér yo’u dà quán de na’o zi huài le cái hé ni’ zhàn yì bia-n — while those with a lot of power, they will only stand with you when they’ve lost their minds.
CHORUS: yì qún ga-o guì qì zhì de cha-i rén zài chu’ fà wéi zha-ng dòng wù (A bunch of noble government officers punishing rule-breaking animals)/ ta- yì she-n chén tu’ zài jie- jia’o mí le lù (She was covered in dust, lost on the street corner) / yì qún ga-o guì qì zhì de cha-i rén zài chu’ fà wéi zha-ng dòng wù (A bunch of noble government officers punishing rule-breaking animals.) / jia-n mò de lèi méi yo’u rén zài hu- — (Silent tears, with no one caring). / zhè fán huá de chéng chí yo’u shí ràng rén ga’n dào mò she-ng— (This bustling city sometimes feels strange). / da-ng wu- yún bú duàn dui- dié bào yu’ ye’ jiù rú qi- ér zhì — (When dark clouds keep piling up, the rainstorm will come as expected). / xìng fú de dìng yì lián fa-n she-ng jí jù jué huí dào chu- shi’ ba’n be’n. Note: The definition of “happiness” keeps upgrading, refusing to return to the original version. jiù ma’i gè hóng shu’ ba fo’u zè yè tài hán le’ng So just buy a sweet potato, lest the night will be too cold. CHORUS: yì qún ga-o guì qì zhì de cha-i rén zài chu’ fà wéi zha-ng dòng wù (A bunch of noble government officers punishing rule-breaking animals). / ta- yì she-n chén tu’ zài jie- jia’o mí le lù (She was covered in dust, lost on the street corner). / yì qún ga-o guì qì zhì de cha-i rén zài chu’ fà wéi zha-ng dòng wù A bunch of noble government officers punishing rule-breaking animals. / jia-n mò de lèi huì chéng zhè fa-ng tu’ dì de hú (Silent tears, pooling to become the lake of this land).
China’s Bob Dylan
Yang Yi is sometimes called the Bob Dylan on China. He has shunned record contact to play on the streets and devote his attention keeping traditional music alive. During the winter he plays guitar and harmonica before students, construction workers, commuters on the sidewalk outside the National Art Museum as he has since 1992. In the summer he travels around China collecting the music of ordinary people.
Yang released his first album in 1999 and a second one in 2004 and has performed in Europe and elsewhere in Asia. He sings almost exclusively in Chinese and many of his songs are about ordinary Chinese. One of his most popular songs, Bakes Sweet Potatoes, is a about street vendor who is saving money to return to his home village only to have his dreams dashed when police confiscate all his sweet potatoes. Several songs deal with the plight of migrant workers.
The collection of tapes that Yang has recorded in remote parts of China is regarded as one f the richest and most extensive collections of traditional Chinese music. Yang told the International Herald Tribune, “We do not have our own voice and we are losing our soul. Recent trends towards jazz and blues are fashions not passions. Commercial interests have wiped out Chinese music, stopping it from developing its own strengths.”
Rock Star Zuoxiao Zuzhou (And Ai Weiwei)
Zuoxiao Zuzhou (real name: Wu Hongjin) is one of the most prolific and provocative musicians of the People’s Republic of China of the last twenty years. Although criticality is rare in Chinese mainstream popular culture, Zuoxiao’s recent success as cult-hero proves that Chinese youngsters are interested in socially engaged music. That said, Zuoxiao owes this success to humor and parody, and a turn towards a less pointed social critique and a more hedonistic sound. As such, this recent success engages with a larger cultural trend in which youngsters cynically participate in the status quo. [Source: Jeroen Groenewegen, Norient, May 4 2011] .....
In April 2011, Zuoxiao had publicly expressed his support for the detained artist and rights campaigner Ai Weiwei during a rock concert at the 2011 Modern Sky Folk& Poetry Festival in Zhouzhuang in eastern China. Zuoxiao Zuzhou had displayed the words “Free Ai Weiwei” on a large screen, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement.
Zuoxiao Zuzhou is a close friend of Ai Weiwei who had been spearheading a spate of high-profile campaigns against government censorship and political restrictions before he was detained. Zuoxiao Zuzhou was halted at the airport together with his wife, Xiao Li.
Other Chinese Rock Bands
Other Chinese rock artists include 1989 (an experimental rock group); Hei Bao (Black Panther); Wayhwa (rock singer who was a newscaster until she appeared on ABC-TV's "Nightline" during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations); and Cui Wenpig, who plays Carmen, Jingle Bells and other songs by slapping his head, nose, face and teeth with his fingers.
Hedgehog The rock band The Flowers was very popular in the late 1990s. Explaining why CCTV wouldn't show their video, a CCTV producer said, "This music releases very pessimistic emotions. This does not suit the main tone of our propaganda."
Woodie Alan is a blues band headed by Wall Street Journal columnist Alan Paul and his hard-drinking Chinese buddie Woodie Wu. In 2008, the group was voted band of the year by a Beijing weekly. The have toured the country and earn about $2,500 per concert, a healthy sum in China. Paul has written about his experience in his book Big in China .
Other punk and alternative artists include AV Okubo, Hanggai and Hedgehog. Hedgehog was been called one of the cutest acts in China's indie rock scene. They are also one of the most progressive of their genre in terms of their experimentation with sound. They cultivated the cute, poppish sound in the mid 2000s but now “play with noise” and “maintain an ironic distance from their fans.” [Source: Shanghai Journal, Squarespace.com, May 1, 2011]
Describing their performance at the Strawberry Music Festival, Shanghai Journal reported: “Hedgehog stole the show with a 90 minute show that showcased their "hit" tunes as well as a lot of more experimental stuff. They had a solid fan base front and center, arms raised and dancing and singing to all their tunes. But I was also amazed at the size of their audience---there must have been several thousand people sitting on the hills around the stage, and they all stuck around for the entire show. So Hedgehog have definitely built a sizeable following in the past four years, which is nice to see. After the show a bunch of fans stuck around the fenced in periphery around the stage waiting for a photo and autograph opportunity with the band members. [Ibid]
Hardcore and Heavy Metal in China
Max-Leonhard von Schaper wrote on MCLV List: Rock in China released CORE IN CHINA on May 15th 2012. CORE IN CHINA is a free online compilation of Chinese Metalcore, Deathcore, Nintendocore, Hardcore and Screamo bands that have been selected via an open song submission process from January to March 2012. The selected songs represent not only great music but are also to be seen as a snapshot of the current Chinese metallic underground. Bands from Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Taipei, Hongkong, Batou and Guangzhou participated in this unique record. Rock in China's is promoting the compilation globally and first reviews have been posted in France, Australia, Shanghai and Beijing:
Image Sources: Fan, artist and Chinese rock websites and blogs, YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated October 2013