ROCK AND PUNK IN CHINA: POLITICS, CLUBS, FESTIVALS AND LABELS

ROCK AND PUNK IN CHINA

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Cui Jian

Rock music first became popular in China in the late 1980s, with some rock songs banned by authorities for political reasons. Back then rockers like He Yong and Dou Wei signed to the Taiwanese Moyan rock label and burned cars or themselves in frustration or due to mental illness. The late 80s is regarded as the best period of Chinese rock n' roll. Then, artists had something to say and rebellious energy. The rock scene was described as “fresh.”

Michael Pettis, a former investment banker who runs Beijing's D22 club, argues that an authentic modern Chinese cultural voice from both a local and broader historical perspective has emerged in the 2000s. “Eight years ago many of my Tsinghua [University] students hadn't even heard of Nirvana, they were into syrupy pop like Celine Dion,” he told the Telegraph in 2009. “Even five years ago most hadn't heard of indie bands like P.K.14, but now at least 10pc-15pc know the band and have even heard the music.”

Even though, the Shanghai Conservatory offers classes in rock n' roll singing, rock music in China thrives mostly in the clubs in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. Up until the mid 1990s, rock concerts were often banned or heavily policed. These days, they draw less attention unless they have some sort of political connection.

The rock music scene in generally is pretty wide open and exists largely beyond the control of the government. Government authorities generally make no effort to monitor or censor it, but they do keep it off major radio and television stations. Their attitude seems to be why bother because it doesn’t really present much of a threat anyway.

These days rock exists in it commercialized form, with people out to make money, and in an underground scene, driven by young people who want to express themselves. Needless to say not many artists are making money and many are close to starving. A member of band called Subs told Reuters that his group plays mostly in bars and rehearse in a nine-square meter space. On a good night, he said, the band makes about $37.50. “No one here lives the rock star life,” he said. “They might sell a few records but their lives stay basically the same...Then again, most rock bands have pretty low demands. Record labels don’t make any money either.”

The rock movement has fragmented, with rock in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan a lot different from rock in smaller cities. Most rock musicians making music now in the capital are living very different lifestyle to their predecessors, with many holding down day jobs, and possibly experimenting with drugs, alcohol or veganism.

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 ; Source: Foreign Policy (1/15/10): http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/15/anarchy_in_the_prc

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

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AK47 in Xian

History of Rock in China

Rock music didn't really arrive in China until the 1980s when it was introduced by foreign students. A hallmark event was the Wham! concert at Beijing’s People’s Stadium in 1985. It was the first ever gig by a Western pop group in China. The show lost money but its showed the world China was opening up. After that Beatles tapes began circulating and Chinese artists began performing their own songs. In 1986, a groundbreaking concert was held at the Beijing Workers Stadium with mostly Chinese rock musicians.

Tom Hancock of AFP wrote: “China's first homegrown rock acts began to perform in the 1980s when the ruling Communist party relaxed cultural controls -- only to be condemned by officials who shut down concerts and banned some songs from broadcast. The student protestors in Tiananmen Square repeatedly sang "Nothing to my name" by Cui Jian, renowned as the father of Chinese rock, in 1989, and the song became a musical symbol of their defiance. [Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, August 19, 2013 \=]

“Cui was banned from playing large-scale concerts following the crackdown on the demonstrators in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were killed. But Jonathan Campbell, the author of Red Rock, a history of the genre in China, told AFP: "Rock is not as dangerous as it used to be... I really do think there is a sense that it is OK now. "The kids who grew up with Cui Jian are now parents... so priorities change and so do understandings and feelings about things like rock music," he said. \=\

Rock and Chinese Politics

Alice Liu wrote in the Asia Times, “As China becomes more open, government and society have become more tolerant towards rock music. It was previously frowned up by leaders and most of the older generation as rotten Western art - good only as a means for youth to vent rebellious sentiments. Rock in China is still an “underground” movement, and no rock is allowed in officially sanctioned performances. But these days few songs are banned. [Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]

Yang Haisong, sing in the punk band P.K. 14, 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.

Beijing is nervous as always about his large scale concerts. “Large scale” here refers to an audience of over 400 members. It has always been so after 1989. Even if he got an approval, he would get it merely one month or less than a month ahead of the schedule. His concerts have manage to sell enough tickets in a short period of time so the managing company would not lose money.

Alice Liu wrote in the Asia Times, “China's rock bands and their fans - cynical as they purport to be - have become increasingly indifferent to politics....There are no songs about bloody rebellions, and the gnashing teeth and rolling eyes feel more like stage effects than any display of genuine life-or-death discontent.”[Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]

“With growing discontent over social injustice, young people everywhere in China know they should be rebelling. But the tensions that young urbanites face are simply not great enough to provoke them into that role. So what can they do? They often try to write songs that hint at discontent with China's political system, but they don't delve deep enough into real problems facing Chinese society. [Ibid]

“The low level of politicization captures the inanity of China's urban environment as fewer pressures are put on the urban, sophisticated and somewhat elite generation of kids. There is reference to politics, but only as a knee-jerk reaction to daily stresses rather than an overbearing need to change the system.” [Ibid]

Lack of Underground Culture in China

On a lack of a true undergound the experimental musician and even organizer Yan Jun said, “The way society is organised today, there is no space for an underground. This space doesn’t exist, so you can’t go there. It doesn’t exist. So you could go behind those pipes, you could go to some space behind this wall, you could make a hole in the ground, but you’re not going to go anywhere new. There is no place prepared for you, there is no place prepared for the underground---like a basement where people say stay here and make art, or train an underground army. There is just another kind of maze. If we’re still addicted to this idea of the underground, we just participate in the same system. We give it a black flag but it’s just another side of the white flag. You can’t make your own flag here. The harder you push against the system the more you become a part of it, because this system is a paradox. [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China , August 27, 2011]

“Well, we always say the government has a way to control everything in China, but there is something that will get in the way of that control, like bureaucracy, or the grey areas of the system. You can’t fight with the law, but you can go through and around that. This is the system, the paradox of the system---it’s against itself. It’s the paradox of power in China. So today the system might tell you that you can’t do something, but tomorrow it might say---well, it’s not going to say “Yes you can do this now?, but it might just forget what it was you wanted to do in the first place. So there are still possibilities, but we don’t always use them. There is a big contract in China that goes from the surface to the inside. This is China---this is the system.

In this system everything is contradictory, so we don’t need to go and add a contradiction to it, like the idea of the “underground”. We don’t need to go and protest; protest will just become part of the system’s existing contradictions. What we have to do is deny it, negate it. We have to go and do our own things.

As for the alternative. The reason for a person’s life is to live, not to protest. And I don’t just mean artists here, I mean everybody---from business people to low level party members to people in positions of authority. Everybody. This is what we all need to do. Make our own life. When you go to protest, you just become a slave to the system. Real protest is one that doesn’t make you a slave to the system. You have to be stronger and more powerful than it. Real protest is attack, not revenge. Our underground rock generation spent too much time thinking about revenge. We were full of hatred. But I think we have to get to a time where we forget this hatred, and truly attack. Attack and revenge are two completely different things.

Dakou Culture

Dakou is a word used to describe CDs and tapes that have been dumped by the West, intended to be recycled, but instead are smuggled into China. Among many other meanings, da stands for strike, break, smash, attack, and kou stands for opening, entrance, cut. Together, dakou stands for the cut CDs and tapes being sold in urban China, often along with pirated CDs, on a bustling black market. The word has come to describe not only the CDs themselves but the generation of music fans that grew up listening to them.[Source: Jeroen de Kloet, Danwei.org, June 11, 2010, Jeroen de Kloet is the author of “China with a Cut”, which looks into dakou culture and then the ensuing commercialism of China's music market.

Pop culture researcher Jeroen de Kloet wrote: “Dakou CDs and tapes are cut to prevent them from being sold. However, since a CD player reads CDs from the center back to the margin, only the last part is lost. Not only have these CDs been tremendously nourishing for Chinese rock musicians in the 1990s, as they opened up a musical space that did not officially exist in China, they have also come to signify a whole urban generation.” [Ibid]

The rock critic Dundee wrote: “This plastic rubbish dumped by foreign record companies becomes a major source of pleasure for those discontented youths after they switch off their TV. When this plastic rubbish started flowing from the south to Beijing, it actually heralded a new rock era. All the new rock musicians in Beijing have grown up with dakou tapes.” [Ibid]

On one Internet discussion site, You Dali presents a the following description of the dakou generation; “Dakou cassette tape, dakou CD, dakou video, dakou MD, dakou vendors, dakou consumers, dakou musicians, dakou music critics, dakou magazines, dakou photo books; this is a dakou world, a new life where you don’t even have to leave the country to realize your spiritual adventure. When Americans fiercely give themselves a cut, they also give the world a possibility of communism and unity. The Government doesn’t encourage 1.3 billion people to listen to rock and roll. A small bunch of them therefore secretly look for offerings to their ears, to their eyes, to their brains, and to their generation. If you can’t do it openly, do it secretly! (...) It enables not only part of the population to become rich first, but also another part of the population to become poor first, and it also enables part of the population to become spiritually strong! Dakou products have ushered 1 million Chinese youths into a new wave, a new listening sensibility, a new awareness, a new mind and a new set of values. Whether the dakou generation is a jinkou [import] generation or a chukou [export] generation confuses quite a few social observers.” [Ibid]

Qiu Ye speaks with a likeminded nostalgia about the dakou era: “The mid-1990s were really exciting, I felt very fulfilled at that time, now the cultural environment is much better that those days in terms of material conditions. My personal feeling is that the environment of rock music is more embarrassing than Chinese soccer. The latter is too lazy, they go to sleep after dinner, the former was too hungry, it pleases whoever serves food.” (in Anonymous 2008: 107)

According to China’s most prolific rock critic, artist and entrepreneur Yan Jun: the dakou generation “represents a generation that refuses to be suppressed, that seeks unseeingly, that connects to the underground, that creates marginal culture and lifestyle, that grows stubbornly, that resists and struggles.” But de Kloet says that there is also a commercial and non-political aspect, noting that the label emerged in the 1990s at a time when youth culture---and Chinese culture in general---was critiqued for having lost its political zeal. [Ibid]

The term dakou has been traced to Yan Jun, who published, together with Ou Ning, an overview of the bands he considered emblematic of what they coined as the Beijing New Sound movement (Yan & Ou 1999). Their book is dedicated to the dakou generation of China. At about the same time, Fu Chung, manager of the small Beijing record label New Bees, dedicated his first release of poppunk band The Flowers to the sellers of dakou tapes at Zhong Tu Men---one of the spots in Beijing where they are sold. [Ibid]

Dakou Culture and the Internet

Dakou has become a label of the past, of a time when, according to rock musician Feng Jiangzhou, people still had the ability to focus, to concentrate on and indulge fully in music. Now, with the emergence of the Internet, people live, in Feng’s nostalgic view, in an utterly fragmented attention economy, and music is at most one of the many activities in which young people indulge: [Source: Jeroen de Kloet, Danwei.org, June 11, 2010, Jeroen de Kloet is the author of “China with a Cut”, which looks into dakou culture and then the ensuing commercialism of China's music market.

“I used to buy a lot of dakou cassettes. I studied the music carefully with all my heart. I conducted very detailed work. Part of the reason was that my source of information was simply limited and detailed work was my only solution. I benefited a lot from this work style. Now there is a vast sea of information on the Internet, people listen to music casually. You just have so much information to receive that you don’t know what one to choose. It has become my habit that I’m very selective in information, unlike the young people today, they know everything, but only a little.” [Ibid]

Jeroen de Kloet wrote: “With the digitization of music, the abundance of impulses has amplified. Thecurrent availability of sounds all over the world, where the most exotic or obscure sounds are just one click away on the Internet, has rendered the dakou market nearly obsolete. By the same token, beginning bands can easily upload their work. MySpace offers ample opportunities for Chinese bands for promotion and distribution---circumventing the music industry as well as the censors. [Ibid]

Making Music in China

On making music in China, Zhang Shouwang, lead singer of the Beijing rock group Carsick Cars, told Micheal Pettis in Esquire magazine, “There has always been great music made in China but until recently it was very hard for musicians to spread their music unless they produced very simple pop music or music that was very familiar and easy to swallow. But in the last four or five years it seems that underground rock musicians, folk musicians, and experimental and avant garde musicians in China have created so much great new music that finally many people are noticing it not just in China but all around the world.” [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]

On the biggest difficulty for young artists and musicians in Beijing, Zhang Shouwang said, “Actually I think in Beijing we are not so bad compared to the rest of the world. Of course the audience for new or different non-commercial art and music in China is very small, and so it is hard for many artists to earn a living, but it is growing quickly. In some ways we even benefit from lack of attention. I am afraid that if the government understood what we were doing and decided to support the underground artists and musicians in Beijing with money, the way they do in many European cities, they would end up hurting the strength and variety of the Beijing art and music scene. By ignoring us they also give us complete freedom.” [Ibid]

Clubs and Labels in Beijing

D-22 is one of the main underground clubs in Beijing. The Wall Street Journal called it “the center of new music in Beijing, are also home to the city's expanding counterculture.” Located in Wudaokou in Beijing. The club is run by Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University and blogger for the China Financial Markets.

Maybe Mars is a record label linked with D-22. It is the youngest of the two leading Chinese independent music labels. It was started by musicians who had found a home at D-22, the rock club that is credited with giving crucial exposure and support to Beijing’s exploding music scene. In its two years of existence, it has already signed 24 folk, rock, experimental and noise musicians and bands, including most of the artists at the forefront of China’s music underground]

Rock is also alive at a high-class club in Beijing called Yugong Yishan (named after the ancient Chinese fable, “The Foolish Man Moves a Mountain”). The club is housed in the former home of Manchurian General Duan Rui, in an historical part of the city that traditionally housed scholars and military men. Indeed, the lavish surroundings make the rock music feel a little tame. [Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]

Rock and Marketing in China

“Increasing one of the biggest sources of income for Chinese rock musicians is coming from corporate sponsorship. Many people who attended concerts and club gigs during the 2008 “Love Noise” tour by the popular punk group P.K. 14 won their tickets through a brand promotion scheme for Converse shoes. The tie-up was part of a growing trend for Western brands seeking to understand China to piggy-back on the credibility of what market analysts have identified as an increasingly self-confident alternative art and music scene in China.” [Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009]

“Brands as including Wrangler, Motorola, Levis, Pepsi, Ben Sherman, Nokia, Budweiser, Umbro and Converse have all tried to ensure that a bit of the “new cool” brushes off on them, sponsoring rock festivals or using their retail spaces as galleries or impromptu concert venues.” [Ibid]

“Tapping Chinese youth culture is an inexact science, however. While some brands, like Converse, have gone to the cultural fringe for their piece of reflected “China cool”, bigger brands such as Pepsico have sought to dominate the mainstream.” [Ibid]

“In 2009, in a twist on the American Idol series, Pepsi staged a 10-part battle of the bands telethon in which 10 bands selected from more than 6,000 who auditioned from 121 cities competed to win a cash prize and a production deal. The heavily branded show, which also included a partnership between the beverages giant and a Chinese record production company, was an attempt to design a new model for China's record industry which is governed by the fact that most Chinese download their music for free.” [Ibid]

“For Harry Hui, a former MTV and Universal Music executive who is now Pepsi's chief marketing officer in China, the opportunity was to create stars organically rather than hire established acts off the peg as is Pepsi tradition. “When we did the research we discovered that downloading music is still the number one activity on the Chinese internet, accounting for 85 percent of usage. We also found out there were 20,000 bands in China playing at clubs, bars and universities,” he told the Telegraph. “We also discovered that the live concert business growing by 30 percent a year, but there was no single television platform or other creative venue that gives bands an outlet, so we provided that. There was a real untapped demand.”

China's School of Rock

Tom Hancock of AFP wrote: “With neat ponytails and immaculate grades, the four eight-year-olds who bounded on stage would make any Chinese parent proud -- but wielding electric guitars, these schoolgirls were ready to add another brick in the wall of rock history. Dressed in blue-sequinned jackets, their band Cool blasted out a song by British pop-rockers McFly in a heavy style echoing 1970s megastars Led Zeppelin, complete with rock star jumps and fist pumps. "I like to play loud music which annoys old people," said lead singer Zhou Zi, whose favourite toy is a big white teddy bear. "We like rock songs because they're crazy." [Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, August 19, 2013 \=]

“Cool's members lead parallel lives as students at a chain of music schools hoping to create a new generation of Chinese rock stars, and the band were one of more than two dozen child outfits battling for honours at a competition in the northern port city of Tianjin earlier this month. The event -- where bands offered a mix of foreign covers and original tunes -- is a symbol of rock music's move into the mainstream of China's entertainment industry since it met opposition from authorities when it arrived in the country in the 1980s. A band named Rock Fairytale -- the eventual winners -- played the Guns N' Roses classic "Sweet Child O' Mine" before the 10-year-old leader of another group, dressed in a spangly black shirt and leather boots, gave an impressive rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You". Boom, from China's poor Henan province, covered the Beatles' "Twist and Shout".Asked what he knew about the British foursome, the band's eight-year-old lead singer Jia Tianyi responded: "They're probably from the US." \=\

“As well as attending normal classes, the band members also go to the Nine Beats music school in Tianjin, whose founder Li Hongyu says has more than 150 branches across China, and thousands of students in total. "In the past, if parents wanted to children to study music, they would think of classical musical instruments... but few kids studying classical music are happy," Li said."I believe that China's future rock stars can be found at our school," he added. "We are changing the direction of Chinese contemporary music." \=\

And while rock fans were once seen as rebellious youths hoping to alienate their parents, wannabe stars at the school have their families' full support. "Children are under a lot of pressure," said Qi Yue, the mother of Cool's lead singer. "Rock allows them to blow off steam." "Music brings them happiness," father Zhou Hongxin said. "We only have one child in each family, but by being in a band, it's as if they have sisters."Weeks before the competition, Cool met at the school for a weekly rehearsal as their parents sat outside -- part of a regime which sees the children practice their instruments for up to two hours every evening. Drummer Ma Ruisheng beat her sticks together before lead guitarist Wang Jiajun launched into the thumping riff from "I Love Rock And Roll" and the group erupted into giggles, drawing a frown from their teacher. \=\

“The school's fees -- about 200 yuan ($32) for an hour's lesson, plus the costs of equipment -- mean that most of Nine Beats' graduates are members of China's comfortably-off middle class, and have aspirations to match. "Our dream is to release our own record, and travel the world performing in huge stadiums," said Wang -- as long as it does not interfere with their education. "Homework comes first," said lead singer Zhou. "Not only has playing music not influenced our studies, it's actually improved our results." \=\

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Midi Music Festival

Midi Rock Festival

The Midi Music Festival---a four-day affair held fir a long times at Hadian Park in Beijing---is China’s oldest and most ambitious rock, funk, punk and techno music festival. It began in 2000 as a recital for students of the Midi School of Music, run by the festival’s organizer, Zhang Fan, and has grown into something of a cultural phenomenon. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times In the years when it hasn’t been shut down by the authorities, the event has drawn tens of thousands to a Beijing park with dozens of bands and a freewheeling atmosphere of young sophisticates, pimple-faced thrasher rock enthusiasts and a smattering of angry nationalists who like their music loud and rough.” In 2010, .after one too many impromptu cancellations by the Public Security Bureau, Mr. Zhang decided to move his festival. Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu Province, was willing not only to create festival grounds on an island in the Yangtze River but also to offer generous subsidies, a 10-year arrangement and a hands-off approach.

Many of China’s top rock groups have performed at the Midi Festival. Some young people travel by train 20 hours to get to Beijing and sleep in parks so they can take in the bands. The 7th edition of the festival in 2006 featured 40 bands and dozens of DJs, some of whom spit beer in the air and swore at the audience. Even though the event attracts sponsors like Gibson and Motorola, the festival generally loses about $25,000. Another big event is the Lijiang Snow Mountain Music Festival, which has been called “China’s Woodstock.” See Festivals

Explaining what the Midi Music Festival is all about Qiao Yi wrote in the Global Times: “A. Having a rollicking time with more than 100 bands from home and abroad; B. Having fun with friends and family on bright, sunny day; C. Lying on the lawn and drinking cheap beer.” [Source:Qiao Yi, Global Times, April 28, 2009]

The Midi Music Festival began as an indie rock party at Midi Music School, an independent music training school located near Fragrant Hills in the western part of Beijing, in 1997. It is now China’s the oldest and largest outdoor music festival. With relatively low ticket prices, the outdoor music bash has been gathering rock fans and new music talents throughout China. [Ibid]

In recent years, the music festival has been seen as a symbol of modern Chinese music, a platform to show new acts and not least, a magnet for corporate sponsorship. Three or fours days of performances at Beijing’s outdoor venues such as Haidian park and Chaoyang park have become a new entertainment lifestyle for many holiday-goers during the May Day vacation. [Ibid]

“It is not only a music festival for young people. You can see mums push stroller among tattooed twenty-something young men. Middle-aged men sip beer and cheer with hard-core metalheads,” says Wang Guan, a photographer in Beijng, who has participated in Midi Music Festival since 2000. [Ibid]

Midi Music Festival in Recent Years

The festival in 2007, held at Beijing’s Haidian Park, saw a record number of 80,000 visitors in four days. Small music live-houses such as Starlive, Mao Live-house and some bars have been used to hold the Midi after-parties.

The Midi Festival has often been marred with last minute cancellations and venue changes because of apparent safety and noise concerns.In 2008, Midi Music Festival was supposed to be the biggest on record, comprising 100 local bands and 30 visiting acts. However, just when all 30 foreign performers got their performance permits from the local culture authority, Midi was postponed due to the Olympic security concern. [Ibid]

In 2009, the Midi Music Festival was move from Beijing to Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, two hours rail ride outside of Shanghai. It was the first time the event---then in its 10th year---was held outside of Beijing. Not just that, the number of performers too has shrunk, from more than 100 to 30, with 20 of them from China and the rest from outside. Alhough the festival was headlined led by China’s rock godfather Cui Jian and famed rock band Miserable Faith, the Reflector and Twisted Machine and featured DJs from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, France, Japan and Germany, Midi fans were shocked that an event so intrinsic to Beijing culture was held somewhere else.

In 2011 the Midi Festival was held in the western outskirts of Beijing near the town of Mentougou, which took some determination to get to. According to Shanghai Journal: “The festival site was even more surreal. A howling wind blew dust and dirt around the festival area as some heavy metal bands hit the two big stages. SUBS came on at the end of the evening, and they put on a fantastic show. Kang Mao was in her best form, braving the wind and dust and kicking up swirling vortices of pure energy.”

Mr. Zhang insisted on keeping ticket prices low, at $9 a day, and limiting corporate advertising. He also persuaded the government to relinquish control over content. “They also wisely heeded my advice and decided not to have local officials take the stage and address the audience,” Mr. Zhang told the New York Times . The result,” Jacobs wrote “was a refreshingly spirited festival and a crowd that was as countercultural as they come in China. When a downpour turned green fields into brown goo, images of Woodstock came to mind, albeit without the overt sex and drugs.” Chen Chen, 22, an architecture student, explained that the scarf, which schoolchildren learn represents the blood of martyrs, has come to denote membership in a tribe trying to carve out space in a society that demands absolute conformity. “It is a symbol of our devotion to pure rock and to the fight against oppression,” he said proudly. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 23, 2010]

Another 2011 festival---The Strawberry Music Festival---was held in Tongzhou, about an hour east of Beijing. The festival was organized by Modern Sky, the label that handles Hedgehog and many other great bands in the current indie scene here in China. According to Shanghai Journal, “They did an excellent job with the festival---beautiful location, great performance space.” Several thousand people showed up. [Source: Shanghai Journal, Squarespace.com, May 1, 2011]

Government-Sponsored Midi Rock Festival

Describing the 2011 Midi Music Festival in Zhenjiang, Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Performers took musical potshots at the country’s leaders, tattooed college students sold antigovernment T-shirts and an unruly crowd of heavy metal fans giddily torched a Japanese flag that had been emblazoned with expletives.” The a four-day free-for-all of Budweiser, crowd-surfing and camping, was sponsored by the local Communist Party, which spent $2.1 million to turn cornfields into festival grounds, pay the growling punk bands and clean up the detritus left by 80,000 attendees. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 23, 2010]

The city cadres also provided an army of white-gloved police officers, earplugs in place, who courteously endured bands with names like Miserable Faith and AK47 while fans slung mud at one another. The incongruity of security agents facilitating the sale of cannabis-themed merchandise was not lost on the festival’s organizer, Zhang Fan. “The government used to see rock fans as something akin to a devastating flood or an invasion of savage beasts,” said Mr. Zhang, a handful of whose events have been canceled by skittish bureaucrats since he pioneered the Chinese music festival in 2000. “Now we’re all part of the nation’s quest for a harmonious society.” He is not complaining, nor are the dozens of malnourished musicians who finally have a way to monetize their craft---although no one is getting rich yet.

Offstage, vendors hawked vintage Mao buttons, bunny ears, glow sticks, neon-colored clown wigs, penis-shaped water guns and stuffed “grass-mud horses,” a mythical creature that has become a protest symbol against Internet censorship. Then there was Qian Cheng, 25, who had scrawled out a cheeky sign offering to sell himself for 5 yuan, about 75 cents, to any girl who would have him. Mr. Qian, a television station employee from central China, sat on a sheet of plastic surrounded by a dozen people he had just met---all of whom had found one another online. Asked what they had in common, Mr. Qian looked around with satisfaction. “We aren’t pretentious and we are true to ourselves,” he said. “And unlike those in the outside world, we aren't obsessed with looks and money.” One notable accessory was red scarves---the kind meticulously knotted around the necks of Communist Party Young Pioneers. But these scarves were bound around arms or legs, or drawn across the face for a bandit look.

Growth of Government-Sponsored Rock Festivals

According to to AFP: Around 100 music festivals that now take place in China every year were sponsored by local governments eager to showcase their local enterprises, bolster regional tourism and let the music industry grow. "The fact that they give licences to all these music festivals is a great indicator... they are letting these big festivals take place... with up to 60,000 people going to them. And nobody seems to mind." [Source: Robert Saiget, AFP, June 18, 2012]

Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The shift in official sentiment---and among state-backed companies paying to have their logos splashed across the stage---has led to an explosion of festivals across China. In 2008, there were five multiday concerts, nearly all in Beijing. This year there have already been more than 60, from the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the southern highlands of Yunnan Province. Without exception the festivals have been staged with the help of local governments that have come to realize that pierced rockers flailing around a mosh pit are not necessarily interested in upending single-party rule. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 23, 2010]

Most festivals, however, embrace more mundane diversions: apolitical entertainment, a distraction from daily pressures and perhaps an opportunity to do some shopping. At the same time that the Midi masses were squishing through the mud in Zhenjiang, several thousand smartly dressed professionals in nearby Hangzhou were lounging on a manicured lawn at a 1950s-era cement plant that is now a government-run arts center.

Zebra, the company that staged the festival in Hangzhou, set up an arts and crafts market and a booth for exchanging unwanted possessions, to highlight the theme of sustainability. There were no red scarves, and the music, much of it of the Pop Idol variety, was easy on the ears.

Although she said the festival would probably lose money its first two years, Ms. Li of Zebra said she wanted to introduce the concept of the music festival and expose young Chinese to different kinds of music. And, she said of the musicians, “I want these kids to see that they can turn their talent into a career.”

Too much of a good thing, however, can have its downsides. The sudden proliferation of festivals has led to sparse crowds as events compete for the limited pool of fans able to afford the 150 yuan-a-day (about $22) admission. Then there are the slapdash affairs that lack working toilets, edible food or decent sound systems. Nearly every seasoned musician, it seems, has been shocked by an improperly grounded microphone or stiffed by a promoter. “There’s nothing quite like getting injured on stage and having to hobble out to the front gate of a festival because no one thought to provide an ambulance,” said Helen Feng, a Chinese-American musician, referring to her own fall during a recent performance.

Another problem is that China’s independent music scene is still in its adolescence, with quality and originality in short supply. Many festivals showcase the same acts, some of which might be charitably described as musically challenged. “If every festival has the same three bands or if there is too much corporate advertising or if kids don’t enjoy themselves, they won’t come back,” Ms. Feng said.

Government-Sponsored Rock Festivals and the Communist Party Cool

The governments have decided, for now at least, that music festivals can deliver something that even the most seasoned propagandists cannot spin out of thin air: coolness. “All these local ministries want their cities to be thought of as fun, young and hip so they can draw more tourists and claim a public relations trophy,” said Scarlett Li, a music promoter whose company, Zebra Media, stages festivals, including one in Chengdu that draws more than 150,000 to a park custom-built by the government. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 23, 2010]

The more permissive atmosphere for indie music is a contrast to heightened Internet censorship and the crackdown on vocal advocates of political change. Skeptics say the government is simply trying to co-opt youth culture, but others view the spread of festivals as an encouraging sign that rock, punk and heavy metal might finally have a stage free from the financial and political shackles that have constrained them.

Even if the authorities still insist on approving lineups in advance, rejections are infrequent, organizers say, partly because more musicians perform in English, which can challenge all but the most learned censors. “The government is happy for young bands to sing in English because that way the fans won’t know what they’re saying,” said Yang Haisong, the lead singer of a post-punk band called P.K.14 and a producer.

But Yang Haisong of P.K.14 could not help but feel cynical as he looked around at the Modern Sky Music Festival in Beijing going on at the same time as the others. To his right was a Jägermeister tent; to his left, an enormous line of well-dressed people waiting for free Converse tote bags. Asked if he thought Chinese youth culture might be on the brink of a tectonic breakthrough, Mr. Yang smiled and shook his head. “The government used to see us as dangerous,” he said. “Now they see us as a market.”

Underground Music Scene in China

While Beijing’s underground music scene is generally under the authorities---radar---hip-hop, indie rock and reggae groups perform regularly at nightclubs here---the producers representing broadcast media in China avoid musicians perceived as threatening. [Source: Jimmy Wang, New York Times, January 23, 2009]

“There are pockets of freedom here,” said Wong Miao, 24, the director of Acupuncture Records, which doubles as a collective of D.J.’s. “Anyone can play what they want in clubs, and as long as you aren’t insulting the party, generally you’ll be left alone.” [Ibid]

Andrew Field, maker of the film “Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.”, wrote: “For now, China remains in a tense state between the socialist idealism of old and a drive for wealth spurred by free-market reforms. These contradictions tear at the country’s social fabric, while simultaneously provoking and inspiring younger generations to greater artistic heights, especially in the realm of music.

Field also said, “Given the brutal industrialization, destruction and reconstruction of China’s rapidly changing urban landscapes it is probably no surprise that Beijing musicians are heavily influenced by the no-wave sounds of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They have nonetheless reconfigured this vocabulary to fit with Chinese opera’s traditional delight with textural experimentation and a centuries-long history of infatuation with shimmering melodic structures. With the sound of broken-down machines cranking out lovely pop songs, the unique sound emerging from China’s music underground aggressively questions the moral and social basis of the fragile modernity on which it subsists.

Underground Music Scene in Shanghai

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The secret world of the old Shanghai bomb shelter seems to exist in a parallel universe. On the sun-splashed street above, migrant laborers slurp down rice and tofu lunches, while clusters of office workers in crisp white shirts walk past the small sign on the sidewalk. But in the dark recess behind a display of foreign-brand toilet seats, a young woman descends a staircase into a place she knows only as "0093." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]

Passing through a pair of metal blast doors, the woman---22-year-old Sheng Jiahui, who goes by the nickname "Sammy"---moves deep into dimly lit corridors. The bunker glows an unnatural shade of green. In its perpetual twilight, 0093 still evokes the deadening claustrophobia of war and communist revolution that snuffed out Shanghai's swinging heyday, when the mingling of East and West transformed the city into the Paris of the Orient.

A door cracks open, and a blast of electric guitar erupts into the corridor. Inside the small room, under a poster of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix posing as Uncle Sam, four young Shanghainese women’the other members of Sammy's punk rock band, Black Luna---are starting to jam. It is a serendipitous twist of history: The bunker, once the symbol of a wounded and cowering society, has become a breeding ground for Shanghai's music scene. The rehearsal rooms at 0093---the moniker is a phonetic combination of its street name and number---have helped incubate more than a hundred local bands, reinvigorating a culture that now, as before, blurs the East-West divide.

Sammy sheds her jacket as the band lets loose. Orange, 20, pounds on the drums; Juice, 23, shreds chords at the speed of Shanghai's maglev train. Sammy sings, and her bangs flop up and down in double time. The daughter of a traditional Shanghainese opera singer, she is taking her family's musical talent in a new direction. "We are newborn birds, but we have big dreams," Sammy cries. "Let the whole world hear us sing."

When Sammy isn't underground playing punk rock, she's often perched in the 24th-floor apartment she shares with four other single women in a new tower downtown. Back in 1987, when she was born, her 28-story building would have dominated the skyline; now hundreds are taller. Looking out her bedroom window, she points past a jungle of green-sheathed high-rises under construction.

When Black Luna shot some promotional photos recently, the rockers put on flouncy cocktail dresses, with Sammy wearing a 1930s-style choker. "We wanted to capture the glamour of old Shanghai," she says. This wasn't nostalgia, though. It was a hip Shanghainese band plundering history for a cool new motif. In this city of constant renewal, the beat pounds so fast that the past can be turned into the future. The old can be made new again.

Club Scene at D-22 in Beijing

At a small bar in Beijing, called D-22, sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky---punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly---and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own. [Source: Artspace China]

"The club space is long and narrow, with the bar on the right and the stage at the far end as you walk in. There is a balcony that runs from behind the stage right up to the front of the club. The walls of the club are painted a muddy red typical of old Beijing, and all along the balcony we have hung up the Matt Niederhauser posters of the best bands and musicians that have come out of the club.” [Ibid]

On big nights when the club is full---it can take about 300-350 people---the bands are surrounded by the audience, above, below, in front and around one side. That generally gets them pretty juiced up. In the audience we typically get a lot of repeat customers---mainly lost wild kids, musicians, and people involved in the music scene. I suspect that they like to come often because we never charge them for admission or drinks and it’s the only time and place in which they are treated like stars. Maybe because of that repeat crowd we sometimes get accused of being cliquish, but I am not sure that there’s much we can do about that, and it’s easy to become part of the clique---just show up often and talk to the musicians. Everyone is pretty friendly." [Ibid]

Indie Rock in PRC Film

“Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.” made by Andrew Field. In 2007, Andrew Field undertook a personal journey through the indie rock scene in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere in China, documenting that scene and capturing some of the top indie rock bands performing in the P.R.C. today. The film was finished in 2011.

Combining live concert and festival footage along with recorded music and interviews with select band members, rock club owners, record company owners and promoters, this film explores how Beijing is nurturing one of the hottest indie rock scenes on the planet. Bands profiled in the film include Lonely China Day, Joyside, SUBS, Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, Guai Li, PK-14, Brain Failure, Snapline, Re-TROS, and Flying Fruit. The film also features a special appearance by China's very own rock godfather, Cui Jian, the man who began China's rock revolution in the 1980s.

Since earning a PhD from Columbia University in 2001, Andrew Field has spent the past eight years teaching Chinese history. He taught at UNSW in Sydney Australia from 2002-2007, and he has also taught for several study abroad programs in the PRC, including Dartmouth College, CIEE, NYU, and CET. Andrew's first book, “Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954" was published in 2010. Andrew has also published several academic articles about nightlife and musical culture in contemporary urban China, including an article on the indie rock music scene in Beijing that he co-wrote in 2007-8 with Jeroen Groenewegen. He currently lives with his family in Shanghai.

Punk Rock in China

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Punk band Brain Failure

Punk rock has a following among disenfranchised youth in Chinese cities but the punk scene is very small and largely underground. For a while, the Scream Club, a sort of CBGBs in Beijing, was ground zero for the punk scene. A member of one group that played there said the club is ‘small, dark, a little dirty, but cool...The Beijing punks are very enthusiastic and dedicated.” He said his group liked to get drunk and throw their microphones at audience.

Many Chinese punk groups used to record on Uganda-based 89 Tiananmen Records. One punk band on that lable---69---did a speeded-up thrash-metal version of the Maoist standard “To Rebel Is Justified”, replacing the lyric "healthy bodies" with "empty heads."

One member of an all-girl teenage punk band told the Japan Times they spend most of their time hanging out at the flat of one of their boyfriends, listening to CDs, drawing on the walls, and smoking cigarettes. They sometimes played gigs the Scream Club until it closed down.

Many Beijing punks are accused of being posers’spiking their and hair wearing combats but have little idea of what rebellion is all about, attacking George Bush when they should be attacking Hu Jintao.

Punk and Rebellion in China

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Brain Failure poster

Punk is arguably the most tolerated form of expression in China. Groups sing about “No future,” “Revolution in Your Life” and “never forget the message from Orwell” and criticize the ruling elite by attacking Zhongnanhai cigarettes which has the same name of the place where the ruling elite lives. A fan at a Shanghai club told the New York Times, “What’s produced here is all about “You don’t love me? or “I don’t love you.” It’s lousy, and without layers.”

One Chinese punk rock song goes:


“Red flag in this sky, but it means nothing,
Red flag doesn’t need a star,
Like freedom doesn’t need a flag
So many [damn] rules, but I don’t care
Let’s burn this flag,
Now it’s the time”

The lead singer of P.K, 14, a group with a sizable following, told the Washington Post: “The government told people you should live for money, a house, a car, a bigger house. So more people get rich and more get poor. It’s a bad situation. Some foreigners say China has a bright future, but I say there’s no future...I try yo sing about this, express this in our music. I am not a fighter, a protester, a politician. Music is what I do, I can only do that.”

Punk rockers say what they think and get a way with it, perhaps because the government feels they have little chance of winning many converts. Their numbers are so small and most Chinese find them distasteful anyway, so perhaps the government feels they give rebellion a bad name

Many punk rockers are not that interested in politics anyway. The singer in one group told the Washington Post, “We used to have a song about police injustice, called “The Soul of Chinese Cops”. But we’re not politicians, or the president. We can’t change the system.” Cui Jian told the Washington Post, “Chinese punks want to show they’re angry. That’s enough. They don’t have to make a big statement. The most important thing is don’t lose yourself.”

In mosh pit of the Beijing club D-22 fans dive from the stage and shower performers with cigarettes.

Image Sources: Fan, artist and Chinese rock websites and blogs

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.

Last updated January 2014


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