ROCK IN CHINA
Archetypal Chinese rock band,
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.”
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. In the 2000s they draw less attention unless they have some sort of political connection. At that time the rock music scene in general was pretty wide open and existed largely beyond the control of the government. Government authorities generally made 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. In recent years, especially under Xi Jinping and spread of music via the Internet, the government has tried to assert more control.
The rock movement in China is fragmented, with the rock scene in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan being 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.
Websites and Sources: 2009 Wall Street Journal article about Beijing Underground scene online.wsj.com ; ; 2009 New York Times article on Hip Hop nytimes.com Foreign Policy article on Underground bands foreignpolicy.com Chinese Pop Music Inter Asia Pop interasiapop.org; Sinomania, with old postings but still online sinomania.com ; Wikipedia article on C-Pop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Cantopop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Mandopop Wikipedia ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com
Rock Artists in China
Tang Dynasty, Black Panther and Cui Jian were among the most popular rock artists in China in the 1980s and 1990s. Other famed rock bands included Miserable Faith, the Reflector and Twisted Machine. Lui Huan and the rock band The Flowers was popular in the late 1990s. Explaining why CCTV wouldn't show a Flowers video, a CCTV producer said, "This music releases very pessimistic emotions. This does not suit the main tone of our propaganda."
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 Pettis, 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.
Modern Sky Festivals are fairly big events in China. Among the the Chinese bands that appeared at the Modern Sky Festival in New York's Central Park in 2014 were Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, Queen Sea Big Shark and Second Hand Rose. Second Hand Rose features guitarist Yao Lan and percussionist Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau [Source: Sean Silbert, Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2014]
Chinese rock artists in the late 2000s and early 2010s included 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. Woodie Alan was 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”.
Helen Feng is a singer, VJ, promoter, music critic, event and tour manager. She first came to Beijing from the U.S. in 2002. Described by media as the “Blondie of China” and the “Queen of Beijing Rock,” the Beijing-born artist is perhaps best known as the lead vocalist for rock group Nova Heart, which was the first Chinese band to perform at U.K. music festival Glastonbury and is now working on a second album. 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: Kenrick Davis, Sixth Tone, September 1, 2017; Robert Saiget, AFP, June 18, 2012]
Zuoxiao Zuzhou (real name: Wu Hongjin) is one of the most prolific and provocative musicians in China. He is a close friend of the artist Ai Weiwei who had been spearheading a spate of high-profile campaigns against government censorship and political restrictions before he was detained. Zuoxiao was detained at the airport together with his wife, Xiao Li In April 2011 after Zuoxiao had publicly expressed his support for Ai Weiwei, while he was detained, during a rock concert at the 2011 Modern Sky y Festival in Zhouzhuang in eastern China. Zuoxiao had displayed the words “Free Ai Weiwei” on a large screen. Zuoxiao was a cult-hero in the 2000s among Chinese youth interested in socially engaged music. He owes this success to humor and parody, and a turn towards a less pointed social critique and a more hedonistic sound. [Source: Jeroen Groenewegen, Norient, May 4 2011]
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.
Chinese rock, it been argued, began with the hard rock bands Tang Dynasty and Black Panther. They were were formed in the 1980s and popular in the early 1990s. 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. \=\
Dakou is a word used to describe CDs and tapes that have been dumped by the West, intended to be recycled, but instead were 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 sold in urban China, often along with pirated CDs, on a bustling black market. The word later came to describe not only the CDs themselves but the generation of music fans that grew up listening to them. Pop culture researcher Jeroen de Kloet wrote: “Dakou CDs and tapes were 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 was 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.”[Source: Jeroen de Kloet, Danwei.org, June 11, 2010, Jeroen de Kloet was the author of “China with a Cut”, which looks into dakou culture and then the ensuing commercialism of China's music market.
On one Internet discussion site, You Dali wrote 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 was 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!
Tang Dynasty and Kaiser Kuo
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. Tang Dynasty was still together, with different members, in the 2010s
Kaiser Kuo was a founder of Tang Dynasty and its leader guitarist. He was born in 1966 in New York City and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and holds an MA in East Asian Studies from the University of Arizona. He told the BBC: In China in the 1980s there was a real ethic of cosmopolitanism. You know, almost a fetish for things foreign during the time. And it was precisely because of this openness, this receptiveness to foreign ideas, including religions like Buddhism, to foreign arts, [that] I think people would understand that a band working in an entirely foreign idiom, calling itself Tang Dynasty, was meant to evoke that same spirit." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]
According to the BBC: “Tang Dynasty the rock band consciously paid tribute to this era of artistic creativity Kuo's band got together in 1988 when China had just emerged from isolation, and was falling head over heels in love with foreign culture. Moody and long-haired, the young men named their group Tang Dynasty in tribute to the artistic golden age. "If you were to grab any kid off the street and ask him, 'What was the greatest dynasty in China's history?' nine out of 10 of them would answer the Tang.
Chinese American Kaiser Kuo moved to China in the 1980s. .He later became a prolific writer and host of the popular Sinica Podcast — which has became an influential voice on politics, society, and economics in contemporary China. Then he took a very high-profile job as director of International Communication at Baidu, China's largest internet search engine. During the stint he was often interviewed and quoted in the foreign press about China. [Source: Laura Jenkins, Asia Society, April 27, 2016]
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. [Official website: cuijian.com ]
Cui (born 1961) 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”.
Early Days of Rock in Beijing in the Late 1980s
Dutch Sinologist and musician Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it came to life in the late 1980s. He said: ““I arrived in China in September 1987 when the famous Beijing musician Cui Jian was just getting big. I came to China to study at Peking University as part of my Sinology studies at Leiden University, but soon ended up more in the Beijing music scene than I was in class. Singer Cui Jian got together at the time with Eddy [Randriamampionona] from Madagascar and drummer Zhang [Yongguang]. They would perform in Ritan Park with their band Ado. I would go there, and found out that there were quite some young people making music. Zang Tianshuo would also play there, and I became acquainted with Chinese rock musician He Yong , who later became well-known with his album Garbage Dump . I knew all of them, it was just a small bunch of people in that scene. Especially the foreigners in Beijing knew each other at the time — there were not that many, and if there was something happening we just knew it through word of mouth.”[Source: Manya Koetse, What's On Weibo, April 12, 2016]
“I started frequenting these sort of performances and would join on stage every now and then, as I did with the band Mayday , in which He Yong also played. They had all just started playing and had zero background knowledge in pop music as there was simply no access to that kind of music. I had brought forty cassette tapes with me to China; they were copied hundreds of times. Before I knew it I was hanging out with these guys days on end, recording songs in the studio. They would also make cassette tapes with Toto music, for which I would do the singing. I would get 500 kuai [US$80] for it, which got me through another month. I lived on the campus anyway, and did not need much to get by.”
“I’ve always felt very welcome, and our interest was mutual. I wanted to play music with them, and they needed a guitar player. The fact that I was foreign didn’t matter — we were all equals. I stopped going to Chinese classes at university, but in the meantime, my Chinese was improving every day because I was talking to my new friends. I once went back to class in the second semester and discovered I was ahead of the others. By then I couldn’t just properly order food — I was talking Chinese the whole time.”
“The years from 1986-1989 were the blossoming days for a new type of music in China, but it was more than that: those were the days of liberation. Everybody thought: we’re opening up, we’re becoming modern. It was the build-up to the student movement of ’89. Rock music was a big part of it. The late ‘80s were not necessarily the beginning of pop music in China, as you also had music by Chinese pop queen Teresa Teng and others which was popular before that time. But the rock scene provided a different sound — it was not as sweet as Teresa Teng, and it was influenced by the cassettes that were passed around, which included sounds by Toto, The Police, Bob Marley, and other artists. The difference between pop and rock is lifestyle; it was no music for the millions, it was a hip and alternative scene.”
“The ‘rock scene’ maybe consisted of 30 to 40 people. Cui Jian played an important role in those early days of rock. For many young adults, he was that critical voice against the authorities. He was very good with language, and also used Chinese instruments in his music. He really knew how to do it. Nobody ever surpassed him in that way.” Many musicians of those days were part of danwei’s [work units] focused on dance and music. Most of them were able to play a traditional Chinese instrument. They all came from a musical environment, but their power was to give those Chinese musical influences a new twist and combine them with the music that came in via Europe or America. In the music from those days, you can clearly hear what they listened to. Part of it is coincidence; Cui Jian sometimes only sounds like The Police because that was the cassette tape that happened to be available to him, while others weren’t.”
“Heibao (Black Panther) was a band that was also formed at the time. They later became the best-selling mainland Chinese rock band ever. More people started engaging with the rock scene. The simple core value in the beginning was that everyone just wanted to make music. Those were the free days. We would hang out together in the studio and if we went out we would hop on our bikes and cycle through the city. The streets were pretty empty. Looking back, I mainly remember that feeling of freedom and spontaneity. ”
Rock and Tiananmen Square
Jeroen den Hengst said : “I lived in Beijing throughout 1987-1988 and then went back in 1989. The liberal politician Hu Yaobang died in April 1989 and everyone mourned his death because he was a reformer who inspired people — he was, amongst others, against corruption. He was very popular amongst Chinese students. University students in Beijing went through the city in a procession to honour him and then the slogans started coming against corruption. It became political very quickly.” [Source: Manya Koetse, What's On Weibo, April 12, 2016]
“We were staying at the Peking University campus, and saw more and more trucks coming and going with students hopping on to go to Tiananmen Square. If I had to compare it with anything, I’d say it was like Woodstock — a bizarre hopeful and loving vibe was capturing Beijing. I absolutely loved it, and I was one of the hundred-thousands of people standing on Tiananmen. We would go there all the time, also in the middle of night, and all my friends from the music scene would also be there to provide entertainment to the students who stayed there.”
“Cui Jian’s Tiananmen performance was legendary. His songs also made sense, singing about ‘I’ve got nothing to my name’ [see song translation]; he voiced the feelings many had the time. But there were a lot more people there who made music, there were many from the art and music scene. Students were even setting up a Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen. It was one big party.”
“At a certain point I realised that things were going the wrong way; things started to get dirty, literally, and I was too caught up — although I wasn’t politically involved at all. It was just that there were many cute girls and it was all so rock ’n roll, and I enjoyed it, but I got it all wrong. People started getting tired and not much was really happening. The height of the moment was gone. The same familiar faces were appearing in the media and the atmosphere changed. We decided to go to Shanghai by the end of May.
“It was one night in Shanghai, on June 4th, that there was a quiet procession throughout Nanjing Avenue with people carrying big posters. On the trees we saw stapled faxes with images that had gotten through via Hong Kong about what had happened in Beijing. We saw dead people and burnt soldiers. I almost couldn’t believe it — that such a peaceful and care-free time had turned into such a dark thing. We did not return to Beijing afterwards, as we had nothing to do there anymore. People from the Dutch embassy in Beijing went to the campus to collect our photos and films to make sure they were safe. The army had taken over the city. There was no more music, no more nothing.”
Rock After Tiananmen Square
Jeroen den Hengst: “In those last months of 1989 and in the early nineties I went back to Beijing, but things had changed a lot — especially in the music scene. There were a lot of wild parties, but everything had become more underground. Many musicians endured hard times during those days.” People living in a dictatorship develop techniques to know the margins within which they can operate. In the early nineties, I noticed that the guys in the music scene somehow always knew when their friends were getting out of prison. Or when they could organise a party. It was also the time when Ecstacy came up — it was called yáotóuwán in Chinese, literally: ‘shake-head-pill’, ’cause it made their heads shake.” [Source: Manya Koetse, What's On Weibo, April 12, 2016]
“It seems like not many people were able to pick up the music vibe where it had left off before those dark days in 1989. Some just couldn’t get on with the changing times, others were on drugs. Not many were arrested, but there were a lot of them who had to lay low for a long time after 1989. Zhang [Ado drummer] committed suicide last year. He Yong is now either imprisoned or in a mental hospital. Many of the guys from those days have gone mad or suffered a severe setback after their moment in those early flourishing days of rock had passed.”
“Now the music scene seems to be somewhat blooming again. Beijing really has got some good bands. Shanghai has got a nice jazz scene. But there is no solid base for these bands to build on. Japan and Korea are far ahead of China when it comes to the music scene. In China’s music scene, people are more individualistic — they are staring at the ground when you want to find the groove together. If everyone is only looking to do their own thing and don’t work together, you don’t get that music to the next level.”
Chinese Rock Scene in the Early 2010s
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.” Veteran music producer Kenny Bloom agrees. "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.
“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.”
“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.”
Pub Band Scene in Beijing in the Late 2010s
Stephen McDonell of the BBC wrote: “High-top black Feiyue sneakers hit the effects pedal, drums and guitars kick in and a surge of bodies moves to the sound. Cheap beer, smoky air, raucous noise; cluttered, ramshackle and bohemian… this is Beijing's underground music scene. Local bands are cult heroes in the dive bars of the old city: young people from all round China drift to the capital because this is where alternative music is taken seriously. People will tell you that Beijing is a rock'n'roll city” and “the country's indie bands are dealing with the China of today - meaning, they know they have to be careful what they say and how they say it. [Source: Stephen McDonell, BBC News, April 20, 2019]
“A few years ago you could actually get away with more than you can now. One winter's night, in a venue which has since closed, a punk band came on. At one point, in between the thrashing guitars, the lead singer declared in English: "The Chinese Communist Party is the mafia!" An audible wooooooo could be heard around the room as people laughed at the audacity of such a public statement.
“But Beijing's music-bar owners seem pretty blase about the prospect of being closed down or arrested because of subversive lyrics. Most musicians seem to know, somehow, the limits of what can be said. They push up against the edge - and when they cross the line, they usually do so in a clever, cryptic fashion. I could provide examples of songs and expressions - but their wordplay can take a while to explain, and it might draw unwelcome attention for the bands concerned. That's how things are in China. “And let's not forget, most artists here sing mostly about young love, heartbreak, hangovers, the streets where they live, the people they miss.
Beijing's today has a special flavour, accentuated by being further away and less visited. The sound itself is raw, less polished, with mountains of enthusiasm and commitment to nothing more than the love of music for its own sake. Performers know they're never going to be on television in China, never going to be played on the radio here. Their fans hear their music by coming to the gigs. Popularity spreads by word of mouth. There's a sense that everyone is equal. The most famous band will not necessarily be the headline act. The line-up is often drawn out of a hat and the set lists can be completely random. One bar owner told me that a government official had visited his venue and his main concern was that patrons had nowhere to sit. He just couldn't understand why people would want to stand during a performance. Probably best that he didn't come along to witness a heaving mosh pit first hand.
“Still, planning permission and licensing laws have been whittling away at the scene, with venue after venue closing its doors. Once, all you needed to set up a performance space was a room, an amplifier and beer. Not any more. Now you need a proper licence, and the city government has decided to clear many businesses out of the old alleyway, or hutong, neighbourhoods. Yet the biggest threat to the Beijing blast is probably rent. The music circuit is mostly in the old heart of the city, where once-rundown spaces have now become sought after, trendy locations. Owners tend to live off-site, and want better returns on their investment.
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]
“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.” “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. 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.”
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. Yang Haisong, singer 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.
Hard Life of Making Rock Music in China
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 in the late 2000s that his group played mostly in bars and rehearsed in a nine-square meter space. On a good night, he said, the band made 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.”
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]
AK47 in Xian
Rock and Marketing in China
In the late 2000s one of the biggest sources of income for Chinese rock musicians was 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]
Peter Foster wrote in The Telegraph: “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.” 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." \=\
Midi Music Festival
Music Festivals in China
Around 100 music festivals were taking place in China every year in the early 2010s. They were often 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]
Andrew 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.
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.
On Chinese rock and pop music festivals in the late 2010s, Chinese music expert Helen Feng told the Sixth Tone: On the positive side, it’s basically training an entire generation of people to appreciate music, to interact with music, which is very important. Even if there’s a big ugly logo on the back of the stage, a not very well-done sound system, it’s still the beginning of something, so I have to give it that. But I think that trend peaked more a few years ago; I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s in a rapid moment of growth now. Four or five years ago, there was a huge explosion when — all of a sudden — music festivals started popping up everywhere, and brands started getting interested. [Source: Kenrick Davis, Sixth Tone, September 1, 2017]
“I think a lot of the time [internationally], people go to festivals to enjoy a happening that is surrounding a certain kind of lifestyle. The music is the soundtrack to that lifestyle, and the festival is the place you go to be with people that share a similar belief system to you. Music is kind of a name card.
“The problem with [Chinese] music festivals is that the particular cultural element — the creation of a tribe and the perfect environment for that tribe — hasn’t really happened, outside of just having a really commercial tribe. If you’re super materialistic and into trends — if you’re like the “hipster kid” — there’s a couple festivals that have done that in China. And maybe one or two festivals like MIDI that are like “Yeah, I’m hardcore” — they’ve done that as well.
“While this is a big part of 60, 70, or 80 percent of festivals in the West, in China, it feels like a lot of people are going to festivals just to go. They don’t necessarily understand the cultural implications or the tribe that you belong to in the festival. You’re not with people who are part of your tribe, whatever tribe you chose to be in, and a lot of times you’re dealing with bad lip-syncing, bad sound, red tape, etc. I don’t know if that trend is necessarily going to fizzle out.
Midi Rock Festival
The Midi Music Festival — a four-day affair held for 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 1997 as a recital for students of the Midi School of Music and a platform for indie groups, 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.”
The Midi Music Festival, sometimes also called Midi Modern Music Festival or simply Midi Festival, has usually been held each year in Beijing during the May Day holiday in early May, with some breaks in 2003, 2004 and 2008. The 2008 festival was delayed to October for reasons related to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and in 2020 and 2021 they were cancelled due to COVID. In 2010, after one too many impromptu cancellations by the Public Security Bureau, Zhang decided to move his festival. Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu Province, which 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. The festival currently is held annually in four Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Shenzhen.[Source: Wikipedia]
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.” “t 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. [Source: Qiao Yi, Global Times, April 28, 2009]
The 2006 festival, held in Beijing's Haidian Park, hosted 40,000 to 80,000 visitors, and featured performances by more than 50 artists in the rock, techno and DJ genres --- including 18 foreign bands, such as Alev, Monokino, Yokohama Music Association, The Wombats, and The Mayflies --- performing on four stages. The festival in 2007, held at Beijing’s Haidian Park, saw a record number of 80,000 visitors in four days. The 2007 line-up included UK acts the Crimea, Kava Kava (band), Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, and Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Small music live-houses such as Starlive, Mao Live-house and some bars were used to hold the Midi after-parties.The Australian band The On Fires played at the 2011 festival. The 2012 festival featured Australian band Arcane Saints. [Source: Wikipedia]
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. 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.
2011 Government-Sponsored Midi Rock Festival
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]
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.
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.”
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]
Zhang Shouwang and the Carsick Cars
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.”]
Xiao He and Yang Yi (China’s Bob Dylan)
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.”]
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.”
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 November 2021