Saturday, 14 July 2012


"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without" - Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

"The art of all the nations of the world is similar with respect to fundamental principles, but different with respect to form and style. [...] Take the leaves of a tree: at first sight they all look much the same, but when you examine them closely, each one is different" - Chairman Mao, Talk to Music Workers, 1956.

And now for something completely different. I thought it would make a nice change to share some stand-out modern Chinese bands/artists I have come across - and inviting people who are more familiar with it to share some of their own.

First, a disclaimer: I am looking at a relatively narrow but very vibrant section of modern Chinese music -  rock'n'roll, alt-rock, indie, punk (both "underground" and artists with more mainstream exposure). This was basically a question of my own musical taste and interest, and I am sure there are many interesting developments taking place in other genres.

Furthermore, I am only looking at music since the 1980s - here is a timeline of significant artists from earlier periods.


In his book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll Jonathan Campbell has described how Chinese rock music (yaogun) began in the 1980s. And any overview of the scene should start with Cui Jian, the man routinely described as the "godfather" of yaogun.

In the early '80s Cui, like many Chinese artists who would make their name in yaogun, was a classically-trained musician working in the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble. But through that decade, these musicians had increasing freedom to collaborate and experiment with new styles, and to access foreign records.

Cui was a pioneer in this shift. His songs were hugely popular among a generation of youth frustrated with lingering political controls, censorship and state-imposed rationing. In 1986 - a year before leaving the Ensemble -  he wrote Nothing To My Name, which became the unofficial anthem of the student protests over the following years. He played it in Tianenmen Square in 1989, fifteen days before the crackdown began.

Here is a sample of the lyrics - the song is below:

For a long time I kept on asking
When will you come with me
But all you do is laugh at me
For I have nothing to my name
I want to give you my dreams
To give you my liberty too
But all you do is laugh at me
For I having to my name.

In the aftermath of the killings at Tianenmen, Cui became famous for wearing a red strip of cloth across his eyes at performances - supposedly a challenge to his fellow nationals not to turn a blind eye to what had happened.

Here he is giving a performance with his trusted trumpet, showing signs of increasing New Wave influences.

Jeroen de Kloet has written of the 1980s yaogun musicians - especially in the period before and after 1989 as a liumang generation ("rascals" or "hooligans") with a sincere political agenda of challenging authority through music filled with metaphor and allegory. The musicians and their audience were liumang youth because they didn't have any grand visions for society beyond allowing people the freedom to live their own lives how they wished - if that was to spend all day drinking, smoking and playing loud music, then so be it.

A famous film called Beijing Bastards (1993) captured the zeitgeist - here is a clip with the protagonist at a Cui Jian gig:

At the same time, other Chinese bands began making a name for themselves including metal bands like Tang Dynasty and Hei Bao (Black Panther). Here is one of Hei Bao's easier listens from 1992:

According to de Kloet, the mid-1990s saw a transition in China from the liumang generation, with their sincere if simplistic political stance, to the Dakou generation, with more cynical, sarcastic and barbed attitudes to politics. But this generation also witnessed the flourishing of a far more diverse and experimental underground scene (dixia yinyue).


The deepening of "opening and reform" that followed Deng's famous 'Southern Tour' in 1992 created more space for small indie and alt-rock music labels to be viable in China. As yaogun grew and grew, its musicians and listeners found new ways to press against the limits of the censors.

The Dakou generation are named after the cut Western CDs that flooded into China in the 1990s, under the radar of state censors, and provided many Chinese enthusiasts with their first exposure to all manner of foreign genres and spawned indigenous movements.

This is how de Kloet describes the importance of Dakou:

"Dakou CDs are dumped by the West, meant to be recycled, but instead are smuggled into China. They are cut to prevent them from being sold. However, since a CD player reads CDs from the centre to the margin, only the last part is lost. Dakou CDs enabled musicians and audiences in China to listen to music that was either censored or deemed too marginal by China's music distributors. Examples of titles range from the new wave of Joy Division to the industrial sound of the German band Einsturzende Neubauten and the digital hardcore of Atari Teenage Riot."

Here is an example of China's punk scene - a band called Brain Failure, giving a characteristically intense performance at New York's legendary CBGB:

Here is a 2001 documentary called Made in China which features interviews with Brain Failure as well as other seminal underground artists and musicians in China's youth culture.

Alongside initial forays into pre-punk, metal and alt - notable acts including Hang on the Box, Cobra, and NO - went more recognisable indie music like this - a '90s track by New Pants, who played at the Coachella Festival in 2011:

De Kloet raises an important point about the consciousness in the yaogun scene that they are regarded as playing "catch-up" to the West, and their desire to make music that is unique. This impulse leads in two directions: on the one hand, commercial pressure to heavily emphasise "Chineseness" and traditional themes - "localisation through sinification is adopted to avoid the charge of copying" - and on the other, a search for a sound that is unique at a deeper level.

Tang Dynasty
Regarding the latter ethic of resistance to commercialisation, Cui Jian said in an interview:

"I think purely coming together in music is a little superficial, it's just a skill. This is easy to do and many people in China are like that. They put Chinese opera together with Western arrangements. But what they come out with is not all that. It's a little empty and commercial. I think a real coming together is the coming together of culture. Chinese young people understanding more about the West, and Western young people understanding more about China. The two cultures mutually understanding and mutually influencing. I think a real combination is in content, not form, and in the mind."

On this account, creating alternative music with transnational appeal must start from an understanding of why Western musicians experimented as they did, not just by recreating the same effects in a different environment. Andrew Field, who has documented yaogun in his film Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the PRC, has described this kind of approach in the context of the experimental Beijing band Snapline:

"Their music is dedicated to taking the sounds and ideas produced by the downtown Manhattan noise and minimalist movement of the 1970s and reinterpreting them in the context of contemporary Beijing, a city constantly being torn down and reconstructed in a maze of twisted steel, cranes, and huge holes in the ground, all manned by the dark and nearly-invisible army of migrant workers who flood into the city every day. Equally drawn to the dark, industrial music coming out of Manchester during the same period, the band performs strange, drum-machine-driven music over dark, minor chords."

Here is a Snapline track. I think I can hear echoes of Wire in it.

Here is a trailer for a new documentary film by Andrew Field called Down: Indie Rock in the PRC (named after a SUBS song). All of the bands featured in the trailer are worth checking out, and I have included most of them further down. One such band that has attained recognition is the indie rock outfit PK-14, who formed in 1997. Here they are playing in New York:

Zhang Shouwang, who has played in the experimental band White and in one of Beijing's best-known bands Carsick Cars, was heavily influenced by PK-14. Zhang has said that it was hearing The Velvet Underground's first album that made him want to be a yaogun musician, because it showed him that the everyday sounds of city life could be turned into art, by contrast with what he felt was the pomposity of mainstream Chinese music.

Here is a performance by Carsick Cars at the same venue in New York, and a video for Mogu ('Mushroom' - self-explanatory really). They are exactly the kind of band I like - loud-quiet-loud, plenty of repetition, shouty lyrics and a relentless, catchy beat, with shades of Sonic Youth.

Guang Chang ('Square') from their 2005 debut sees the band sailing close to the political limits of subjects deemed suitable for songs. It is based on Zhang's experience of being detained by police who thought he and his friends looked suspicious mulling around Tianenmen Square one morning. But with lyrics like "this is a square without hope", the song manages to be just ambiguous enough - is it about the hope of the nation, or of those who had invested their hopes in the protests? - to pass.

This relates to a broader debate in China about whether the Dakou generation have sold out and betrayed the earlier hopes of yaogun musicians that they could change society through their music. According to de Kloet, the same Beijing 'New Sound' generation that Cui Jian has denounced as "charlatans without culture" have taken to a marginal culture and lifestyle, and an attitude she summarises as: "don't take life so seriously, have fun; who cares to rebel when you can revel."

It seems that the Chinese government will tolerate an underground music scene insofar as it recognises the money-making potential. Although bands like RE-TROS (Rebuilding The Rights Of Statues, an '80s Bauhaus-inspired industrial sound - see below) who write songs with lyrics like "hang the police" can play at annual rock festivals - where local governments rake in lucrative revenue from selling advertising to sponsors - the CPC still exercises its authority to restrict the access to mainstream media of bands whose music they don't really appreciate and/or understand.

This limited freedom has allowed many Chinese indie rock bands to develop dedicated fanbases. They include Hedgehog (Ciwei), who emerged in the mid-2000s and found success with upbeat tunes and cheerily nonsensical lyrics.

One of my favourite bands to come out of China is My Little Airport.

The group formed in 2001 in Hong Kong, and specialise in making their own brand of blissful, bleepy, highly catchy indie-pop (nevertheless, enjoying greater freedoms than on the mainland, they have penned songs with increasingly political lyrics, such as "Donald Tsang, please die" - their most recent album is called Hong Kong is One Big Shopping Mall).

Then there is the minimalist experimental sound of Lonely China Day, who have blended elements of traditional Chinese music with bare, punctuated effects, to create music that is often compared with Sigur Ros.

Last but by no means least is SUBS, a highly-rated hardcore rock band described as "the most sought after live rock act in China", and whose influences range from Fugazi to the Hives.

Here is an interview with SUBS, interspersed with footage of their raucous stage presence. I was a convert as soon as the frontwoman Kang Mao described her inspiration: "The Pixies - for me they are like gods", and then explained that the band were out to use yaogun to destroy the superficial "subversiveness" of "hipsters" in the West.

Staying true to their underground ethos, the band told Reuters in an interview that they mostly played in bars and rehearsed in a nine-square-metre space. It was a "good night" if they made $37.50.

Here they are on what I hope was a good night in Shanghai, 2009:

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