Rock music in China was linked with protest against the government in the 1980s, forcing it underground. What does it sound like today? Henry Knight finds out.

On 4 June 2014, 25 years after it bore the fallen bodies of pro-democracy demonstrators, Tiananmen Square looked as it might on any other day. Beneath an imposing portrait of Mao Zedong, tourists milled about and children laughed and played as they would anywhere else. Military personnel laced the square’s perimeter, however, swarming it in numbers noticeably larger than usual. But morning bled into night without suspense, the anniversary’s tense calm unbroken. In Tiananmen, no microphones blared, no candles burned, and no heads bowed, as they did in vigils held in Taipei’s Liberty Square and Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

Nothing to My Name, the anthem of the 1989 student democracy movement, written by the founder of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll, Cui Jian, was nowhere to be heard. Its themes of individualism, experimentation and non-conformity have since been stripped of any element of political rebellion – displaced from the open air of Tiananmen Square to the underground Beijing rock scene, which is thriving.

Chinese rock music began to gather pace in 1987, a little over a decade after the death of Mao. It started when Cui left the Beijing Philharmonic, for which he had played the trumpet, to compose and record China’s first rock album, Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March. His music would become a political fixture in the late 1980s as China’s urban youth mobilised dissent against what they perceived as the People’s Republic’s repressive policies. Even after the authoritarian state unleashed violence on the student demonstrators, putting an abrupt end to their movement, Cui embarked on a nationwide tour. He called it the New Long March, mockingly alluding to Mao’s own ‘Long March’ of the 1930s – the event that began his rise to power within the Chinese Communist movement and first inspired his cult of personality. It was not long before Communist party leadership wised up to Cui’s political ethos and cancelled the remainder of his tour dates.

Nonetheless, Cui had pioneered a new breeding ground for Chinese music, one that would swell into the vibrant indie scene Beijing enjoys today. But as Chinese underground rock has evolved from its confrontational beginnings, it has largely shed its political content. A new generation of Sino-rockers has shied away from overt or even oblique references to rebellion against the government. Chief among them is Zhou Shouwang, the frontman of experimental noise trio Carsick Cars, who traces his musical ancestry to the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and the minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In an interview with Michael Pettis, an American ex-pat who left Wall Street to found an underground club and record label in Beijing, Zhou reflects: “[Cui’s] music fit a more idealistic generation who knew less about music and city life and cared more about changing the world. I think we are maybe more pessimistic and also more interested in finding art that challenges us and makes us expand our thinking.”

Rock without rebellion

The relationship between politics and art in modern China is a fraught one. Since the Cultural Revolution brought a decade of terror to artists and intellectuals in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, some of China’s foremost creative talents have fled overseas. Among them is Gao Xingjian, the first author to write in Chinese and receive the Nobel Prize in literature, who emigrated to France in the late ‘80s. Despite his pedigree in the Western world, Gao’s novels are nowhere to be found in China’s bookstores and his dramas are notably absent from Beijing’s stages. Many Western  critics expect Chinese artists to replicate the progressive politics of dissenting voices like Gao and Ai Weiwei, and call them out if their work does not directly challenge the regime of censorship under which they operate – for instance, some writers in the West have called the 2012 Nobel Laureate in literature, Mo Yan, a pawn of the Chinese government and undeserving of the prize.

Those who have criticised Mo might also be disappointed with the Beijing rock scene’s lack of political engagement today. But within an authoritarian society, Zhou Shouwang and his fellow musicians have carved out a space to explore modern urban life and identity. The creative licence available to them in that space, they feel, is not severely limited by government censorship. If they provoked the Communist party with more explicitly political lyrics they could jeopardise that freedom. Many prefer to avoid interaction with the government altogether, including any potential state sponsorship. “I am afraid that if the government understood what we were doing and decided to support the underground artists and musicians in Beijing… they would end up hurting the strength and variety of the Beijing art and music scene,” Zhou Shouyang told Pettis.   

The search for profit

The greatest challenge indie musicians face in China is not political but commercial. Few of them can sustain themselves on the music they produce. I spoke with Duncan Hodson, an ex-pat who plays guitar for the five-piece Brit-punk band MagicBus.“There is very little money to be made from it and the market is very small at present,” he told me. “In China, you can probably count the number of bands that can actually make a living from music on one hand.”

In China, as in the West, the digitisation of music has shifted the industry’s profit mechanism from album sales to earnings from live-performances. The result is that the most popular underground bands make most of their money at large festivals, like the Modern Sky Festival and the Strawberry Festival. While this fact has helped bring the indie rock to the Chinese public at large, it comes at the expense of smaller acts.

Up-and-comers who struggle to break into the festival scene find it tough to stay afloat on album sales alone. In an industry starved of cash, owning and operating a record label is a losing proposition for most, which has allowed a handful of brand names to monopolise the scene’s production and distribution. The industry’s giants include Modern Sky, Genjing Records and Maybe Mars, founded by Pettis in 2007.

That Chinese experimental acts can find very few sources of capital beyond that of a former Wall Street banker may seem bleak. But Hodson argues that the scene’s commercial woes are part of what makes it so unique and vibrant: “People get involved in it for a simple reason – they love the music and want to use it to sing about their lives.”

A dizzying array of genre-bending sounds has emerged from the Beijing underground: hybrids of electro dream-pop, post-punk, instrumental math rock, noise music and post-rock. The acts vary in instrumentation from standard four-pieces to wild bands with tin whistles, Irish fiddles and traditional Chinese instruments. It’s a remarkably eclectic scene, and well worth checking out –  just don’t expect to find rebellion in the mix.

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