Chapter II - Beats and Screams: Views of Chinese rock (Making sense)

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Chapter II - Beats and Screams: Views of Chinese Rock (Makes sense)

Draft transcribed version


General information

Original works author: Jeroen Groenewegen

Original works title: Tongue - Making sense of Beijing underground rock, 1997-2004

Universiteit Leiden

Talen en Culturen van China

Jeroen Groenewegen


March 18th 2005

a pdf version can be found here:


a pdf version can be found here:

(with correct display of Chinese Words)

Since the advent of Chinese rock (1986-1993), several scholars have compared Chinese rock to the counterculture in the USA as well as to the May Fourth period in China. Together with the Massacre on Tian’anmen Square on June 4th 1989, these events form a triangle within which people make sense of Chinese rock.

I take the May Fourth period in the broad sense, which starts around the May Fourth incident of 1919 and includes the 1920s and 1930s. These comparisons represent Chinese rockers as having borrowed several traits from the May Fourth intellectuals: their critical stance toward social and political problems of the day; the conviction that these are rooted in tradition, which in the case of rock music is not (only) the Dynastic and Confucian traditions but also and mainly the Communist tradition, especially of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); nationalism; finally the conviction that China can only become a strong nation by spreading enlightenment and modernization, near-synonymous with westernization, among its people.[1] Screams in the chapter title signifies this legacy. It is taken from the title of one of the most influential books of the period, Nahan 􀨤􀭞 by Lu Xun, a classic that is still compulsory reading in high schools in China. Although Yang Xianyi and Gladys Young translate Nahan as A Call To Arms, my translation as Scream is defensible as well.[2] Nimrod Baranovitch connects both translations and rock music in an analysis of the screaming of a rock singer in his book China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender and Politics, 1978–1997 (2004):

The dual nature of this cry for help is well represented by the Chinese word nahan, which was often used in the early 1990s when reference to rock was made. Meaning both a cry for help and a cry of despair, but at the same time a war whoop or shout, nahan encapsulates the wide spectrum of feelings that were articulated in rock songs during the late 1980s and early 1990s.[3]

The influence of Nahan on Chinese rock is evidenced by the titles of some of the books I discuss in this chapter, for instance Zhao Jianwei’s Cui Jian Screams in the Midst of Having Nothing: A Memorandum for Chinese Rock 􁋨􀘹􀳼􀏔􁮴􁠔􁳝􀐁􀨤􀭞􀋈􀐁􀳑􁨛􂒮􀻛􁖬􁔩 and Lu Lingtao and Li Yang’s Scream: For the Rock China Once Had 􀨤􀭞􀋖􀐎􀑚􀐁􀳑􁳒􃒣􂱘􁨛􂒮.[4]

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Fig. 2.1. Logo of Scream Records

Scream Records 􀱢􀦿􀬅􂠛 and Modern Sky are the two most important rock labels in China during the period 1997-2004. Scream Records uses the word haojiao 􀱢􀦿 in its Chinese name, which not only recalls A Call To Arms, but also Edward Munch’s painting The Scream and Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl.[5]

This takes us to the second comparison: that of Chinese rock to the counterculture in the USA. By the counterculture in the USA I mean loosely connected movements such as the Beat (1950s), Hippies and Flower Power (1960s-1970s), and even punk (since 1970s). I am aware of the fact that these movements are not the same or exclusively American, but in China they were introduced more or less simultaneously and often constituted a singular cultural reference. From this counterculture Chinese rock similarly borrows a rebellious spirit and a stance against tradition (this time more in generational terms than against tradition as a whole) as well as a revolution in attitudes toward personal freedom, drugs and sexual behavior.

Fig 2.2. Cover of the second edition of Hao Fang’s The Wild Blooming of Wounded Flowers.

Morris Dickstein’s The Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977), was translated into Chinese in 1985 and became an important source for information on the counterculture of the sixties in the USA.[6] In 1993 Hao Fang wrote in the second paragraph of The Wild Blooming of Wounded Flowers: The Bondage and Struggle of Rock ‘n’ Roll 􀓸􃢅􁗦􁬒—􁨛􂒮􂱘􃹿􃓮􀏢􁡫􀑝 that:

Before the 90s Chinese rock consisted only of Cui Jian’s independent shouts 􀩐􀭞 and youngsters taking The Gates of Eden as a starting point for their budding imagination,…’[7]

In The Gates of Eden Dickstein provides an account of the 1950s and 1960s countercultural movement around Allen Ginsberg. Rock music is part of the countercultural movement but poetry, popular literature and engaged journalism are more central:

Serious artists in all fields were attracted to the simplicity and emotional directness of popular culture and the complexities of modernist experimentation. As Ginsberg turned from the acerbic irony and disgust of Eliot to the bardic intensities of Whitman and Blake, Bob Dylan and John Lennon wrote song lyrics that seemed as surreal as any modernist text. … As the first auditors of The Rite of Spring accurately responded to Stravinsky’s violence by rioting, the audience at a rock concert sometimes longed to assault or devour the performers…: there was a touch of the The Bacchae in every successful rock performance. … Like ill-trained shamans, rock singers manipulated energies they could scarcely keep in tow. This was closely akin to their self-destructive streak…[8]

The choice to use the Beats to represent the counterculture in the title of this chapter is perhaps not uncontested. It refers to the literary trend of which Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road is representative, a current that thoroughly influenced the broad cultural movement in the 1960s USA in which rock was to play such an important role. The quotation above shows a bias towards intellectual interpretations of rock, which is inherited by most reviews of Chinese rock. At the same time it shows the centrality of physical and emotional energy (compared to the Bacchae here). This second meaning of the word beat (relating for instance to terms like rhythm and vibe, which are important in this thesis) is often neglected in writings on Chinese rock.

The influence of the Beat generation on Chinese rock is visible in the fact that one of the earliest booklets on the underground scene commemorates Allen Ginsberg[9], in essays on the Beat generation in Chinese rock magazines[10] and in the addition of the lyrics of underground rock bands to a Chinese translation of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums to Chinese; one of these lyrics was written by Tongue and highly influenced by the Beats.[11]

Fig. 2.3. Cover of the underground rock booklet Sub Jam, with a quotation of Allen Ginsberg (See 3.2 for more information).

With Beats and Screams, and its Chinese equivalent 􀨤􀭞􀳼􄏃􀏞, I refer to broad cultural and intellectual movements to which many authors, explicitly and implicitly, have compared Chinese rock. Both the comparison of rock to the counterculture in the USA (Beats), and to the May Fourth movement (Screams) have been and still are instrumental in making sense of Chinese rock.

The link of Chinese rock to the May Fourth movement and the counterculture in the USA is strengthened by the association of rock with the Tian’anmen Square massacre of June 4th 1989. Rock is linked to June 4th by its contribution to the cultural climate that led up to it, by its support for the students during the protest – Cui Jian’s NOTHING TO MY NAME was an anthem and rock bands performed on the square – and by its reflection of the anger and frustration after the event. Baranovitch writes:

One cannot gain full understanding of the 1989 democracy movement without understanding the role that rock music played in shaping the minds of the students who led it in the years that preceded the movement, as well as during the movement itself.[12]
The intensification of the [rock] fad during the early 1990s was a continuation of the process that had started just before and during the [1989 democracy] movement, but it was also a backlash, a popular expression of anger, defiance, and perhaps a kind of compensation for the failure of the movement.[13]

May Fourth, June Fourth and the USA counterculture constitute a triangle. This chapter is about that triangle and its functions and significance for the process of making sense of Chinese rock, both in China and elsewhere.

The triangle favors what I have called author-centered and especially political readings of rock. Research that does mention identity, individuality, the body and/or emotions (such as pleasure, anger and release) tends to fall back on the framework provided by this triangle to arrive at a closure or conclusion that stresses the intellectual appreciation of rock. I argue that the triangle has a strong bias towards ignoring or overruling the meaning/unmeaning continuum in musical performance, stressing music as a means to communicate ideas.

Rockers As Intellectuals

Linking Chinese rock to May Fourth intellectuals, the June Fourth students and writers from the USA counterculture, places rockers in intellectual company: it represents them as socially engaged intellectuals that present their critical analysis of contemporary society in songs. An example taken from Hao Huang’s online article “Voices from Chinese rock, past and present tense: social commentary and construction of identity in Yaogun Yinyue, from Tiananmen to the present” (2003):

As performers, rockers enjoy the status of culture creators, along with writers, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers. Tong su [popular] pop music stars, in contrast, are never billed as intellectuals. … Yaogun yinyue [rock music] is often identified as "angry" elitist music; rock fashion, hairdos, and lifestyle are often considered highbrow privileges. Intriguingly, Yaogun yinyue musicians often display a respectful, even deferential, attitude towards jazz and classical music … These Chinese rockers are not about to "roll over Beethoven." Rock musicians have become acutely aware of the attention paid to them by foreigners in the media and in academe. This contributes to their sense of mission as intelligentsia creating a new Chinese cultural identity.[14]

Huang represents rock musicians as highbrow intellectuals. These intellectuals are consciously aware of their mission, creating a new Chinese cultural identity. This new Chinese identity recalls May Fourth intellectuals’ call for New Culture.[15]

A case in point is also Anbin Shi’s 2003 essay “Rock-and-Roll on the Road of a Post-Socialist “Long March”: A “Chinese Bob Dylan” and His Quest for a New Socio-Cultural Identity” in which Shi compares Cui Jian to Bob Dylan and frames Cui Jian in the mission of creating a new Chinese identity. He does so mainly by analyzing Cui’s lyrics:

In the last stanza [of LET ME RUN WILD IN THE SNOW-COVERED LAND 􁖿􄅽􁟥􀳼􄲾􀴄􀏞􁩦􂚍􀜓􄞢], Cui’s demand for blood and flesh echoes his yearning for stimulation and love, which obviously alludesto the passion of Western countercultural hippies for drug addiction and unrestrained sexuality. As powerful as Lu Xun’s landmark plea in his “Madman Diary” (1918), “Save the Children”, Cui’s “Let me run wild” has become the outcry for freedom and individuality articulated by an entire generation in post-revolutionary China.[16]

This comparison has two important consequences. First, Cui Jian is heralded as the voice of a generation. This is a common claim in writings on Cui Jian. Claire Huot writes in 2000 in China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes:

Cui Jian is in many ways China’s Bob Dylan. Both have fulfilled a significant political-cultural role through their more detached posture as generational voice. … Cui Jian’s music was indeed the voice of all Chinese people.[17]

Second, Cui Jian and Chinese rock are, given the near-equation of modernization and westernization in China in this period, framed in a discourse of progress. The development of something as western as rock is taken as a sign of China’s progress in modernization. Baranovitch writes in 2003:

For many Chinese intellectuals, among them rockers [!], westernization was synonymous with modernization and rock represented both. … In this article the critic [Jin Zhaojun] suggests that the [1990 Beijing all-rock] concert was an indication that “China had moved rapidly beyond Li Jinhui [1920s and 1930s Shanghai pop/jazz music composer] … quickly caught up with gangtai [􂐃􀧄, pop from Hong Kong and Taiwan] … and some [Chinese musicians] … are already casting their eyes on the remote popular music of Europe and America.” The evolutionist tone of this statement is quite common in general discourse on the mainland. …
The repeated references to Lu Xun in rock discourse during the late 1980s and early 1990s are not incidental. Many students and young intellectuals during this period consciously connected themselves with the May Fourth iconoclastic tradition. Indeed, the fetishization of the West in the rock subculture reminds one of similar radical attitudes expressed in the May Fourth movement of the 1920s and 1930s.[18]

The conjunction of rock and literature also helps to widen the gap between rock and pop. Instead of seeing rock music as a form of popular music, it is defined in opposition to it as a kind of high art. In 1992 Andrew Jones writes in Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music:

Rock musicians tended to lump all other popular music together under the rubric of tongsu yinyue [pop music], and proceeded to situate themselves outside of this grouping. … [footnote:] The claim that rock music constitutes a completely separate ideology (yishi) was made without exception by every interviewee.[19]

This distinction between pop and rock creates a dichotomy that is politically motivated. Rock is identified with the unofficial circuit and pop with the officially sanctioned circuits, which makes rock resistant to and pop compliant with state power. In the extreme, rock is seen as a conscious and hard-won critical stance and pop as brainless pleasure.[20]

Lu Lingtao and Li Yang’s Scream for the Chinese Rock'n'Roll Yesterday (VA)‎ was published in 2003 after troubles with the word nahan in the title of the book apparently delayed publication. The book is a collection of interviews with the earliest rock musicians, most of whom appear in Andrew Jones’ book too, and gives an image that is only slightly different, despite the time-gap of eleven years.

The introduction is a collage of remarks by rockers on the nature of rock, which simultaneously shows the strong belief the authors have in rock musicians’ ability to reflect intellectually on their behavior, as well as musicians’ inability and/or unwillingness to do so. Wang Yong is a long-standing member of the Beijing rock scene, who has performed with Cui Jian (keyboards and guzheng), recorded his own album Samsara 􁕔 􂫳 in 1996. His remarks are typical:

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Fig. 2.4. Cover of CD "Scream for the Chinese Rock'n'Roll Yesterday (VA)‎"
To me, spiritually, the music [of rock] is not important. I think that music is a carrier 􄕑􀔧, just like written words, it is a carrier. But there is something in music that is different from things like written words, which is the space 􃁎􄯈 music gives you. To me personally, the reason I have chosen this is that the space is very large; things like written words are all rather concrete, but sometimes the [songs] you have written can give you a…. can give you a… a kind of feeling.[21]

Wang Yong starts his attempt at defining rock by putting rock in the context of the written word, both to give rock an aura of importance – literature is the highest esteemed form of art in China – and the ability to communicate. Rock is a serious and intellectual endeavor trying to get something across, however difficult it is to say what exactly.

The inclination to treat rock music as a kind of literature can also be seen by the central place taken by lyrics in many writings on Chinese rock.[22] It is also evidenced by publications with rock lyrics alongside poetry and other literature, as in the translation of Dharma Bums and the periodicals Writing 􀐺 and The Low Bank 􀔢􁊌.[23] Other examples of a connection between literature and rock are Zhang Chu, whose image as a poetic folk rocker was partly based on his affiliation with a poetry group,55 and the use of ancient poetry as lyrics by for instance by metal bands such as Tang Dynasty 􀫤􁳱 and Again 􄕂􀲲. Wang Yi emphasizes this connection in Music in China at the End of the Century: Postmodernism and Contemporary Music 􄷇􀐤􀳼􀏪􃑾􁳿􂱘􀐁􀳑 – 􀧢􂦄􀒷􀐏􀐝􀏢􁔧􀒷􄷇􀐤 (1994) :

Rock had an important position in the Chinese youth culture of the late 80s and the 90s – as it did in the west in the 60s. That is because ‘rock music’ was almost completely misunderstood to be a kind of spirit 􃊒􂼲, and the music itself was almost relegated to being viewed as the packaging of ‘the spirit’. …
If [poet] Yu Jian would put his poems to music, adds guitars and drums and has the luck to encounter a suitable opportunity and an able manager, who knows, maybe he would become a popular rock star. Of course, rock musicians frequently stress that rock first of all is music, but the sloppiness of musical forms and deficiency of musical communication is a common disease in Chinese rock music. … record labels rarely have statements about musical aspects in the promotional material of a singer, but always only depict a singer’s spiritual and personal character through analysis of the lyrics.[24]

This quotation as well as Wang Yong’s words above point to a content or spirit of rock, but Wang Yong also reveals the difficulty to express that content other than through music. If we do want to attempt to paraphrase the rock spirit, we see that two words are frequently mentioned by musicians in the interviews of Lu and Li: freedom and truth. Andrew Jones argues that this points to an ideology. Anbin Shi argues that it is (the becoming of) an identity.

The Battleground of Ideology

In 1992, Andrew Jones argues:

Chinese popular music is less a mere adjunct to leisure than a battlefield on which ideological struggle is waged. … Participants in this rock subculture share a coherent ideology of cultural opposition. Rock musicians and fans strive to release themselves from the oppression and hypocrisy that they believe is endemic to China’s ‘feudal culture’ by means of a faith in individualism and authenticity.[25]

He is supported by an interview with Cui Jian in Xue Ji’s Rock’s Dreamseeking: A True Record of Chinese Rock Music 􁨛􂒮􁹺􁇏—􀐁􀳑􁨛􂒮􀐤􁅲􁔩.

Interviewer: “Why have you said rock is the most serious music? Is there a more concrete explanation for your remarks about yourself as ‘confident 􃞾􀖵, free 􃞾􂬅 and natural 􃞾􂜊’?”
Cui Jian: “Because rock has social responsibility. First, regarding the emergence of this form, rock is born out of opposing society’s traditional ideology 􁛣􄆚. It absolutely is not an art form that can bring happiness to everyone in society. Second, every society has its problems, any rock should sharply criticize 􁡍􄆘 these social problems. The only difference between rock and other forms of critique is that it uses musical forms to express the dissatisfaction people feel about these social problems. ”[26]

Here, the musical form rock is a vehicle for the ideological content rock. Another example is provided by pianist and philosopher Liang Heping, who has played with Cui Jian, He Yong Luo Qi, Breathing 􀩐􀨌 and others. In his analysis of rock he distinguishes the newly introduced musical forms and ancient rebellious content, which he first calls rock spirit or thought and later, after linking it to peasant rebellions in dynastic China, ideology:

While bands can never do without the first [which is] form, the crux is whether they have the second concept. Understanding rock in a broad way, there are many people around us that do not make rock, that haven’t taken up electric guitars or bass guitars, but they are provided with the second concept – rock spirit. Contrary, there are many who are rock bands in name, but in their bones they lack that responsibility, they lack the ideology of revolt, of critique, of struggle.[27]

The rock spirit is disconnected from the musical form, but the musical form does not disappear completely because rock music is a combination of form and rock spirit. Ideally, these two are balanced, of which Cui Jian is the clichéd example. In the interview above Cui Jian also has time for the extraordinariness of rock’s musical form. Maybe this also explains the disdain Cui Jian shows for critics, who, according to him, repress the sounds of the music with words and replace the ambiguity of lyrics with straightforward conclusions. When asked why he sued his biographer, Cui Jian says:

Although there were some things he wrote that were right, he had to relate it to politics all the time. And I think politics is too simple, politics of resistance is also very simple. Because as soon as you have the chance for counterpolitics, you will discover that once your opposition is over there is no aftertaste. In fact, there are deeper things that need to be analyzed, such as the ability of the Chinese culture to endure politics, the obstacles in communication as well as the Chinese concept of ‘saving face’, a whole series of issues.[28]

The balance between form and content, the ambiguity of content as well as Cui Jian’s claim to speak for himself only and not for anybody else, let alone The People, make it necessary for Jones to defend his argument:

Even so, his strenuous avoidance of being cast as a spokesman for the rebellious aspirations of young Chinese people cannot obscure the fact that this is precisely what he has become.[29]
Cui Jian denies that the song addresses the government, that “I Have Nothing” is equivalent to ‘we have no freedom and democracy.’ On the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong, however, the use of the song as a marching chant in the spring of 1989 demonstrated that authorial intent may well be besides the point.[30]

Exit the author-centered reading, enter the political reading.

A possible solution is that rock is not political, but made political by society, because it is subjected to the ideological battle between the state and The People. In Dangerous Tunes: The Politics of Chinese Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China since 1949 (1997) Barbara Mittler makes this point in relation to new music (a contemporary form of composition in the tradition of classical music):

It appears reasonable to argue that music itself cannot possibly stand for an ideology for it does not speak the simple and straightforward language of the ideologues. It cannot by itself speak for or against any kind of regime. Its message is ambiguous if not arbitrary. Since this makes up its potential subversive strength it is manipulated by those who govern by infusing words and texts, hence constructing safe and correct meaning. In order to tackle the implied threat music poses to them, Chinese governments [in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong] simply supply their own explanation: by interpreting and categorizing, by semanticizing the non-semantic in music, by speaking the unspeakable. The right explanation at the right time was and is vital to politicians (and composers) in China.[31]

Mittler substantiates her argument by putting contemporary music policy in the context of ancient distinctions between correct 􂄷 and incorrect 􀏡􂄷 music which stand for politically acceptable and unacceptable cultural products,[32] and by furnishing it with many instances in which government officials labeled compositions politically correct or incorrect with far-fetched arguments. Her conclusion is that music in China is political because it is made so in the way it is presented, received and thought about. ‘It is precisely the very fact that music has no distinct meaning which explains that in China all music is political.’[33]

In this view, Mittler highlights a relatively large discrepancy between the artwork ‘in itself’ and its attributed meanings. The artwork hypothetically could be perceived ‘in itself’, because it is something different from or more than the function of social forces. Therefore there is some space for concentrating on the formal aspects of music, i.e. form-referential reading. This space, however, disappears as soon as we leave the formal aspects and try to link these in any way to reality, since the socio-historic circumstances of China reflexively fill the open space with politics.[34]

Jeroen De Kloet questions the idea that rock is the battlefield of ideology:

From these examples, randomly selected from the subversive history of Chinese rock, the singers emerge as true heroes, fighting for a free, democratic China, disturbing Party bureaucrats with their electric guitars. It is hardly surprising that official Chinese media condemn the local rock culture. …
This highly selective, romantic reading of Chinese rock corresponds with popular notions of rock as a countercultural movement. It suits our desire to see dominant ideologies subverted. It stresses the stereotypical image (among other stereotypes) of China as a severely repressive society with a cruel political regime, and by doing so it indirectly celebrates liberal Western society. It is a product of what I call the rock mythology. By using the term mythology I do not wish to suggest the existence of a “reality” that lurks behind the mythology. [footnote: ‘I believe rock mythology to be an important discourse that produces rock culture as a music world. The aim in deconstructing the mythology does not lie in revealing a “truth” about the rock culture as such, but rather in analyzing how rock culture is constructed. …’] It is this mythology that functions as the glue that binds producers, musicians, and audiences together; it is the basis of production of the rock culture.[35]

De Kloet introduces the term rock mythology to make the researcher aware of her own bias towards understanding Chinese rock as a united and univocal voice of The People against an equally monolithic government, as outside of and opposed to commerce and pop and as the creation of artistic geniuses.[36] In short, De Kloet questions political readings.

Wang Yi does something similar in Music in China at the End of the Century (1994). After discrediting the political reading for being a myth, he contrasts it with what he calls the carnivalesque:

Today Western scholars still value the political influence rock exerted in the sixties. The American scholar Charles Hamm points out that: “from the mid-fifties, all sorts of rock music linked up with rebellious youths and progressive politics.” He even acknowledges: “In fact, ten years ago this kind of music helped changing America’s plans in Vietnam, and created an atmosphere that let Nixon stay on as president.”
Chinese rock music, which arose in the late 80s, clearly does not have such a connection with politics, it only carries on the “carnivalesque” 􂢖􂃶 ritual of western rock concerts, and is endowed with this ritualistic and playful 􂐌􁟣 nature.[37]

The Politics of Pleasure

Experience has an important position in the writings of researchers. Here is an example from De Kloet:

While walking, I wondered how to make sense of a music culture that is so fragmented. Why discuss both punk and folk, as though they were part of the same “subculture”? I realized that to conceptualize this as the rock culture pretty much misses the point. In my mind a subculture broke into pieces that night. But more happened while I made my way through the snow. By then, the feeling I was witnessing a truly political rebellion was also dissolving. The air in Club X had been filled with pleasure, rather than rebellion; pleasure in the form of music had infected me (or was it the only the beer? …) and brought me to that desired plateau of non-being. Rather than finding myself, I had lost myself in the music, the snow clouds, the wind. I was literally moved, de-centered, pushed away from the stable identity I imagined I possessed. I realized it was this feeling, this experience, that I’m searching for in general.[38]

Jeroen De Kloet’s Red Sonic Trajectories is based on an entirely different experience than Andrew Jones’ Like a Knife. The difference is to some extent due to the different periods in which they did their fieldwork, 1988-1990 for Jones and 1996-2000 for De Kloet.

The periodization of Chinese rock is the subject of the next section. In this section I focus on the relation between identity and experience on the one hand and understanding and writing on the other. This discussion is important because it gives us an opportunity to move away from the huge social forces at whose mercy Chinese rock sometimes appears to be, and towards the individual experience. The individual experience can be made part of research in a subjectifying way, in which the author acknowledges her active part in the event, as well as in an objectifying way, in which the emotions of the audience are observed and analyzed in a detached way.

Most of the publications discussed in this chapter are based on secondary as well as primary information. The researcher or critic is an active part of at least the primary information. Participation in live performances, on stage or in the crowd, is an example of participational research. Another example is the role of the researcher in interviews; her questions and behavior are crucial to the information and atmosphere of the interview.

A way of dealing with the active role of the researcher in participational research is to make the author a protagonist of the tale of the performance, instead of trying to hide her somewhere behind the text. Such a writing style gives authority to the author because she is part of the crowd, she is an insider. It also eludes attacks on generalizations or polemical remarks, since they are (meant to be) the expression of the person of the author as much as saying something about the music or band. This is a disadvantage inasmuch as it makes these writings subjective to the point where it is difficult to obtain concrete information about the performance, let alone enter into critical engagement with the author.

Publishing interviews is another way of making the author an active part of the text. Lu and Li have made extensive use of this method, and Xue Ji and Yan Jun to a lesser extent. In interviews, traditionally the performance of the artist is central, to which the interviewer fulfills an audible but auxiliary role. Interviews reveal a lot of information, and leave the reader the opportunity for arriving at her own conclusions, but they are also social events in their own right. Therefore most of the talking is irrelevant outside the interview and relationship of the interviewer and interviewed and at the same time a lot of relevant information remains implicit or taboo.

These subjectifying strategies are rarely employed by researchers, of which De Kloet above is an example, and more habitually by Yan Jun, Xue Ji, Lu and Li and other Chinese rock critics. In the next chapter I treat the Beijing underground community and Tongue. I will both introduce an article by Yan Jun in which he is the protagonist, as well as an interview in which Wu Tun starts asking Yan Jun questions, thereby complicating the boundaries between interviewer and interviewee.[39]

In research this personal experience is semanticized and objectified. This is an important difference with the previous part of the section in which the experience of the researcher and the importance and ways of appearing of these experiences in publications was central. In the second half of this section I look into how the experience of the audience is objectified. Again, the researcher disappears behind the text. One way to do this is to turn the individual experience into the experience of individuality. In that way the implications of individuality and individual emotions can be discussed. Anbin Shi writes:

[T]he Confucian and Maoist discourses, the most influential forms of power discourse in China, have exerted tremendous impacts on Chinese society and culture, thereby making Chinese socio-political and cultural historiography “logocentric” … The hegemony of language inhering in Chinese cultural tradition therefore cannot but lead to the suppression of certain “feelings” that are alien to the power discourse. One of the suppressed “feelings” as such is individuality.[40]

According to Anbin Shi, the expression of individuality is political, since it expresses a break away from traditional and socialist norms. Rock does so, not by intellectual argumentation or by claiming to voice The People’s will, but by glorifying rock’s marginality and the unresolved tension in the nature of its collage: foreign/Chinese, contemporary/traditional, group/individual. According to Shi, rock is postmodern, and is therefore both a break with and a continuation of tradition:

both an inheritance from and a rebirth out of past historical legacies. It is at this point that Cui’s quest for a new socio-cultural identity converges with the construction of Chinese postmodernity in the era of globalization.[41]

That Chinese rock music signifies a break with tradition is also part of Thomas Heberer’s argument in “Der Dionysische Charakter der chinesischen Rockmusik – Rockmusik zwischen Individualismus, Indentitätssuche, Politik und Protest” (1994). Heberer introduces the concepts of Apollonian and Dionysian art to the discussion, which he borrows from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

In this dichotomy Apollo finds full realization in the plastic arts, and is restrained, individual and beautiful and radiates the illusion of perfect order. In short, Apollo stands for the sophistication of culture. Dionysus finds his full realization in music, and is excessive, self-dissolving, passion and radiates the ecstasy of primordial union. In short, Dionysus stands for the sheer force of primitive passion.

This dichotomy is conjoined to the Chinese correct and incorrect arts (in the sense of Mittler); Apollo orderly and correct 􂄷 and Dionysian subversive and incorrect 􀏡􂄷. Rock is a Dionysian art:

[Courts in traditional China] distinguished between “good”, i.e. state-supported, and decadent, statereplacing music. Rock music corresponds, in sense of orthodox Confucianism, rather with the latter. It signifies a breach with the musical tradition, but also with the artistic tradition of the Communists. From there it can per se be classified as opposed to the system. [42]

This disharmonic music is a reflection of the insecurity of adolescence as well as of the socio-political changes China went through in the 1980s and 1990s. Drug abuse, cries for sexual freedom, wild dancing and related behavior at rock concerts: all are evidence of rock as a Dionysian art. This line of thought is picked up by Andreas Steen:

The first public appearance [which is Cui Jian’s performance of NOTHING TO MY NAME in 1986] points out, that this critical voice from down under overstrains the ability to compromise by the Party. Although the traditional Chinese musical conception leaves only little room to do this, the radical new moment in musical praxis that is connected to rock music appears clearly through its successful embedding in historical context. Interpretation, lyrics and music suddenly form an impenetrable unity, which, expelled from the work unit of the state, suddenly starts to question the officially prescribed directives and value pattern. The situation of concerts becomes a demonstration of the uncanny [unheimlich], threatening but also collective energy, revealing the character of rock music which Heberer rightly labels ‘Dionysian’ [43]

According to Steen this sudden and radical new moment is an historical break comparable to that endeavored by the May Fourth intellectuals, as well as a sexual revolution comparable to the counterculture in the USA.[44]

The idea that rock is a break with the past is nuanced by Anbin Shi in the quotation above, as well as by Baranovitch. Baranovitch writes about Cui Jian’s NOTHING TO MY NAME, as something completely new:

Challenge was also [besides lyrics and dress] embodied in the sound of the music: the strong stimulating beat, the coarse, rough, loud vocal delivery, the wild singing of nonsense syllables, and the music’s direct, unrestrained, and liberating quality. “Having Nothing” [NOTHING TO MY NAME] was a celebration of lack of control. It was the antithesis of both the traditional Confucian aesthetics of moderation and restraint, whose best modern musical manifestation is found in the moderate, tame style of mainstream liuxing/tongsu [pop] music, as well as the antithesis of the official communist aesthetics of polished and disciplined professionalism. In other words, it was the antithesis of everything that the mainland audience had been familiar with until then.[45]

At the same time, Baranovitch also argues that rock in China does not embody a complete break with tradition, but in some ways is a continuation of the dynastic and revolutionary traditions. An example of the influence of tradition is the inspiration rockers took from the militaristic 􂄺 tradition of kungfu and knight-errant tales 􂄺􀕴􁇣􄇈 such as The Water Margin 􂈈􂌦􀓴.

Baranovitch links this continuity of tradition in rock to politics. He argues that the relation between rock and the state is not one of two monolithic ideologies in opposition, since both are active in and influenced by Chinese culture, society and tradition in complex ways, and because the two can often be seen to cooperate:[46]

Chinese rockers, who at least until recently have been associated with China’s young “enlightened” intellectuals, and who have been celebrating since the late 1980s the negation of Chinese history, which many of them see as a “burden” that prevents them from moving forward, have simultaneously indulged in nostalgia for the glorious, remote imperial past, as well as the more recent revolutionary past. … They have been celebrating individualism and calling for the liberation of the individual from the partystate and the social collective, but simultaneously have often been immersed in a collective, patriotic mental framework.[47]

1989, and Then?

Zhao Jianwei also sees rock as a breach with the past, and refers to the May Fourth movement, but instead of seeing rock as undermining the old order, he argues that rock is so un-Chinese that it would be a fad that would not be able to grow roots in China:

Rock in China is a bastard of history, its appearance on Chinese soil is the truly the result of fortune. Maybe it will only be there during this period [of ‘impregnation’ of China by western culture]. … Because every bastard is illegal, the appearance of rock in China was to a great extent ‘illegal’. … Rock not only embodies the rebellious spirit of a generation, it is even more important that in a certain sense it became a cultural religion.[48]

In In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (1999) Geremie Barmé attacks Cui Jian for loss of authenticity:

Cui’s rock may have still had a subversive edge in the late 1980s[49]

But, according to Barmé, Cui Jian became completely compliant during the 1990s. In this period Cui Jian and other musicians participated in the mainstream Chinese market, a market that is partially shaped by the government. Barmé’s judgment seems related to a disappointment in the ability of rock musicians to give the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a hard time after 1989 and their function as a temporal release instead. His remarks also neatly periodize Chinese rock. The rebellious period of Chinese rock was before 1989, but in the 1990s rock became ‘pop ‘n’ roll’.

The idea that rock around 1989 was subversive, but became less so during the course of the 1990s has been frequently voiced. It is often linked to the changing Zeitgeist, in which the 90s and thereafter are dominated by money and a new national pride. Baranovitch argues that Chinese rock signifies masculinity, militarism, Northern China, Western modernity and political subversion. All these are anchored in June Fourth, which was started by Beijing, male students to fight for freedom:

June 4 was, in other words, an act of castration whose purpose was to place China’s intellectuals back in their traditional position of woman-like state subjects. And, according to the traditional paradigm, the most important feminine qualities to which these subjects had to re-conform were loyalty, submissiveness, and obedience. Viewed in this way, we could conclude that the unprecedented popularity of the traditional male image among significant portions of China’s intellectuals since the early and mid-1990s and the concomitant decline of rock also tell the story of how China’s intellectualsreverted to their traditional, effeminate identities as a result of the masculine suppression of 1989.[50]

In this approach, rock is an attempt at a revolution in gender and politics, which lost appeal after being thwarted by the 1989 massacre.

If Cui Jian is the voice of a generation, then the fire of rock could die out with the passing of this generation, as Baranovitch suggests. The generation of which Cui Jian is the voice is called the lost generation, who were born in the 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution they were too young to have an impact, they could not go to school and leisured their time away. When the Cultural Revolution was over, it did not take long before they were superseded by the younger generation, who did have an education and were more eager and flexible. The lost generation was a generation in between.[51] The 1980s and early 1990s was their prime. Baranovitch writes:

The decline of rock, very much like its rise, was closely related to the June 4 incident. If the rock boom, which started in late 1989 and early 1990, was at least in part a result of the euphoric movement that celebrated, like rock, freedom and self-empowerment, as well as an immediate reaction to its outcome [by providing a way to voice the frustration and disillusion of the crackdown], then the decline of rock a few years later was the long-term consequence … The decline of rock reflects the fact that young people and others lost much of their past idealism and their will to change things.[52]

Andreas Steen and Claire Huot hold similar views, in 1997 and 2000 respectively:

Chinese rock has [ten years after June 4th] obviously lost its formerly criticized “rebellious spirit” (fanpan jingshen) and transformed into a politically lighter version.[53]
The few rock bands that were attempting to be authentic at the beginning of the 1990s have since been coopted or are at a standstill.[54]

And Wang Yi writes much earlier, in 1994:

If this view [of rock as anti-commercial] is tenable, then, at a time when we see rock becoming widely appreciated 􀻻􀓫, becoming ‘popular’ 􂌕􃸠, we can only assume Chinese rock has already moved outside the inflated myth of its ‘rebellious spirit’[55]

De Kloet partly agrees with this view, but seeks to distance himself from it as well:

[Cui Jian’s] insistence on speaking the truth authenticates his image and ties in very well, as I will show, with what rock is all about. However, although the chosen path to remaining “real” – that is, voicing his opinions on contemporary Chinese culture – corresponds with the spirit of the 1980s, it appears to be out of touch with the more leisurely, more playful Zeitgeist of the 1990s.[56]

De Kloet also nuances Baranovitch’ stress on the link between rock and 1989, and opens a door to the future:

[Baranovitch’s] equation of rock to anger, defiance and frustration reifies a rather univocal, stereotypical reading of rock as a rebellious, and subcultural sound. Also, by interpreting Chinese rock as a fad, Baranovitch exaggerates rock’s popularity in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, his reading of rock’s popularity at the early 1990s as a residue of the cultural spirit of the 1980s remains valid. … However, changes over the second half of the 1990s, during which Chinese rock witnessed a revival that continues till today, prove that to label rock in China as a fad is inadequate.[57]

This view is consistent with Yan Jun’s account of the development of Chinese rock. Yan argues that there are roughly four periods or generations. In the earliest period (1986-1990) rock was a concept, symbolizing freedom and spirituality. He labels this period, of which Cui Jian is the main proponent, that of the myth of the hero 􃣅􄲘􂼲􄆱. After 1993 a second generation of rockers emerged. They were supported by Mo Yan and his Taiwanese record company Magic Stone 􅄨􁉽􀬅􂠛 (affiliated with Rock Records 􂒮􂷇􀬅􂠛), which brought in a lot of money and raised the expectations of becoming rock stars. In Yan’s words:

Everybody thought rock was like this, we will sign a deal with a record company, the company will buy us a pile of equipment, they will invite a good producer, we will have lots of time in the studio, then we will be able to bring out a high quality album, then we are red-hot.[58]

Yan labels this generation the aristocratic elite 􄌉􁮣􃊒􃣅, a characterization devised with the metal band Tang Dynasty in mind. By the mid-1990s the youths felt many of the musicians of the first and second generations had sold out since they were performing with pop artists. Their subversive stand had lost its credibility and appeal to the younger generation. After 1997 the new concept of underground rock gained currency. Yan labels this period that of the underground spirit 􀴄􀏟􃊒􂼲.[59] Tongue played a pivotal role in this last period, which is the subject of the next chapter. The final period is that of today (2004), in which a new movement is needed but not yet discerned.


The May Fourth—USA counterculture—June Fourth triangle has been instrumental in making sense of Chinese rock, especially in the early years (1986-1993). The triangle contributes to a bias towards political readings, but at the same time almost every author is aware of the slippage between their generalizing and limiting representations (the contribution of meaning to rock music) and the multi-facetted experience of rock music, in other words: between experience and interpretation.

Although almost every author is aware of this slippage, they locate it in different places and value it differently. They all put it in the context of their own arguments. Anbin Shi calls this space the constant becoming of identity, Andrew Jones calls it empty space, Barbara Mittler calls it no distinct meaning, Wang Yi finds it in the carnivalesque and Thomas Heberer and Andreas Steen call it Dionysian. Yan Jun perceives a space between myth and practice but does not name it. He also acknowledges rock has a sexual element. Jeroen de Kloet blames researchers and critics for falling prey to the rock mythology and warns against the idea of a reality behind the myth.[60]

Although almost every author is aware of this slippage, most of them overrule it when they come to their conclusions. The conclusion is meant to paraphrase the publication, and the wealth of details and nuance in the descriptions of experience – listening to songs, participation in live shows, doing interviews – that lies at the basis of these publications is condensed to a few sentences. In these sentences there is room neither for doubt nor for the unspeakable. By jumping to conclusions researchers are similar to Chinese officials, in Mittler’s sense, ‘by interpreting and categorizing, by semanticizing the non-semantic in music, by speaking the unspeakable.’[61] Heberer’s statement that Chinese rock ‘can per se be classified as opposed to the system’[62] gains significance if we start thinking about the position of Heberer and his system of classifications – the German words system-oppositionell and anti-systemisch acquire a whole new meaning.

Rey Chow pushes this point further, by stressing music’s emotionality without reaching out for a conclusion:

One can even go so far as to say that much of this music, …, is about the inability or the refusal to articulate and to talk. This is not simply because humans are, after all, animals that cannot be defined by their speech alone. It is also because inarticulateness is a way of combating the talking function of the state, the most articulate organ that speaks for everyone. … The words, by becoming illiterate, turn into physical sound, thus joining the music in the production of a kind of emotion that is, one might say, “beyond words.”[63]

By attracting attention to the interaction of meaning and unmeaning I want to foreground this slippage. To me, this interaction has been part of Chinese rock in the early years as well as today. With the changing times the ways of musical expression, the ways of musical interpretation and (maybe) the overall appeal of rock in Chinese society changed. What did not change is that most of the bands in Beijing still see their music as expressing something. What cannot change is that music involves an intriguing play of (un)meaning that cannot be definitively paraphrased. Wang Yong’s words still hold today: music does matter and signify, but it does so in such an indirect and complicated way that it cannot be replaced by words or images.

The workings of this game can be shown through concrete examples, which I will do in the next two chapters. In chapter four I will discuss (un)meaning in relation to songs and performances of Tongue. In our metaphor we move from the game to a set of moves in that game. By focusing on the music (performed songs), the players and onlookers disappear from view. I will be talking about the formal aspects of the game. Since I am talking about a musical form, that is words, sounds and images, musical (un)meaning will be central in chapter four.

In the chapter three I will investigate the social interaction that constitutes the underground rock experience. In the terms of the game metaphor we move from the onlookers to the players and the game, from rock critics to Tongue and the underground community. The focus is on the social aspects of the game, hence social (un)meaning will be central to the next chapter.

Referencing and Footnotes

In addition to the footnotes and references of the original works, further references and footmarks have been used to give the interested reader more details and specifica of respective events, persons, etc.

Additions to the original works

Some images, pictures and other graphical works have been added to the transcribed version by the team of RiC to further utilize the original works and efforts by Mr. Jeroen Groenewegen. Examples for the additions are linked articles to complete song lyrics or the portraits of mentioned key persons and bands.


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  1. Schwartz 1983.
  2. Yang 2000.
  3. Baranovitch 2003:39.
  4. Another example of a connection between rock and the May Fourth movement are the underground Chengdu magazines We 􁟥􀓀, published in 1999. They include interviews with rock musicians, literature and a section called “new diary of a madman”, a reference to Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman 􂢖􀒎􁮹􄆄.
  5. See Yan 1998:23 for a Chinese translation of Howl as Haojiao
  6. Dickstein: 1977, translation Fang: 1985.
  7. Hao 2003:19. See Wang 1994:131-168 for an account of rock in the USA 60s largely based on Gates of Eden. On page 185-6 he argues that it is a misunderstanding to stress similarities between the 1980s in China and the 1960s in the USA. Sun Mengjin also stressed the importance of The Gates of Eden, personal conversation 06 May 2004. In Sun Mengjin’s article “Born in the Sixties” 􂫳􀑢􀝁􀤕􁑈􀒷, the title refers both to the generation of the sixties (people that came of age in the 1980s), and their intellectual legacy of the 1960s in the USA (Sun 2003a).
  8. Dickstein 1977:186,190 Unfortunately the book mainly focuses on the lyrics and biography of Bob Dylan, and to a lesser extent on those of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (Jimi Hendrix is never mentioned), which is compared to poetry and sadly fails to live up to it.
  9. Yan 1998.
  10. Some examples: Not Only Music: No System Can Wipe the Thoughts from my Mind 􄴲􄷇􀐤 is one of the three or four music magazines of this period. Vol. 10 is dedicated to the beat generation. Some issues appeared under the name Extreme Rock 􁵕􁑺􁨛􂒮. The issue of Midi Music Fest 2003 has an article called Scream on the Road 􀳼􄏃􀏞􂱘􀱢􀦿 and has as subtitle a quote from Jack Kerouac: ‘I am still young, so I wish I could be on the road’. The same quote is repeated in the last line of a tour diary of the national tour of Chengdu bands in 2004 called “On the road forever” (So Rock!􁟥􂠅􁨛􂒮 Vol. 32: 36-37). The title of the Yan Jun’s review of Midi Music Fest 2002 is taken from Dharma Bums: “Forever Young, Forever Full of Tears” (Rock 􄗮􀖫􂄠􁳆 June 2002, Vol. 223:6-12, and Yan 2002:292-312).
  11. Liang 2003, the version I am referring to, is the mainland version published and sold by Sub Jam, which is a pirated version of the original Taiwanese translation with additional appendices and foreword. The Tongue song is MAMA LET’S GET HIGH MAMA LET’S ROCK (see appendix II for a translation).
  12. Baranovitch 2003:4.
  13. Baranovitch 2003:36. See also 42-43.
  14. Huang 2003.
  15. Schwartz 1983.
  16. Shi 2003:103.
  17. Huot 2000:162, 169; see also Steen 1996:88. Zhao 1992:244 is one of the earliest comparisons between Cui Jian and the American musicians from the sixties, such as John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
  18. Baranovitch 2003:40-41.
  19. Jones 1992:20.
  20. Baranovitch (2003:7-9) and De Kloet (2001:35-40) both criticize Jones and others for reinforcing this dichotomy. See also Huot 2000:156. I will discuss different Chinese terms for popular in 3.1.
  21. Wang Yong in Lu & Li 2003: Preface 6-7.
  22. Steen (1996:15): ‘That moreover ‘Words in rock music are just as important as in inspired poetry’ (Pattison 1987:ix), is already clear in the English ‘lyrics’ which, opposed to the German ‘rocktexte’, points to a reading that in view of the long Chinese lyrical tradition is extremely interesting and makes one wonder whether there are comparable elements in Chinese rock music.’ See also Jones 1992:24, Anbin Shi 2003:98-99.
  23. Liang 2003, Yan 2001 (lyrics of Tongue, NO, Hu Mage and Pk14), Zhou 2004 (Wild Children 􄞢􁄽􁄤, Xiao He).
  24. Wang 1994:168 and 180-181, see also 197.
  25. Jones 1992:3-4.
  26. Xue 1993:1, this might be the source of Huang Hao’s open quote of Cui Jian: “Rock is an ideology, not a set musical form” (Huang 2003).
  27. Liang 1992:195.
  28. Xue 1993:5.
  29. Jones 1992:148.
  30. Jones 1992:138.
  31. Mittler 1997:61-62.
  32. In 3.1. I will discuss the dichotomy between accepted and unaccepted cultural forms.
  33. Mittler 1997:125.
  34. see also: Jones 1992:41-42.
  35. De Kloet 2000:242-243 and almost literally De Kloet 2001:31-32.
  36. De Kloet 2000:243-245 and De Kloet 2001:32-35.
  37. Wang 1994:188. His conclusion is on page 202. The quote of Charles Hamm comes from a translated article that was published in Music Scholarship Information 􄷇􀐤􁄺􁴃􀖵􁙃 in March 1992. The original was probably written during the early or mid-eighties.
  38. De Kloet 2001:51.
  39. Yan 2002a and Yan 2004:306-31, translated as appendix IV.
  40. Shi 2003:98-99.
  41. Shi 2003:115.
  42. Heberer 1994:73.
  43. Steen 1996:232.
  44. Steen 1996:234 ‘…, thus appears rock music as the modern continuation of the May 4th movement of 1919. What at that time [1920s -1940s] was the revolutionary music of the CCP that was directed against the ruling class and working for the liberation of the masses, today is rock music.’ On page 235 Andreas Steen explicitly connects rock, sexual revolution and the sixties and seventies in the USA. Anbin Shi also links sexual revolution and rock (Shi 2003:119).
  45. Baranovitch 2003:33.
  46. Baranovitch 2003:270-272.
  47. Baranovitch 2003:261.
  48. Zhao 1992: 227-228, the references to Lu Xun start on page 229.
  49. Barmé 1999:129.
  50. Baranovitch 2003:141.
  51. Shi 2003:91, for an account see Sun 2003a.
  52. Baranovitch 2003:43-44.
  53. Steen 2000.
  54. Huot 2000:171. See also Shi (2003:104): ‘The liberal intellectuals in the 1980s, by way of denouncing the Maoist agenda as a “feudalistic” obstacle to China’s modernization, endeavor to forsake the revolutionary legacies and instead to resuscitate the May-Fourth intellectuals’ project of Enlightenment in post-Mao China. Their utopian ambition… however, ends up in the bloodshed of 1989, and is subsequently put into oblivion by the all-powerful commercialization and global capitalism in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Simply put, if the “new era” [1978-1989] is dominated by high modernism, the “post new era” sees the rise of Chinese postmodernism.’
  55. Wang 1994:192.
  56. De Kloet 2001:13.
  57. De Kloet 2004:5-6.
  58. Yan Jun 2004-04-09, personal conversation.
  59. Yan Jun 2004:195-198.
  60. Shi 2003:82-83, 90, Jones 1992:41, Mittler 1997:125, Wang 1994:188, Heberer 1994:72-73, Steen 1996:232, Yan 2004:195-198, Yan 2002:74-77, De Kloet 2000:242-243, De Kloet 2001:31-32.
  61. Mittler 1997:61-62.
  62. Heberer 1994:73.
  63. Chow 1993:147 and 151.