Chapter I - Introduction (Making sense)

From Music-China Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

Chapter I - Introduction (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:


The bass player and the solo guitar player put down their instruments, while the lead singer sings: “Painted the dresses of the girls, painted the suits of the guys.” They look at each other while straightening the collars of the long white doctor’s robes the band have been wearing the whole show. The audience cheers and applauds. Someone shouts: “Take your clothes off!”
Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
Fig. 1.1. Tongue smudged by Zhu Jintong during the performance of PAINTER in Shanghai.
The camera’s viewpoint is from behind the solo guitar player, looking over the long black hair on his shoulder. The guitar player unbuttons his clothes halfway, facing the neatly shaven head and beard of the bass player. They look each other in the eye in a moment of calm awareness.
The rhythm guitar player is hardly visible in the background. The singer of the band is in the centre of the stage, sideways to the audience, looking down. He recites the lyrics accompanied by drums and a distorted keyboard: “painted the glasses of the grandpa’s, painted the knit bags of the grandma’s.” Slowly the bass player strides to the front of the stage. Soon the guitar players line up beside him. “Painted our youth, painted our spirit, painted our rhythm, painted our style, painted our lives,” The audience cheers, some people shout along with the rhythm. It painted our virtues, painted our crimes, painted all we have.” The drummer and keyboard player join the line. A man enters in front of the stage, he is clad in white as well but also wears a white hat and mask. The crowd become less noisy; they do not know how to react to this unexpected situation and murmur among themselves. The band members, however, are calm. Stage lighting is off. Some people vent their excitement by screaming, most are silent. The man in white stretches out his gloved hand, and when the brush with red paint touches the bass player’s throat the tense crowd explodes in hysterical shouting, drowning out the vocals: “painted, painted, painted. Painted our lives”.

What PAINTER (Un)means

The above is a description of a part of the recording of the performance of the song PAINTER 􂊍􂓚􀣴[1] on December 10th 2000 at U-Like bar in Shanghai by the Beijing-based band Tongue 􃟠􀼈. The performance was recorded and sold as a VCD with the name Painter by the underground label Sub Jam. This recorded performance is the focal point of this thesis.[2] What does it mean?

The first answer to the question is that, framed in the context of Communist China, it is an act of subversion against the Party. That through this performance Tongue tries to make the audience (or The People) conscious of the fact that they are being ‘painted red’, or maybe even that they are being brainwashed. Seen in this light, we may even be surprised that this performance was not ended halfway and that the band got to play to the end of the set, dripping with red paint.[3] And this happened not once, but three times (the other two times at the premiere at The Garden of Joy 􁓔􁖗􀐤􀳁 in Beijing and Shenyang in Kaitejin 􀟃􂡍􄞥, in November 2000). This first answer treats PAINTER as a reflection of China’s political situation; I call this the political reading.

In this thesis I will show that a political reading is defensible but partial. The political reading seals the performance off from further engagement by reducing it to a univocal conclusion. It overemphasizes political reality, ignoring many elements in the performance as well as its relation to band and audience. This is true both for PAINTER, other songs of Tongue and by extension for the underground rock community of Beijing 1997-2004.

A second way of answering this question is by letting the performers of the song speak. In Document 􂦄􀴎[4] independent researcher and documentary maker Wu Wenguang asks lead singer Wu Tun what he feels while he is singing:

Wu Tun: “I cannot remember very clearly. Anyway the best feeling is when I am no longer there 􃞾􁏅􂉵􁳝􀑚, when I am totally one with the music, totally dissolved 􄗮􁥝. But this does not happen often. Because of the environment, mood 􁖗􁚙 etcetera. After all, this kind of music is not about expressing emotions 􁡦􁚙, it wants to say something or express a vibe 􂢊􁗕. During some shows I am not moved 􁛳􀡼, not at all.”

Wu Wenguang: “To keep it simple, what do you want to express through music?”
Wu Tun: “I only want, through rebellion, rage and other things, to reveal myself.”
Wu Wenguang: “Could you be more concrete?”
Wu Tun: “Concrete things I express through rock music, but I do not want to say them too blandly. I do not want to do that, because acting on something you have not solved in your inner mind 􀝙􁖗 would be too blind. It needs to go through a process inside to be solved, [only] after that something can be done. That is how I view things.”[5]

When Wu Wenguang asks: ‘what do you want to express through your music?’ the underlying assumption is that music is a means of expression. Music becomes the carrier of a message. The task of the audience is to decode the message, which is the content of the song and the intention of the artist. Wu Wenguang, moreover, expects coherent and concrete answers. I call this reading the author-focused reading.

Wu Tun’s answers are evasive and inconsistent. He both wants to lose himself and reveal himself. His music is not about stating emotions but wants to express a vibe.[6] His music wants to say something, something concrete, but he does not want to say it too directly. The reason he gives for his evasiveness is that he wants people to go through an inner process, because they would act blindly otherwise. Wu Tun does not paraphrase his message, and therefore casts doubt on the very existence of a univocal message that can be separated from the song, thus complicating both the political and the author-focused reading.

That takes us to a third possible reading of PAINTER, that I call form-referential. In this reading, the song does not mean anything but itself. Instead of trying to look past form at content (ideal, message, intention), we look at form (in sound: rhythm, melody, instrumentation, timbre; in performance: bodily movement, color, dress; in recording: camera movement, cutting, remix). Instead of trying to abandon the sonic and visual qualities of the song and jump to socio-political or artistic circumstance, we focus on sonic and visual qualities and take them as a starting point of contemplation.

Wu Tun’s interview does not confirm any of these readings over the other, and in fact debunks all of them. I argue that my description of the performance does not allow meaning to be all-important. PAINTER can hardly be seen as a utensil or piece of equipment, whose form (musical performance) is dependent on its use or content (political subversion).[7] It would, indeed, be tempting to turn this metaphor around and treat political content as instrumental in gaining attention, energy and intensity for the musical performance.

Wu Tun does not decide which is dominant, content or form, and neither will I. The continuums of content and form, words and sounds, interpretation and experience and especially that of meaning and unmeaning[8] in PAINTER are the themes of this thesis.

Music As Performance

Music is made up of words, sounds and visuals. The relationship between these elements is dialectic; when words are sung, they become sounds too; when a song is performed on stage it becomes visible. In the following I will rely mainly on the work of the British music sociologist Simon Frith. In Performing Rites (1996) he argues:

‘There is in fact, no firm empirical evidence that song words determine or form listeners’ beliefs and values (any more than there is really much evidence that they reflect them). … What this suggests, I think, is the difficulty we face if, in interpreting how songs “mean,” we attempt to separate words from their use as speech acts. I would put the argument this way: song words are not about ideas (“content”) but about their expression. And I can best clarify this with two examples. First, then, songs don’t cause people to fall in love, but provide people with the means to articulate the feelings associated with being in love. … The second indication that songs concern not so much ideas as their expression can be found in the historical fate of “protest” songs. In pop terms, these don’t function to convey ideas or arguments but slogans. And the paradox here is that the political power of a pop song – as a slogan – need not bear any relationship to its intended message at all. Irony, in particular, seems to a doomed lyrical strategy. … Once we grasp that the issue in lyrical analysis is not words, but words in performance, then various new analytical possibilities open up. Lyrics, that is, are a form of rhetoric or oratory; we have to treat them in terms of the persuasive relationship set up between singer and listener. From this perspective, a song doesn’t exist to convey the meaning of the words; rather, the words exist to convey the meaning of the song.’[9]

Frith refuses to reduce sung words either to form or content. Lyrics try to persuade the audience, not of a political conviction, but of the fact that they are a good way of articulating that conviction. Earlier he argues that "All music making is about the mind-in-the-body";[10] now we could conclude that it is also about content-in-form. Frith argues that music’s meaning is to be sought not only in its words or even its sounds, but in performance, where form and content, body and mind, and artist and audience meet.

Performance is taken here in the broadest sense and includes CDs and VCDs (performance in a studio or on a stage) as well as the appearance and behavior of artists in interviews and pictures. Music, then, is performed songs. The relation between songs and performance is dialectic as well; songs cannot exist without being performed, while performances (or versions) of songs show sufficient similarities to distinguish them as manifestations of one and the same song. A musical performance is the social activity of making music, in which both musicians and audiences partake. In short, music is a social activity.[11]

Frith goes even further:

My argument … is not just that in listening to popular music we are listening to a performance, but, further, that “listening” itself is a performance … the term “performance” defines a social – or communicative – process. It requires an audience and is dependent, in this sense, on interpretation; it is about meanings. … the body-in-communication in performance art holds in tension not simply the subjective and objective (the art question), but also the private and the public (the everyday question). In our experience (or imagination) of our own bodies, … , there is always a gap between what is meant (the body directed from the inside) and what is read (the body interpreted from the outside); and this gap is a continual source of anxiety, an anxiety not so much that the body itself but its meaning is out of our control.[12]

This gap is where the play between meaning and unmeaning takes place.

Music’s Multiple Meanings

The space that is opened up by this insecurity is potentially dangerous to communication, it is a source of anxiety for performers and audiences alike over being misunderstood, embarrassed and laughed at. To control this insecurity and (re-)establish communication, there are rules.

These rules frame performances. They mark the beginning and end of a performance, which is special, marked off from the everyday. The rules of communication for music are ‘obviously related to genre rules’,[13] writes Frith, referring back to his analysis of those rules. He concludes that analysis with the following remarks:

The final point here, though, is that one way in which genres work in day-to-day terms is in a deliberate process of rule testing and bending. … , the importance of all popular genres is that they set up expectations, and disappointment is likely both when they are not met and when they are met all too predictably.[14]

Transgression of the rules of genre is a normal aspect of music. Musicians and audience play with the insecurity in communication, thereby attracting attention to the form of communication (musical performance) and to the genre rules themselves.

Music has multiple meanings, since the rules of communication are constantly changing and played with. A song is not the carrier of a univocal message that can be decoded, since the code is unreliable. The co-existence of different interpretations of a song is not the result of misreading the ‘original message’, but a direct consequence of inherent qualities of music, that is words, sounds and images in performance.

Music does not have a content – it can’t be translated – but this does not mean that it is not “an object of understanding”. Or, to put it another way, the gap in music between the nature of the experience (sounds) and the terms of its interpretation (adjectives) may be more obvious than in any other art form, but this does not mean that the pleasure of music doesn’t lie in the ways in which we can – and must – fill the gap.[15]

Performance As Game

In this thesis I avoid comparing music to a text, because this comparison conventionally favors the view of music as conveying a paraphrasable message or meaning. The term text in the narrow sense suggests something closed, a palpable thing, while I have argued that music is performance and therefore a social interaction that leaves the meaningmaking process open-ended. The text metaphor also over-emphasizes the language parts of the music (lyrics, title and so on). Finally, it over-estimates the importance of language in the experience of musical performances: by treating music as a text, non-textual and non-verbal (such as musical or emotional) responses to the musical performance seem less relevant than written analysis and printed secondary information.[16]

I would rather compare music to a game. A game is a social activity that is both fun and serious, in the sense that it can be both enjoyable in itself and competitive, with victory often resulting in money and status. This intermingling of joy and seriousness holds true for both onlookers and players.

Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘field’ and ‘cultural capital’ are useful here to explain how this game works. Bourdieu devised them to stay away both from social determinism (or objectivism), which makes the work of art the result of a battle between social forces, and from romantic idealism (or subjectivism), which makes the work of art the creation of an independent genius. Randal Johnson writes in an introduction to his selection of Bourdieu’s writings:

The full explanation of artistic works is to be found neither in the text itself, nor in some sort of determinant social structure. Rather, it is found in the history and structure of the field [of cultural production] itself, with its multiple components, and in the relationship between that field and the field of power.[17]

The field of cultural production is embedded in the field of economic and political power. It has to negotiate its position vis-à-vis that field, as well as safeguard its independence, or its autonomy.

[T]he field of cultural production is the site of struggles in which what is at stake is the power to impose the dominant definition of the writer and therefore to delimit the population of those entitled to take part in the struggle to define the writer. … [T]he fundamental stake in literary struggles is the monopoly of the power to say with authority who are authorized to call themselves writers; … The boundary of the field is a stake of struggles.[18]

The struggle over the boundaries of the field is important because it is a struggle over the power to name and to define. If for instance we look at the term The People 人民 in the Chinese context, it becomes clear how important it is to have the power to define who ‘The People’ are and who their opponents are, and even to speak for ‘The People’.[19]

The field of cultural production is structured so that not everyone has the authority to define. An artist with enough cultural (and political) capital, i.e. money and/or fame, has this power, but an artist that is not (yet) accepted by mainstream culture cannot make himself heard.[20] The unaccepted artist has to devise a strategy to acquire cultural and political capital and change the field of cultural production in order to acquire legitimacy and indeed the power to bestow legitimacy on others.

The game of performance is played in the field of cultural production. The stake of the field of cultural production is its boundaries. The stake of the game of performance, too, is its boundaries, that is: when it starts, when it is over, who is allowed to speak and who is not, what is expected and not expected to be said. At stake in the performance game are both identity (who can participate, the identity of the player) and the rules of communication (how they can participate, the game to be played). Again, the relation between identity and the rules of communication is dialectic, since players can only join and be successful if they meet the criteria of the game, but in the process of becoming key players they also change the game.

That is also why genre rules are such a good example: besides musical conventions they include language use, dress, attitude and other things, thus showing how identity, communication and performance are interdependent. They are also ever-changing under the influence of musicians, fans and institutions.[21]

Institutions and Community

Music is performed songs; community is performed identity; and in the underground rock community these two performances meet. In that community, not only artists and audiences are influential, but all institutions that are related to music are.

For performances in the narrow sense the institutions were already important in making the show possible and directing the experiences and interpretations of the people present. By stripping the word performance of its narrow time and place-frames (it is still culturally and historically framed), those institutions become more directly involved and become part of the performance in their own right.

To the question who are playing the game of performance? the answer is: all members of the underground, that is, bands, fans, critics, magazines, rock labels and institutions of formal education (as far as they are members of the underground scene). The experience and interpretation are all part of the game of performance.

The meaning of the word performance is stretched a long way in this thesis. Besides live shows on stage which are demarcated in time and place, it encompasses live registrations and studio recordings, off-stage behavior and appearances and even the act of listening to music. Within this enlarged concept the artist and the audience are part of a continuum, since all are active players in the game of creating the experiences and interpretations of a performance.

The game of performance can only take place because of the insecurity or indeterminacy[22] which attracts attention to its form and makes conscious and unconscious negotiation over its meanings possible, for cultural, economic and political capital or for the pleasure of performing. I have called this the interplay of meaning and unmeaning, and it is actual both in the performance in the narrow sense (PAINTER) and in the broad sense (Beijing underground rock 1997-2004).

Defining as Confining and the Habitus of the Researcher

The sociologist may be tempted to join in the game, to have the last word in these verbal disputes by saying how things are in reality.[23]

The political reading reduces the performance of PAINTER to political subversion. This is not only arbitrary, but also a form of symbolic violence.[24] Ascribing an unambiguous message or intention to something that is profoundly ambiguous is arbitrary. There are two reasons to see this as violence. First, the game of performance is an open-ended process. Attempting to end an open-ended process by fixing its boundaries (as the word defining suggests) can be seen as violent. It takes the performance out of the environment of production (Beijing Underground) and into clinical environment of scholarly interpretation, in the process denying the participants (in the broad sense) their right to their own experiences and interpretations.

Second, the motivation of the researcher is not pure, and cannot be. Through the political selection and interpretation of this performance the researcher expresses her views on the political situation in China. If she thinks there is oppression in China, rock is a legitimate means of expressing and ‘proving’ that view. If she wants to de-emphasize oppression in China, she will play down the subversive potential of rock. By calling Chinese rock either subversive or not so subversive researchers and critics, consciously or not, carry out political acts. In these political acts, the game of performance (open: present) is not only reduced to a text (closed: past), but to a pretext (removed to the background: past perfect). How content interpretation and the theme of subversion have dominated the reception of Chinese rock, at the expense of other aspects of the meaning/unmeaning continuum, is the topic of the next chapter.

Rey Chow comes to a similar conclusion. After criticizing researchers for being parasites that live off their research objects, she writes:

The problem with the question “Who speaks?”, then, is that it is still trying to understand the world in the form of a coherent narrative grammar, with an identifiable (anthropomorphic) subject for every sentence. The emphasis of the question is always on “who.” From that it follows that “Who speaks?” is a rhetorical question, with predetermined answers which however cannot change the structure of privilege against which it is aimed. Obviously, it is those who have power who speak – this is the answer this question is meant to provoke.
… In Asian cities like Hong Kong where oppression is multifarious and contradictory in nature, the question to ask, it seems to me, is rather … What plays?[25]

A counterargument to my research question ‘what does PAINTER mean?’ could be that it encourages readers to pinpoint its content and to paraphrase. By asking this question, the answers would always be politically biased, and indeed acts of violence. The objection might be that ‘What does it mean’? is the wrong thing to ask.

However, I argue that this research question is a good one, provided that it does not lead to an answer that is univocal and pretends to be the Truth. The kind of answer I am looking for is not one that concludes or closes the discussion, but one that informs engagement. My attempt in this thesis is not to paraphrase the performance but to paraphrase the discussions and associations propelled by this performance. In this sense I am one step removed from the performance, looking at the spectators and listening to the audience. However, the question of how PAINTER means cannot go around the question what it means. It makes no sense to listen to the audience without including that which is on their minds, without including the performance they are part of, that binds them.


Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
Fig 1.2. Tongue at an industrial area. Front: Zhu Xiaolong, Wu Tun. Back: Li Dan, Li Hongjun, Guo Dagang, Wu Junde.

Although the songs of Tongue, PAINTER in particular, are the subject of chapter three, I include a brief analysis of one song here. This is to give an example of the relevance of this discussion to Tongue and vice versa, but also to stay close to the subject matter of this thesis throughout. Let’s go back to one of the earliest songs of Tongue, THEY’RE COMING 他们来了.

The song starts with a distorted guitar, syncopated notes of what appears to be a distorted shuffle (verse). A bridge of tight sixteenth notes, played staccato by bass, drums and guitars together. This creates tension that is only partly released when the music goes back to the verse and Wu Tun starts singing. The underlying structure is provided by the drums, rhythm guitar and bass, playing a strong riff of revolving eighth notes and answered in the remaining fourth note every two measures by a keyboard chord drowning in sound effects. Wu Tun sings in a very matter-of-fact way. Every sentence is answered by solo guitar with a screaming, distorted solo.

The primitive are coming
The slave owners are coming
The feudal nobles are coming
The democratic gentry are coming
Imperialism is coming
Capitalism is coming
Socialism is coming
Communism is coming[26]

At the end of the first verse, the music goes back to the bridge of tight staccato notes, this time with high guitar chords on top. The next verse repeats the first, but this time it is followed by a chorus in which Wu Tun sings: ‘They’re coming’ over and over again, supported by keyboard chords on the off-beats. During the next bridge Wu Tun repeats the lyrics of the verse over the dark, threatening and by now repetitive 16th notes. When the song enters the chorus for the second time, second and third voices scream: “They’re coming! They’re coming!” The words become less and less articulate, the atmosphere more and more frustrated because of the insistent repetition of the underlying structure and the chaos of the voices, solo guitar and keyboard on top of that. The up-tempo shuffle rhythm makes the song danceable, the distorted guitar and ascending melodies create a tension that is never released. There is no escape, the song can only repeat itself, until it falls apart and Tongue plays the children’s song BROTHER JOHN which ends in a cacophony.

Yan Jun, a famous rock critic and poet who will appear frequently in these pages, is also a good friend of Tongue. In 2000 Yan writes an article on Tongue in which he mentions this song:

Of course there is also the true content of THEY’RE COMING – something we called OVERTHROW EVERYTHING Chinese text and the band OVERTHROW YOURSELF Chinese text. This is not overthrowing in the sense of punk, or other emptiness and anger. In Tongue, there are already people who have seen the position humanity should have in history.[27]

On the earliest demo of Tongue this song appeared under the name OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. Only later, when it was recorded for Tongue’s first album, Chickling Out of the Shell Chinese text (2000) the name was changed into THEY’RE COMING. In a review of Chickling out of the Shell Yan Jun characteristically writes that THEY’RE COMING heralds anarchy and that the members of Tongue are anti-utopian elements.[28]

I would rather call it questioning order. The denominator of the list in the lyrics is that all the elements governed an historical order. The first four are located in people, the latter four in ideologies. The elements are listed chronologically, according to Communist Chinese history. In the song an unchanging place (China) to which all those ordering principles are coming is assumed. This place is ordered by the people and ideologies mentioned, and it is from this place that the song is vocalized. That this ordering or subjecting is a fearful process is expressed by the music and the way the words are sung. We do not want to be the subject of their ordering and therefore we are going to overthrow everything.

Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
Fig 1.3. Guitar player Zhu Xiaolong and the audience, probably at The Garden of Joy.

The title OVERTHROW YOURSELF implies that in overthrowing everything we have to include ourselves. It questions the distinction between us and them. It was always us who brought order to this place or at least who allowed a particular order to exist. Maybe the repetition of the music and lyrics even implies that after we overthrow everything, we are going to start all over again anyway. The song does not so much want to express that we have to escape the next order, that of utopia, but that we should question our own need to subject places and people, and ourselves, to order.

It is easy and perhaps tempting to label this song ‘politically subversive’. But in doing so would we not miss the clue of the song and add another one to the list of ordering principles? ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’ says Tongue.

Method: The Drawing and Crossing of Boundaries.

In this section I explain why I decided to focus on one band and one performance, and why I focus on this performance by this band.

The drawing of boundaries is necessary in scholarly writing, but it is also a political act. My argument throughout is that paraphrasing and interpretation (as I do both with PAINTER and THEY’VE COME) are enjoyable but inefficient. To treat music as a text is revealing in some cases, but in others it is more revealing to treat it as a game, while in the end a song is neither text nor game nor anything but music. It is difficult to balance these things if they are not grounded in practice, and it is in practice that these concepts have to prove their usefulness.

Many boundaries are crossed in this thesis: between languages (Chinese to English), cultures (Chinese to Dutch), discourses (Rock idiom to scholarly language), but also between senses (sound/visuals/sung word to written word). By definition, nothing crosses any of these borders in one piece.

Defining Chinese rock music would be interesting but also time-consuming. Problems range from defining the music (rock is in constant interaction with pop, jazz, dance, hiphop, western and Chinese folk and other musics) to defining Chineseness. Rock on the mainland is historically centered in Beijing, and this is still defensible today, although more and more bands are active in other parts of China (Shanghai and Chengdu most notably) and the large majority of musicians in the capital were not born there (most are from North China). Focusing on rock in the capital might neglect rock in other places, not only on the mainland but also in Taiwan and Singapore. It also might overstress unity in Chinese rock, something recently disputed by China’s rock pioneer and most famous rock star Cui Jian. According to Old Cui there has never been anything that could be called Chinese rock, since there has never been an independent rock culture in China, and the story of Chinese rock is made up by journalists.[29] The term Chinese Rock also might overemphasize Chineseness. Many punk bands sing in English and in their aspiration to international idols they try to stay as far away as possible from any Chineseness. They seem to have more in common with punk bands all over the world than with Chinese folk rock bands. I did not even mention the inclusion or exclusion of rock music in Chinese languages other than Mandarin (most notably Cantonese). In short, it seems wise to elude these discussions by staying close as possible to a single, palpable performance, and to work from there.

So I decided to focus on one performance. Then why PAINTER? And what is its relation to Chinese rock? I choose Tongue because they have been one of the most prominent bands in a relatively new generation of bands, from their arrival in Beijing in 1997 until 2004. I call this generation underground Beijing 1997-2004 and deal with it in chapter three. The advent of this generation was the major event in the rock scene in this period. The prominent position of Tongue in this scene was strongest in terms of community in the village in the suburbs of Beijing where most of these bands lived. Because they were slightly older than most musicians and built a name for themselves, they took on the role of primi inter pares, or in Chinese, that of ‘elder brothers’. They were counseled by musicians on difficult personal decisions and took a leading role when collective action was needed, something I witnessed during my field research.

In terms of musical output the influence is less clear, and the underground rock scene of Beijing is much more varied than research on one band can reveal. For instance, while politics are important for the music of most of these bands, there are notable exceptions, like Wooden Horse 􁳼􅁀, Xiao He and Glorious Pharmacy 􃕢􀽑􃥃􁑫. While Tongue sounds serious, other bands consciously deploy humor. Moreover, I was under the impression that the out-of-towners 􀻪􀴄􀒎 of the underground rock scene did not mix well with Beijing rockers. Economic and social differences resulted in different music preferences, with the angry, poor out-of-towners playing heavy music, like nu-metal, and the Beijing bands taking a more cynical stance (‘we’re fucked anyway, let’s party’) playing oi-punk and britpop.[30] I am generalizing, but the difference is actual and it is expressed in the dichotomy of New Sound 􀣫􀒀􁮄􀻄 and underground rock 􀴄􀏟􁨛􂒮. Modern Sky 􁨽􂱏􀻽􃁎 , one of the two important rock record companies of this period, has published CDs of both these movements, but put the underground rock under the sublabel Badhead.[31] I discuss the role of Tongue in the underground as well as the relation of the underground to the mainstream (including the outof-town versus Beijing’ers dichotomy) in chapter three. Thus, I am aware that there is more to rock in China in this period than Tongue or Beijing underground rock, but that mainly falls outside the scope of this thesis.

Additionally, Tongue seemed to be established enough (famous in the underground) to have been the subject of numerous articles, recent enough for the information (most of it in magazines and newspapers) and the people still to be available. The most important reason was that I simply like their music, as well as certain aspects of their attitude. After I decided on Tongue, the performance of PAINTER seemed to be a natural choice, because there was a recording of it (a VCD), and because what I saw on that VCD was gripping and asked for engagement and reflection.

I collected much information in the period between September 2001 and August 2004, but the bulk of the work was done between September 2003 and August 2004. I am grateful to the NUFFIC for granting me a scholarship for this period, Capital Normal University 􄽪􄛑􁏜􃣗􀻻􁄺 for having me and Maghiel van Crevel for replying to my often unreadable writings. The information I collected consists of published material such as demo tapes, CDs, VCDs, posters, books, and articles, reviews and interviews in rock magazines, newspapers and on websites, as well as of fieldwork notes on the countless performances, interviews, conversations and experiences I had during this two-year period. During this period I visited the rock village countless times, and, as a self-invited guest stayed over for dinner or played a game of soccer with the musicians. I would rather call my ‘interviews’ conversations, because they were often open discussions in which the ‘interviewee’ had the upper hand. Most of the material has not ended up in this thesis directly, but nevertheless contributes to it. I am grateful to all the interviewees, most of all Zhang Fan (Dean of Midi Modern Music School), Yan Jun, Sun Mengjin (Shanghaiese poet, rock critic and organizer), Han Weidong (painter and performance artist) and to Wu Tun and the other members of Tongue.

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.


Restricted / Protected Article

Rock in China is a mainly free community project documenting the Chinese underground music scene. Though some of the content hosted is copyrighted and published with specific permission by the original works' author. This article is one of these and it has been protected / restricted and thereby excluded from the provisions in the General Disclaimer regarding its copyright. The applicable terms are stated below.

Full Copyright of the original text with Mr. Jeroen Groenewegen. Copying, reproduction, distribution or use in commercial ways is not allowed, but for scientific reasons with specific referencing allowed.


  1. In this thesis I include Chinese characters in the main text when the name or title of a band, bar, album, song, book, article or movie is first mentioned. The characters of personal names are not included in the main text, but can be found in a glossary at the end of the text. In translations of Chinese material I include characters when the subtle and hard-to-translate shades of language are relevant to my argument. As for the translation of lyrics, I have chosen not to include characters in the main text, but to offer all the original lyrics of Tongue in an appendix, accompanied by translations. The only exception is the translation of PAINTER in 4.6, which is accompanied by original characters in the main text, because of the centrality of this song for this thesis. All translations in this thesis are mine, unless otherwise indicated.
  2. I based this thesis on two-years of field research in Beijing (2001/2002 and 2003/2004) in which I immersed myself in the rock scene in every possible way. Unfortunately I arrived just too late to be able to witness this performance of PAINTER live.
  3. An example of police ending a rock concert is mentioned in De Kloet 1998:5 and 2001:235,236. Yet it seems to be something of another era.
  4. Many of the sources used in this thesis have a Chinese as well as an English caption. The English caption often is not a translation of the Chinese caption, but rather an additional title. In most cases, such as this one (Wu Wenguang’s captions are Performance and 􂦄􀴎), the difference is small or unimportant. Sometimes the difference is meaningful, such as the title of the magazine Rock 􄗮􀖫􂄠􁳆, in which case the Chinese caption (pop music) is probably chosen to avoid the politically sensitive term 􁨛􂒮, ‘rock’. Throughout this thesis I use the original English captions, explaining the difference when it adds to my argument. In the Works Cited the English and Chinese captions are followed by a translation of the Chinese caption in parentheses.
  5. Wu 2001:30-31.
  6. I discuss vibe and 􂢊􁗕 in 3.7.
  7. Heidegger 1971:84, 85.
  8. I have borrowed the term unmeaning from Maghiel van Crevel, and have followed him in choosing it over meaninglessness, because the latter carries unwarranted value-judgmental and philosophical overtones. (Van Crevel 2004:87, especially footnote 11).
  9. Frith 1996:164-166.
  10. Frith 1996:128, italics his.
  11. for an argument in favor of musical meaning as a result of social interaction, see also Martin 1995:29.
  12. Frith 1996:203-206.
  13. Frith 1996:208.
  14. Frith 1996:94.
  15. Frith 1996:264.
  16. For an argument against music as text, see Finnegan 2003:189.
  17. Johnson 1993:9 (paraphrasing Bourdieu).
  18. Bourdieu 1993:42.
  19. See Bourdieu 1990:150; see Hockx 1999:12, Chow 1998:114, Jones 1992:133 for the historic importance of this theme for China. In discourse on rock music a particular type of people is important, namely youth. For an unnoticed equation of the two see: Steen 1996:232. See also De Kloet 2001:52.
  20. I am aware of the fact that there are many female artists. My choice to use male pronouns in relation throughout this thesis is based on the fact that the Chinese rock scene is male-dominated, and secondly on the assumption that unity will benefit the clarity of the text. The only exception are foreign researchers, to whom I refer with she, in order to draw slight attention to this topic. Gender is an interesting issue, in the Beijing rock scene, in Chinese popular music and in general. Unfortunately, it falls outside the scope of this thesis. Nimrod Baranovitch and Jeroen de Kloet mention gender in their accounts of Chinese popular music (Baranovitch 2003:108-189 and De Kloet 2001:104-112).
  21. See also Andrew Jones: ‘In this book, I contend that these constructions of meaning in Chinese popular music – whether on the part of musicians, fans, or critics – are intimately related to constructions of genre. By genre, I do not mean categorizations based primarily on musical style or lyrical content. Instead, I use the term to indicate the whole constellation of institutional structures, activities, individual sensibilities, discursive practices and ideological aims by which any given type of popular music is produced, performed, disseminated, discussed, and used by its audiences.’ (Jones 1992:3).
  22. ‘The fact remains, none the less, that the objects of the social world can be perceived and expressed in different ways because, like the objects of the natural world, they always include a certain indeterminacy and vagueness … This element of risk, of uncertainty, is what provides a basis for the plurality of world views, a plurality which is itself linked to the plurality of points of view, and to all the symbolic struggles for the production and imposition of the legitimate vision of the world and, more precisely, to all the cognitive strategies of fulfillment which produce the meaning of the objects of the social world by going beyond the directly visible attributes by reference to the future or the past. …perception of the social world implies an act of construction…’ (Bourdieu 1984:69).
  23. Bourdieu 1987:55.
  24. ‘Thus all the symbolic strategies through which agents aim to impose their vision of the divisions of the social world and of their position in that world can be located between two extremes: the insult … and the official naming, a symbolic act of imposition which has on its side all the strength of the collective, of the consensus, of common sense, because it is performed by a delegated agent of the state, that is, the holder of the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence.’ (Bourdieu 1984:72).
  25. Chow 1993:146.
  26. Tongue 2000:10, 2001a:14. See also De Kloet 2004:15.
  27. Yan 2002a, see also Anonymous 2001.
  28. Yan 2000a.
  29. Cui Jian, personal communication, 20-07-2004.
  30. An example is the old-school Beijing punk band Joyside’s slogan ‘I am lazy and wasting’.
  31. for New Sound, see Steen 2000, many of the bands are also mentioned in De Kloet 2001:90-99. For Modern Sky, see Yan 2004:24 and (consulted 20-12-2004). Badhead hardly signed any heavy bands, Tongue can be considered their heaviest, but rather focused on more dreamy underground rock and cosmopolitan punk. Most of the heavier bands sign at another record label, namely Scream 􀱢􀦿, a sublabel of Jingwen 􀒀􁭛.