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Yan Jun

In 1996, the pioneering experimental musician Wang Fan decided to move from Lanzhou to Beijing in the hope of finding artists with the same ideas and goals as himself, or at least musicians who were able to share his ideas and understand and perform his works. In Lanzhou, he only encountered musicians playing blues or thrash metal. The most radical acts on the music scene were bands covering Radiohead songs, and only one person knew the name of the American experimental musician John Zorn. However, it turned out that Beijing was not overrun with the “weird” people he was looking for either. Wang Fan spent the following year alone in a friend’s suburban apartment. There he created music with a guitar with loose strings, coca-cola cans, a television set and a household tape recorder. At that time he did not know of any other people who made music like this, so he invented his own way of playing. Both solitude and a sense of the mystical were necessary elements for the creation of his 40-minute long work Dharma's Crossing, which was regarded as the first experimental music work in China.

To speak of “experimentation” in China means to discuss it literally: Every single person in the entire country experiments daily and tries out new things. This is particularly true of the last decade. In pre-Olympic Beijing any street, building, restaurant, store, company or regulation could be transformed or even disappear at any given moment. The Nike advertising slogan “Everything Is Possible” reflects the spirit of these times.

During the previous Century, ongoing revolution and conflict in China brought with it a continuous process of transformation, innovation and experimentation. Following the civil war, the Cultural Revolution and radical economic restructures and reforms – e.g. the land reform, the language reform, the so-called “reform and open policy” – were implemented on a societal scale under the banner of “advancing with the times”, substantially influencing the livelihood and thus the individual psychology and community culture of the Chinese people.

Contemporary culture is pervaded by the spirit to try out new and radical things; however, “experimentation” has an undertone of the politically correct. Despite the prevalence of conservative forces at work in China, it is plainly clear that the fast rate of change taking place in the country reflects a desire and a vision for a new world.

The word “avant-garde”, among others, has become very fashionable. For example, a range of things, such as clothing, language, interior decoration, mobile phone design, etc., can be described as “avant-garde”. But only a few people know that avant-garde arts and avant-garde music are terms that have a 100-year old tradition. In Chinese, “avant-garde” is only ever used as an adjective; it is never a noun. All Chinese avant-garde musicians work in the field of experimental and free improvisation music. All of ten musicians with whom I attended a symposium on free improvisation at the beginning of 2008, occasionally listened to the English avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, and understood that the Western definition of “free improvisation” refers to a strictly defined school (or new form). However, Chinese interpret the words “free” and “improvisation” in a literal sense and create freely and without restrictions. It is a spiritual process and has nothing to do with Western tradition.

In 1993 in Beijing, Zuoxiao Zuzhou (originally from Nanjing) formed the band No, one of the earliest underground rock bands in China. He developed a technique of playing in which he held the strings on his instrument with iron clips. This chaotic, discordant, and explosive style was later defined as “No Wave”. Wang Fan was also a member of the underground rock and roll scene. In fact, a lot of people were a part of this scene; anyone who was not in the underground rock scene or listening to rock music from a Dakou CD[1], watching pirated VCD movies, getting drunk, or reading the works of the Beat Generation during the nineties, probably belonged to the boring, materialistic part of society – a “grown-up” world with no dreams and imagination whatsoever. All the earliest experimental, noise, electronica and free improvisation musicians originated from this scene. It was a dejected, rebellious scene searching for a radical and very loud mode of expression.

By the end of the 20th century, increasing numbers became dissatisfied with rock ’n’ roll. Some had heard of Keiji Haino, Boredoms and Painkiller; many had heard of Sonic Youth and Prodigy; only a few people were familiar with the names Albert Ayler and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but this did not stop them from “inventing” what they needed. Li Jianhong from Hangzhou, the Noise Association of Lanzhou, Zhou Pei (aka Ronez) from Guilin, Huanqing from Chengdu and Zhou Risheng from Datong, all began to experiment in a similar way. Wang Fan, however, was still the most original. He was the first to start creating pure noise and sine wave music without knowing that other people had been doing this for a long time. He often came to me to discuss how to name the new sound he had just invented. In 2002, when Li Jianhong (whose influences included Sonic Youth and Keiji Haino) created noise with a collection of electric saws, machines and pedals, he was shocked by the result and that it was possible to create music in this way!

Electronic music (in Chinese – “Dian Zi Yue”) is another branch of underground rock. In 1997, Feng Jiangzhou (who was influenced by Alec Empire and who was the leading vocalist of another early underground rock band The Fly) started to experiment with hardcore techno. The result was a kind of rock music that was noisier and more original than either electronic music or electronica. Even techno and house entered onto China’s mainstream music scene as a revolutionary force in 1996. One has to keep in mind that China had no rock until 1986 and no punk until 1996. Electronic music already existed, but no one knew how to use vintage synthesizers; techno music also existed, but there were no clubs.

In order to clarify the terminology used: “Dian Zi Yue” refers to non-academic, popular, independent and experimental electronic music. However, “Dian Zi Yin Yue” – which on most occasions is more serious and formal than “Dian Zi Yue” – refers to academically styled electro-acoustic music.[2] Its origins date back to 1984, and it was first taught in 1986. In the closed authoritarian system that prevailed in China, electro-acoustic music was studied for purely academic reasons and for the purpose of proving that the Chinese were not trailing behind the Western world; it had the dual function of exploring traditional philosophy and singing nationalistic praise. Even today, only a very small number of people have the opportunity to study in this field. In recent years, in addition to the main music academies, a large number of universities have initiated digital and media art courses, but unfortunately there are very few practitioners who can teach digital sound processing, algorithmic composition, or popular music-software.

Ji Mu (aka Jiang Zhuyun), another artist from Hangzhou, started making noise in 2002. Because he was so young, he worked at home instead of entering the music scene. At the time, Ji Mu thought he was the only person doing this in China. Ji Mu is now regarded as one of the “Second Generation”: a group of young musicians with almost no band experience, who use software to create their work. He graduated from the Chinese Academy of Arts in 2007. His slightly older contemporaries – Wang Changcun from Daqing, Xu Cheng (Torturing Nurse) from Shanghai, Jin Shan and Chen Wei from Hangzhou, Yang Tao from Lanzhou (who was briefly involved with punk music), Zhong Minjie from Guangzhou, and Lin Zhiying from Shenzhen – are referred to as the “Download Generation”. They downloaded MP3s, cracked software and AV movies, along with a range of other information from the Internet, which was once so difficult to access. Because of a lack of interest in musical instruments, they quickly became the true pioneers of pure sound and the first genuine sound artists in China.[3]

Between 2002 and 2004, the number of people using broadband in China increased by over ten million. The Internet, however, had already had a huge impact on many people’s lives prior to this great transformation. In 1998, Taiwanese-born Dajuin Yao, a music critic, computer musician and sound artist, who at the time was living in Berkeley, US, founded an Internet radio at; this greatly influenced new Chinese music. It was here that the “Second Generation” began to get in touch with various genres of non-conventional music. If it can be said that the “Dakou Generation” created music intuitively and on a spiritual level because they lacked a systematic knowledge of Western music, then it can also be said that Dajuin Yao was responsible for introducing a broader musical experience based on rationality and aesthetics. A scene, which could only exist on the Internet, was silently born; the new possibilities provided by software enabled the younger generation of untrained autodidacts to master a new world.

In 2003, Dajuin Yao curated Sounding Beijing, International Electronic Music Festival. This festival brought top international artists and new skills to China for the first time, and simultaneously put young Chinese artists on the international scene. More importantly, however, it gave noise credibility in Beijing’s young cultural scene. In the same year, Li Jianhong held the first 2pi Festival in Hangzhou, which focussed on noise-rock, avant-rock and noise. This festival found a way to revive the dying underground rock scene – with more noise and bolder experimentation. Torturing Nurse, the acclaimed noise band from Shanghai, had not yet been formed; at that point in time, its main member Junky was the drummer of Junkyard, the most popular Japanese-style no wave band at 2pi. He has performed at 2pi every year since its conception, but has never played the drums again. Instead, he now creates pure harsh noise and holds a monthly performance called NOIShanghai in Shanghai.

By 2005, the term “generation” could no longer be used as a criterion for classification. Zhang Anding (aka Zafka), who had previously played post-rock, had started experimenting with sound art. The new minimalist ambient band FM3 invented their Buddha Machine. 8GG had expanded their practice to include different artistic forms, such as video, sound, media art, interactive art and Internet art, since they first appeared at Sounding Beijing. The Guqin player Wu Na also arrived on the new music scene. A free weekly event Waterland Kwanyin was initiated in Beijing; it brought together a group of key figures from the cultural scene and established the trend of hosting social events based around noise. Another festival, Mini Midi, was also founded in Beijing. This festival, which annually takes place on a small stage at the biggest rock festival in China (Midi Music Festival), embraces various kinds of sound ranging from indie electronica, to post-rock and laptop noise, and emphasises the relationship of avant-garde, experimental and improvisation music to rock music in China. The one piece of bad news was that China had lost its only free jazz musician Li Tieqiao when he moved to Norway.

At this time, China started to see an increasing number of independent labels, websites and small-scale events, as well as a growing number of international journalists and artists. Live shows were occasionally being performed in several of the major cities (mostly Beijing), and new artists, once they appeared on the scene, were exchanging ideas. Sound artists released a collection of field recording works and several artists were making installations and visual works. Further down the track, the municipal government of Shanghai established Shanghai eArts 2007, which was developed in cooperation with many major international academic partners including Ars Electronica. Despite the fact that the upstart contemporary art scene of China had, up till now, shown little interest in sound art, both the government and capital investors were keen to come on board. The government has since established a fund to support the “creative cultural industry”, which is a first, as it has never before supported either the contemporary arts or youth culture. In 2008, China seems to be bursting with new energy. In comparison to Hong Kong and Taiwan, this “cultural explosion” on the Mainland seems to be of greater significance.

In the early nineties, when Li Chin Sung (Dickson Dee) entered the international music scene, independent music in Hong Kong experienced a brief boom. It was at this time that Li Chin Sung began to create industrial noise and experimental collage, and in 1995 he released albums on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. As the manager of a label himself, he was the first one to release an album for Otomo Yoshihide. In recent years, he has become an active laptop performer and is the only full-time artist in Hong Kong. In comparison, Hong Kong artists, for example Sin:Ned, a Hong Kong music critic, and Alok, the executive producer of Lona Records, typically create electronic music and sound art in a rather low-key manner in their free time. On the other hand, the nineties noise artist Xper. Xr. who explored parody in his work, has left China altogether for London. Experimental electronic musicians who are more commonly known as pop musicians, such as Simon Ho, co-founder of Oriental Electronic Orchestra and ex-member of the indie-rock band Midnight Flight, rarely perform in public. The potential for Hong Kong’s underground culture seems to be limited, but the amateur scene is thriving there more than anywhere else.

Taiwan also entered the international noise scene in the nineties. The noise activities of Zero and Sound, initiated by a student movement that was part of a larger social movement, were the most radical expressions of the concept of noise to date. A music fanzine about the underground noise movement called NOISE, which was founded by Fujui Wang, also released about a hundred albums and compilations featuring musicians from Japan and America. In the mid-nineties, the crazy, grass roots, radical noise scene had reached a climax, whereas experimental music, avant-garde music and improvisation had not yet advanced so far. It was about that time that DINO, a “Second Generation” noise musician, abandoned his rock band The Clippers to focus on hardware noise. In recent years, Taiwan has changed its terminology: the term “noise” has been replaced by “sound art” – the once rebellious connotation has been replaced by associations of an elite culture. The government, universities, and contemporary arts in general have had a simultaneous influence on the scene; on a socio-political level, all references to noise have been erased by the cultural policies of the government. Artists working in the contemporary arts have also started to explore the possibilities of sound; in fact, most of the young sound artists in Taiwan have come from the visual arts. Finally, bands such as Goodbye Nao! and others have been instrumental in developing the experimental music scene in Taiwan with their own eclectic style – a unique blend of post-rock and John Cage.

The story of RE-INVENT is complex. Westerners deconstruct their own traditions in order to redefine them, whereas the Chinese simultaneously attempt to understand the Western tradition and to rediscover their own. While Westerners believe that the Chinese are re-inventing sounds that already exist, the Chinese believe that they are simply re-inventing themselves.



  1. Dakou: during the nineties, 95% of all Western music CDs and cassettes available on the Mainland were Dakou (translated as “saw-gash” in English). In order to save money, large Western (American) music distributors gashed surplus stock with an electric saw to render it “destroyed” for legal reasons. These damaged CDs and cassettes were then sold as plastic garbage to recycling companies in Asia. Many of the CDs, however, landed on the Chinese market. Due to increased piracy and the advent of MP3-technology, the number of Dakou has gradually declined since 2000. The Chinese government, however, still imposes strict controls on the import of audio and video products.
  2. For more information on the concepts of electronic music (“Dian Zi Yin Yue” and “Dian Zi Yue”) in Mainland China, please refer to the following article written by the author: “More Nonsense - A Brief History of Chinese Electronic Music” in In Music 2008, issue 1-4.
  3. For more information on the early development of sound art in Mainland China, please refer to the following article written by the author: “Background - Sound Art in China” in Avant-Garde Today, issue 14. The same article has been released on CD by KwanYin Records.

Translated by Wei Xiaojing (Oceanic37)

Edited by Melita Dahl & Joanne Moar

Originally published in Catalogue of Frischzelle’s Early Wind and booklet of Sub Rosa’s Chinese new music 4 CD compilation.


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