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Rocking China
In Chinese rock music's post-glory days, artists look for ways to take the genre forward
By Tang Yuankai | NO. 31 AUGUST 4, 2016

Rock music fans cheer at a concert during the Midi Music Festival at the Haidian Park in Beijing on October 1, 2005 (WEI YAO)

On May 9, 1986, then 25-year-old Cui Jian belted out his now famous song Nothing to My Name on stage at the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium. The song shocked the audience with its heart-shaking energy and later became widely-regarded as the first landmark in the history of China's rock 'n' roll.

In the intervening 30 years, China's economy, society and culture have undergone profound changes, and the development of rock in China has mirrored the evolution of the lives and spirit of China's younger generations.

The music, though, has always been regarded as a controversial art form in China. Since it first appeared on the Chinese mainland, it has had to cope with controversies and forge a way forward in the face of adversity.

At the beginning

"Since Cui's Nothing to My Name, China's pop music has begun to take shape," said one comment in Beijing Youth Daily in 1986. "In the past, we could only sing others' songs to express our feelings. From the day Nothing to My Name appeared, we could sing our own songs to express our own feelings."

Most critics agree that Nothing to My Name had unparalleled significance for the development of China's rock culture. Many see it as a revolutionary piece in China's music history, giving voice to the experiences of young people in the period immediately following the initiation of the nation's drive to reform and open up to the world.

Others, meanwhile, interpret Nothing to My Name as just a song about love and desire, as it features Cui lamenting his girlfriend's ridicule of his lack of material success.

While the seminal track brought rock 'n' roll to the attention of the public at large in China for the first time, many people reaching adulthood in the 1980s were already familiar with the genre.

Cui Jian (CFP) 

Musical pioneers

In 1979, four students from the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute (now Beijing International Studies University) formed the Wan Li Ma Wang Band, performing cover versions of songs by the likes of The Beatles, The Bee Gees and Paul Simon. Although widespread popularity remained out of reach, the band, named after its members' family names, is generally recognized as China's first rock band.

Hou Muren was one of the first musicians in China to get involved with rock music. One day in 1981, he attended a gathering in Tiananmen Square marking a victory by the Chinese national football team over a foreign rival.

In celebration, the young people present sang traditional songs, but Hou felt disappointed because unlike popular music, such ballads were insufficient for the fans to release their passion. On the spot, he made up his mind to find a kind of music that would let Chinese people express themselves more vividly.

Hou, together with four of his friends from the China Central Song and Dance Ensemble (CCSDE), embarked upon the mission in the belief that a music genre capable of igniting the passion of Chinese people must exist.

Months of reading and research about the history of music in China, however, led nowhere, so they decided to invent such music themselves. They created China's first jazz drum, one of the major instruments for a rock band, and founded the CCSDE Quartet Band, one of the earliest rock bands on the Chinese mainland.

"We didn't know that we created Chinese rock music by ourselves," Hou told Beijing Review, adding that he believed the genre was exactly the type of music he had wanted to bring to people in China.

Not in tune

In the early 1980s, pop music was controversial in China and provoked hostility from certain quarters.

In 1984, Cui and six of his young colleagues from the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble formed a rock band. But within a year, the band was ordered by the ensemble's management to dissolve due to the "unacceptable contents" of its music.

In early 1986, Cui attended a national contest but was kicked out in the first round allegedly because the judges found his singing style "intolerable."

Cui got his chance, though, at a large concert later the same year. The UN had designated 1986 as the International Year of Peace. Musicians around the world expressed the wish for peace in compositions such as We Are the World, by Michael Jackson, and Tomorrow Will Be Better, by Tayu Lo from Taiwan.

Over 100 singers from the Chinese mainland marked the international occasion by staging a concert in Beijing entitled "Let the World Be Filled with Love." At the event, Cui performed Nothing to My Name to a large-scale public audience for the first time, and 1986 subsequently became known as the "birth year of rock 'n' roll on the Chinese mainland."

Rock music fans retrospectively applied the epithet, because the term for rock 'n' roll in Chinese, yaogun, only found its way into common usage in 1989, when Cui released his new album, Rock 'N' Roll on the New Long March, the creative work that laid the foundation for Cui to become known as the "godfather" of rock on the Chinese mainland.

"China's rock music emerged at the right time. The 1980s was just the period of China's first generation of independent musicians," Cui told Beijing Review.

Liang Long (WEI YAO)

The character of rock

In Cui's eyes, rock music represents a spirit of self-confidence, freedom and naturalism. "Rock music goes against anything that makes people lose themselves, like money, drugs and compliments. Maybe I don't know what I want, but I always know what I go against. This is the spirit of rock music," Cui said.

In a 1993 documentary called Chinese Rock in Berlin, Cui also said that "art has political responsibility but no political aim."

According to Liang Long, lead singer of well-known Beijing rock band Secondhand Rose, rock musicians must have a critical spirit. "As a rock artist, you must always bring forth doubts and questions," he told Beijing Review.

Jin Zhaojun, Secretary General of the Popular Music Society under the Chinese Musicians Association, China's national organization of music societies, said that rock music shocked him when he heard it for the first time. "I had never imagined we could speak out the truth in such an easy way," he told Beijing Review.

For Hou, now 60 years old, rock music means "living." In 2009, he suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak and write. Thanks to his strong vitality, though, he gradually recovered. "Some people said it was a miracle, but I know it's rock music supporting me to reclaim my life," Hou said.

Ding Wu (XINHUA)

From humble roots

In the 1980s, the small village of Shucun in a northern suburb of Beijing acted as the cradle of China's nascent rock culture. Although difficult to find on a map, the locale drew aspiring musicians, who flocked to take up residence in the area.

For many, rehearsals were a major headache. According to Huang Liaoyuan, a well-known rock music event planner, the famous 1989 Band used to practice in a sealed room to avoid disturbing neighbors. But, Beijing's fierce summer heat made that hazardous, so the budding musicians came up with a novel solution. "In such an environment, they had to practice naked," Huang told Beijing Review.

The much larger challenge facing most rock bands was the lack of opportunity to perform in public. Some could only play popular songs in Western restaurants or at occasional small-scale gatherings. "Even such chances were few. There were only one or two opportunities each year for us, and we could only earn a few hundred yuan each time. It was hard for us to make a living on it," said Ding Wu, former lead singer of the famous Black Panther Band and founder of The Tang Dynasty Band. In 1983, Ding formed his first band in Beijing, with two guitars, a bass, two sound boxes, a set of drums and several amplifiers.

Many of Shucun's musically-inclined residents lived on inadequate incomes. Getting by on a diet of instant noodles and milk powder was not uncommon. Rock star Wang Feng, who married international film star Zhang Ziyi last year, experienced such hardships. "He could not support himself in those days. His father had required him to choose carefully between rock and traditional music," said Gu Yuezhen, Wang's mother.

Wang, who had played the violin for 10 years and studied traditional music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing for four years, chose rock as his career in 1994. "I told my parents that rock music was also a kind of traditional music," Wang said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency. He admitted, though, that was a trick to persuade his parents to accept his choice.

"I believe perseverance will bring about victory," Wang said.

Growing popularity

In 1990, a large concert at the Beijing Capital Indoor Stadium saw performances by six rock bands including 1989, Chao Zai and The Tang Dynasty. Tickets sold out rapidly.

The concert was a big success. "The audience was so excited that more than 2,000 seats in the stadium were broken by their feet," Ding said.

The affection for Chinese rock music also spread to Hong Kong. In December 1994, the then well-known rock singers Dou Wei, Zhang Chu and He Yong, together with The Tang Dynasty, jointly held a concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum. The performance conquered the audience's hearts, and the concert was acclaimed by media in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland as "a milestone performance in China's rock 'n' roll history."

"It was a historic event. A Hong Kong audience had never been so excited when appreciating music," well-known composer Liang Heping told Beijing Review.

Huang said that the rock 'n' roll fever in the early 1990s indicated that Chinese society had accepted the music. "In the beginning, rock music was considered decadent, but the perception later changed fundamentally," he said.

Xu Wei (CFP)

Finding a direction

After flourishing briefly, China's rock culture started to decline in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Cui released his third album, The Egg Under the Red Flag, which did not sell as well as his previous two records.

According to music commentator Li Wan, the less enthusiastic response marked the beginning of a long and difficult time for the musical style. As rock star Xu Wei's song That Year describes, Chinese rock musicians could not find a direction to follow. Xu and many of his counterparts, however, did not abandon their efforts to pave the way forward for Chinese rock.

Some 30 years ago, aged 18, Xu abandoned his chance to go to college, choosing instead to perform with his guitar in bars and restaurants.

Later, in 1994, Xu moved to Beijing, the capital of China's rock music scene. In 1997, he released his first album, Somewhere Else, which attracted attention in rock music circles. The album also sold 500,000 units in the following years. Then, in 2000, he released his second album, That Year.

Although the two collections won Xu fame among rock musicians and fans, he could not earn enough money to support his family.

Worse still, a strong feeling of being lost in life and music led him to succumb to depression in 2000. Xu later said he was able to pull through that dark period thanks to music from The Beatles and U2. "Rock music always gives me power," Xu told Beijing Review.

In 2014, Xu went to Britain and became the first Chinese singer to perform at the Cavern Pub in Liverpool, a live-music venue which, having hosted The Beatles and other well-known musicians, is considered a mecca by pop and rock enthusiasts.

In recent years, Xu has sought inspiration from traditional Chinese culture, studying Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. "Traditional wisdom has made me peaceful and has helped me understand music and life more clearly," he said.

Xu believes that the dynamics of China's rock music lies in the nation's culture. "Only when music merges with local culture can it thrive," he said.

Cui is widely respected as an all-round musician by rock aficionados, with the domestic and global distribution of his music, including CDs and cassettes, topping 10 million units. His music always combines Western genres such as jazz, blues and hip-hop with Chinese elements. "The superiority of Cui's music just lies in its localization," music commentator Zhang Changxiao told Beijing Review.

Other rock artists have also experimented with localization, some with notable success. Secondhand Rose, for example, has blended elements of traditional music from northeast China into its songs, making its music more interesting and enhancing its appeal.

"Commercialization and localization are two ways to push rock music forward. Only when we make it our own can we make the world recognize our achievements. Localization is internationalization," Zhang said.

Meanwhile, today's social environment also favors the development of rock music in China. In May 2014, a rock concert sponsored by the local government in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, took place.

"Local officials' support has reached a level we dared not imagine years ago," said Huang, one of the concert's organizers.

In March of this year, the Beijing Municipal Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Beijing Musicians Association jointly held a seminar on the development of Chinese rock music. At the event, the Rock Music Branch of Beijing Musicians Association was established.

Gang Jie, Deputy Secretary General of the Beijing Municipal Federation of Literary and Art Circles, said that the new organization will boost the development of rock music by promoting new compositions and sponsoring research.

"These efforts are compatible with the country's strategic target of strengthening the cultural and creative industries," Gang told Beijing-based Guangming Daily.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to tangyuankai@bjreview.com

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