China's rockers too pampered for politics
By Alice Liu
BEIJING - As China becomes more open, government and society have become more
tolerant towards rock music. It was previously frowned up by leaders and most
of the older generation as rotten Western art - good only as a means for youth
to vent rebellious sentiments.
Rock in China is still an "underground" movement, and no rock is allowed in
officially sanctioned performances. Still, China's rock bands and their fans -
cynical as they purport to be - have become increasingly indifferent to
The genre first became popular in China in the late 1980s, with some rock songs
banned by authorities for political reasons. This
occurs less now, reflecting subtle shifts in China's political and social
The underground nature of rock music in Beijing can still be sensed amid the
amplifiers and distortion pedals at the city's high-class club Yugong Yishan
(named after the ancient Chinese fable, "The Foolish Man Moves a Mountain").
But there are no songs about bloody rebellions, and the gnashing teeth and
rolling eyes feel more like stage effects than any display of genuine
life-or-death discontent. The club is housed in the former home of Manchurian
General Duan Rui, in an historical part of the city that traditionally housed
scholars and military men. Indeed, the lavish surroundings make the rock music
feel a little tame.
Most rock musicians making music now in the capital are living very different
lifestyle to their predecessors, with many holding down day jobs, and possibly
experimenting with drugs, alcohol or veganism. Beijing today is not the same as
Beijing 20 years ago, when rockers like He Yong and Dou Wei - signed to the
Taiwanese Moyan rock label - would burn cars or themselves in frustration or
due to mental illness.
Cui Jian, the first Chinese rock-star, famously performed a song called A Piece
of Red Cloth with a strip of red fabric across his eyes to symbolize
not wanting to see what was going on in China. His music was banned for a
decade because of his sympathies for the students that died at the Tiananmen
Square crackdown in 1989.
The rock movement has fragmented, with rock in cities like Beijing, Shanghai
and Wuhan a lot different from rock in smaller cities. With growing discontent
over social injustice, young people everywhere in China know they should be
rebelling. But the tensions that young urbanites face are simply not great
enough to provoke them into that role. So what can they do? They often try to
write songs that hint at discontent with China's political system, but they
don't delve deep enough into real problems facing Chinese society.
For example, the song Guang Chang (Square) by the popular band Carsick
Cars, is based on singer-songwriter and lead guitarist Zhang Shouwang's
experience one morning at Tiananmen Square. On his blog, Shouwang wrote about a
dawn trip by him and a friend to the square, where they milled around for a
while. The police noticed them, saw them as suspicious-looking characters and
placed them in the back of a police van, from where Shouwang looked miserably
at the square in the rising morning light. The result was one of the most
popular songs on their debut album, in which he sings: "This is a square
without hope." However, it is this kind of introspection that is at the heart
of his music, rather than intense political angst of the sort that can affect
the fate of a nation.
Carsick Cars is an indie-rock trio formed in March 2005. It is one of the most
prolific and established acts on the Beijing indie-rock scene. Michael Pettis,
finance professor at Peking University and founder of one of Beijing's most
influential record labels, Maybe Mars, helped influence a young Shouwang by
playing him the 1960s band Velvet Underground. "After I listened to the Velvet
Underground I thought I must start a band," Shouwang said outside Yugong
But is there a political agenda at work? Shouwang's status in Beijing
highlights just how political the "alternative" youth milieu in China is: not
very. It's important to recognize Shouwang's point of view because, as Pettis
said, "Shouwang will be one of the most famous Chinese musicians in the world
in 20 years, and not just in China but everywhere." His cult-like status has
inspired many meta-bands to spring up, all of which have a similar sense of
drawing inspiration from surroundings rather than from rebellion.
PK14 is an outfit that has been performing for over 12 years, they sound a
little like US southern rock band Kings of Leon. Their lead singer, Yang
Haisong, is an English-Chinese translator by day and three out of the band's
four members have day jobs. "Our pressure has nothing to do with Cui Jian's,"
Haisong said to me after performing at a packed concert. "The stars of the
Moyan [rock label] and the [heavy metal band] Tang Dynasty really used politics
as a weapon in that age. But it's different now. Three out of the four of us
have regular jobs, and after you're used to it, it becomes comfortable,"
Haisong describes his relationship with the government with relative
detachment. "We haven't been suppressed by the government, and we don't really
understand what they are doing. And because it has not yet happened, I'm not
really scared," he said.
Shouwang is also clear about this: "We're not into the politics and don't care
that much about the older generation: for them it was like religion. I don't
really listen to their music, including Cui Jian. As new bands come, the old
The low level of politicization captures the inanity of China's urban
environment as fewer pressures are put on the urban, sophisticated and somewhat
elite generation of kids. There is reference to politics, but only as a
knee-jerk reaction to daily stresses rather than an overbearing need to change
One of the things that Shouwang reacts against is Internet censorship. On
Carsick Cars' second album, there is a instrumental song with the classic title
of "The Firewall Killed My Cat." Without lyrics or any particular sentiment,
the song may be beautiful, but it is hardly talkin' about Shouwang's
Alice Liu works at a popular translation website in Beijing and is also a