Additional Readings

Geremie Barmé

While the granddads in their seventies lead the nation
Uncles in their sixties take care of modernization,
Those in their fifties retire and take it easy;
Our brothers in their forties are with money-making busy.
They say only once you're thirty do you really understand.
But where in all this do we twenty-year-olds stand?
Some are busy with Reform, others go overseas.
So what's left for us twenty-year-olds - can someone tell me, please?

-Chang Kuan, Peking pop singer

At the Baoding "Seminar on Cultural Thought" in mid-April 1990, Qu Wei of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra recognized pop music as an ever-present threat. "The bourgeoisie of the West," he warned, "use pop songs to propagate their view of life and value system. We should never underestimate [the danger] of this. Our foreign enemies have not for an instant forgotten that music can change the way people think."

Chinese pop/rock songs had played a role in the 1989 student movement (1) and many of the singers and groups who performed in Tiananmen Square were subsequently harassed and temporarily banned from appearing. But although the hard line advocated by Qu Wei received official backing for a time, the rock scene in China has continued to develop if not prosper. The battle for the hearts and minds of the youth of China continues, and rock 'n' roll is seen as one of the most potent weapons in the struggle (along with the Hong Kong-style music known as Canto pop and karaoke).

Cui Jian, the leading mainland pop/rock singer, and his work have dwelled in the borderlands of permissibility for some years. Despite on-off interdictions on his performing in Beijing since 1987, there have been times when he has been more than kosher. In July 1988, he actually earned a medium-length praiseful article in the People's Daily. 1990 saw an unprecedented level of popularity and activity among mainland rock groups-Cui even did benefits for the Asian Games-and in 1991 Cui reached new heights of official toleration. In January, he released his second album, Resolution (Jiejue). In March he traveled to Hong Kong. Throughout 1991 and 1992, despite occasional bans in Beijing, he did provincial gigs and played regularly at small rock gatherings in the capital. Before the 14th Party Congress in October 1992, China Youth News, the leading national official "youth paper," published a feature article on him, a sure sign that the times they are a changin'.

Resolution was available in official outlets along with modish black-and-white PR posters of the singer sporting a large and colorful corsage in the shape of a five-pointed star. Even the repetition of a number of older Cui favorites failed to disguise the fact that the force and charisma of his earlier work was missing, and the album was reported to be far from a commercial hit either in the mainland or overseas. A third album produced in early 1992 was little more than a compilation of the first two albums. Marginally more successful was Cui's teaming up with Zhang Yuan, a graduate from the Beijing Film Academy and a member of the "sixth generation" of mainland filmmakers, to make music video versions of three songs. These were not broadcast in Beijing, although they were reportedly aired in some provinces, and on Hong Kong and Taiwan television.

However, these were not the first mainland music videos; Hou Dejian, Cheng Lin, Xie Chengqiang, Ai Jing and Black Panther (Heibao), among others, have made music videos, usually with Hong Kong backing. It is the dissemination of music videos in the provinces of China that has since 1991 expanded the impact of rock and the youth culture which it represents. In 1992, Cui produced and starred in his own "underground" movie, a vehicle for "fashionable dissidents" entitled Bastards of Beijing (Beijing zazhong), directed by Zhang Yuan.

Mainland Chinese rock 'n' roll, or pop 'n' roll as it could also be described, is now a permanent fixture of the Beijing cultural scene. While the excessive propagation of rock was supposedly forbidden in the Chinese-language media until mid 1992, the capital's bands are so much part and parcel of the expat-ghetto-cum-tourist scene that they were featured in the weekend edition of the China Daily in late 1991. Meanwhile , the music and its accompanying subculture of fashion, hairdos and lifestyles, are gradually permeating the provinces. Becoming a "rocker", if only by donning the garb, expresses one's individuality and advertises to the society at large both one's elite status and "dissent". Being such a youth "rebel" poses a difficult and delicate conundrum: either refuse (through the image you create, your lyrics or attitude) to be co-opted or tolerated and cut yourself off from venues, an audience and a chance to compete with other groups, or work at developing a certain pose, a vague or even polished imitation image and enjoy official toleration with all of the privilege that it brings. Some rare individuals - pseudo-punks, would be goths and amalgam heavy metallisti - follow a credo perhaps best summed up in the lyrics of a song by the Polish group Dezerter:

I am but a crumb in the dragon's mouth
I want to become a bit which will poison its entire organism.

It is not certain whether Cui Jian is just such a crumb or merely a pearl with which the dragon can play. As the flagbearer of mainland rock, Cui has felt in the past that it was his task to negotiate performing space for rock as a whole, and perhaps it is in the grey zone of cultural tolerance and coexistence that he continues to perform his most important service. He might still be causing some officials to feel dyspeptic, but as he approaches middle-age, younger rockers think it is time for him to roll over and make room.

As Paul Rudnick asks in "Born to be Mild," an article published in the March 1992 issue of Spy, "Is there rebellion outside of marketing?" He sees modern western rock stars as little more than rebel-as-entrepreneur. "True rebellion", Rudnick remarks, "entails risk and offers little hope of personal remuneration. True rebellion also involves scant glamour and few opportunities for trademarking." The frustrations of many of China's wannabe rockers are not necessarily aimed at party elders but rather Heavy Metal commissars and rock 'n' roll apparatchiks who are hesitant to share the stage with the up-and-coming.

Not all that long ago, in reply to a question about what he thought of the popular Taiwan rocker Luo Dayou (who made his first trip to the mainland in early 1992), Cui Jian remarked: "A bit old." In the last two years, a common refrain heard in the Beijing rock scene is that "It's time to exterminate (qiangbi) Cui Jian." There are younger groups of musicians among high school students who are only too anxious to do so.

I'm from the Third World. Where I come from there is a mass of Cui Jian fans who sing only his songs... But I don't think there's any fixed concept of what rock 'n' roll should be. Everyone has their own interpretation.

So said Wang Haizhou, a high school student who has been playing keyboard for four years and hopes to start his own one-man electronic band. He has also written some of his own songs.

The place of rock on the mainland is important in terms of the growing youth culture, how officialdom deals with trends beyond its control - even if they have been fostered by its own economic and United Front policies - and the need to produce local, but modern and internationally-recognized, cultural products that can come under the rubric of "Chinese characteristics." Rock can be seen as innovative, rebellious and threatening. From another angle, it can be argued that by tolerating "rock 'n' roll with Chinese characteristics" the party (or factions within it) can ensure that this most feral and commercial form of Western culture can safely be assimilated into the Chinese soy-sauce vat.

This is not to say that rock is entirely lacking in iconoclasm and libertinism. Many young rockers partake of what I call liumang (lout or hooligan) culture, one so clearly reflected in some of Wang Shuo's fiction. (2) They, along with some artists, form the elite of Beijing's youth subculture. Fashionable, at times well-off, they can indulge themselves with drink, sex and dope. Police action against the rockers included detention in late 1992 of some leading singers and musicians (although not the teflon youth idol Cui Jian) for smoking pot. Substance abuse is all part of the cheeky scene and some feel the arrests were motivated more by a jealousy of the free wheeling youths than a desire to stomp on punk human rights. Compared to the antics of Western rockers, however, the denizens of the Beijing scene are positively tame.

While Cui's street cred and market-impact in Hong Kong and Taiwan waned in 1991, other mainland musicmakers have been packaged by non-mainland companies and entrepreneurs for their Asian debut. These include Black Panther - which toured Hong Kong late in the year (although they broke up shortly after their return to Beijing, and were partially reconstituted in 1992 by Dou Wei as Dreaming [Zuomeng]), Chang Kuan and Ai Jing (notable for her Suzanne Vega-esque satirical song My 1997). A collection of mainland rock, Black Moon - the Other Side of China, was produced by Chen Zhe in Hong Kong. Thus, despite pro forma lighter cultural control since June 1989 and the continued uncertain fate of pop/rock music, contact and exchange with the Hong Kong and Taiwan music industry has continued and strengthened. Such contacts have, in a number of cases, ensured that groups or individuals can make a living from off-shore earnings and achieve a measure of protection. (3) These shifts in Beijing rock parallel developments in the realms of misty poetry, art and "new wave cinema" in the late eighties.

This is all part of what could be dubbed the "compradorization" of the Chinese avant-garde. For many artists survival means reliance on non-official sources of funding. Faced with an often intemperate, although not entirely hostile or oppressive, official line, innovative artists anxious to pursue their creative careers make a living and achieve a measure of recognition by being increasingly drawn into complex commercial relationships with the outside, whether it be in the form of foreign buyers or Hong Kong and Taiwan interests (including publishers, record companies, galleries and film critics).

This phenomenon may be normal enough when seen from the angle of the commodification and internationalization of culture. The specific nature of mainland cultural politics, however, complicates matters. The authorities preach cultural diversity but fear the uncontrolled development of popular culture as a fifth column for Western "Peaceful evolutionists." They allow semi-official publications and a range of literature that is strikingly out of step with their "keynote" socialist message. Constant exhortations call for adherence to the Maoist-inspired official cultural canon, while in reality local publishers, overseas influences and popular and intellectual tastes have created a number of parallel canons. Wary that overt cultural repression will send the wrong political messages to overseas businesses and governments-including that of Taiwan-which might affect investments, and bound up in their own infighting, the authorities suffer divergent art forms. Thus, outside the red market of official culture and the black market specializing in overtly illicit dissident work, an intriguing grey marketplace provides enjoyment for the cultural elite.

On certain levels home-grown -rock can be tolerated for narrow chauvinistic reasons. The cultural competition with Hong Kong and Taiwan pop music has been intense since the early eighties when the official response to the nationwide popularity of Taiwan's saccharine Teresa Teng was to ban her songs as "pornographic." (4) In 1991, reporters noted with regret that all of Shanghai's 1989 ten top of the pops were from Hong Kong. In 1990, seven out of ten, including the first three places, were taken by Hong Kong and Taiwan singers.

In early 1991, a China Youth News reporter wrote: "Conceptually and musically [mainland] music seems obsolete. It is incapable of engaging the psychological changes of our youth and equally unable to satisfy their musical needs." This same writer went on to say that it was necessary to accept rock so as to strengthen local pop, to fail to do so would only further weaken mainland music, "causing it to fall far behind in its ability to keep up with the increasingly refined popular listening tastes, so much so that it will very quickly lose its place in the market to Canto pop." The article finished with the warning that if Chinese rock is not encouraged, when Euro-American rock finally floods into China the local industry will be swamped. "The Beatles once sang 'Give Peace a Chance,'" he concludes. "How about giving rock 'n' roll a chance?" The party finally seems more willing to do just that, and make a buck or two at the same time.

Geremie Barmé is a research fellow in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University in Canberra. His main academic interests are in modern Chinese intellectual and cultural history and he writes in Chinese on contemporary culture for the Taiwan and Hong Kong press. His latest book, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, is an anthology edited with Linda Jaivin.

My thanks to Linda Jaivin for her comments and the rhyming rendition of the lyrics at the beginning of this article.

Adapted and revised with new material for the Human Rights Tribune by the author from "Rock, MTV & the Movies: Compradores of Elite Culture?" in his "The Greying of Chinese Culture." China Review 1992 , edited by Kuan Hsin-chi and Maurice Brosseau, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1992.


1 See G. Barmé, " Beijing Days, Beijing Nights ," in Jonathan Unger ed., The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces , Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1991.
2 See, Barmé, "Wang Shuo and liumang ('hooligan') culture." The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs , No. 28, July 1992.
3 It was reported that a leading Taiwan rock record company helped negotiate the release of Beijing rock'n'rollers detained by police for smoking dope in late September. See Ai Xinjue, "Beijing yaogun yueshou xidu beibu zhenxiang", Zhongguo shibao zhoukan, 92.11.15-21.
4 Teresa has tried to keep in the Chinese limelight. During the 1992 commemorations of the 4 June Peking Massacre she did a duet with Yan Jiaqi at a fund-raising event in Paris.

Human Rights Tribune , Volume III, Number 4, Winter 1992, pp. 17-20
Reproduced with permission of the author. All Rights Reserved.

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