Searching for the “Chinese” in Chinese rock music


Cover photo: © Magic Stone (Culture Co., Ltd..)


Veli-Matti Palomäki (BA) is a student of East Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is currently working as the Finland Promotion Officer at the Consulate General of Finland in Shanghai.


Chinese rock music – yaogun yinyue – has a history of roughly thirty years. When Chinese rock was first approached by Western scholars in the early 1990s, the research was almost solely concentrated on the political aspect of the rock scene. Some ten years ago, Chinese rock began to attract an ever growing number of Western scholars, reporters and documentary film makers, many of whom still sang in unison about the astonishment of the fact that such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll actually exists in communist China. Eventually, more varying melodies began to be heard, as many were willing to dig a bit deeper and climb a bit higher looking for the roots and branches of yaogun’s past and present.

The first comprehensive English language book on Chinese rock music was Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Chinese Contemporary Popular Music, written by Andrew F. Jones in 1992. Apart from Jones, another important “China rock scholar” has been Jeroen De Kloet, whose 2010 book China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music is an indispensable piece of work on Chinese popular music. Published in 2011, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, written by Jonathan Campbell, a musician, writer, promoter and Beijing rock insider, might not pass the most strict academic scrutiny, not short of colloquialisms or funny wordplay, but along with Like a Knife, it is no doubt one of the most important books written on Chinese rock. During one of my many trips to Beijing, I was personally told by Badr Benjelloun, a Moroccan who has been involved in the Beijing music scene for over a decade, that upon its publication many Chinese rock musicians and critics felt it was the book that “should have been written by a Chinese”.

On the other hand, in China, one could argue, rock music has yet to fully enjoy the scholarly respect it has for many a decade enjoyed in the Western world. Of course, rock music didn’t even really exist in China before the late 1980s. Illustrative of how new the whole concept of rock and roll was in China is the fact that in 1988 not even the Chinese translation had been fully established:

Some people feel the term “rock and roll” should be translated as yaogun yue (摇滚乐) and “rock” as yaobai yue (摇摆乐) … However, upon considering the form of the music, I have decided to use the musical term yaobai yue throughout the discourse. (Zhang 1988: 42.)

This introduction by Zhang Xiangqun in his article “Rock Music and Its Characteristics” (Yaobai yue jiqi tezheng) published in Renmin Yinyue (People’s Music) in 1988 is fascinating because it was very soon that the term yaogun (yin)yue became the only translation used for both rock and rock and roll. It is also probably among the earliest attempts in P.R. China for a general description of rock music. Interestingly, Zhang’s suggestion for the translation of rock and roll, yaobai yue, later became to refer to an altogether different musical tradition – a style indeed a bit closer to the literal translation of the word, “sway” – swing music.

According to Jonathan Campbell, the first Chinese music critics to write about rock music in mainstream press and books were Huang Liaoyuan and Hao Fang in the very early 1990s (Campbell 2011: 134). An early Chinese language book on Chinese rock was Yaogun mengxun (“Seeking the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream”), that was compiled in 1993 by Xue Ji. In his 2012 article “Independence, Rebellion and Carnival – The Aesthetic Research of the Contemporary Chinese Rock Culture” (Duli, fannpan, kuanghuan – Dangdai Zhongguo yaogun wenhua de shenmei yanjiu), Xing Long acknowledges the shortcomings of Chinese language research on Chinese rock music, stating that it has for the large part ignored the special characteristics of Chinese rock in comparison with Western rock. He argues that in the West, rock is essentially a sub-genre of popular music, whereas in China, it is not so much a representation of popular music but a different entity altogether, colored by notions of independence and rebellion (Xing 2012: 59). Chinese rock research in the West, however, has since Jones’ Like a Knife in 1992 often emphasized the pop-rock dichotomy of Chinese popular music.

In this article, I will present an overview of Chinese rock, its past and present, and introduce the distinct difference between rock and pop in the Chinese context. Furthermore, I will set out to examine what makes Chinese rock music Chinese, or if there actually is anything particularly “Chinese” about it. Here, I am interested not so much in musical analysis but the views of Chinese musicians themselves. I have conducted several interviews with Chinese musicians in Beijing from 2014 through 2016, some of which will be used as source material for this article.

It should also be noted that my focus is on the rock scene of Mainland China, as the scenes in Taiwan and Hong Kong have been following very different paths.

Birth of a genre

Chinese rock music has its roots as much in its Western origins as in the distinct socio-cultural environment of China in the 1980s. Most commonly, the birth of Chinese rock music is traced back to one man and specifically one moment in time – Cui Jian and his performance of the song Yi wu suo you (一无所有, commonly translated as “Nothing to My Name”) at the “One Hundred Pop Stars” (Baiming gexing, 百名歌星) concert held at Beijing’s Worker’s Stadium on May 10th, 1986 (Jones 1992: 93-94; Campbell 2011: 54-65). China had only introduced its reform and opening up policy in 1978, so in the early to mid 1980s China was still a rather closed country. People in China had very limited access to Western rock music – or rather, any Western music. For quite some time, the only music to reach the ears of the Chinese that was not the revolutionary songs they had been listening to for so many years, was the popular music coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan – which itself was rather revolutionary at the time. At the turn of the decade, “old Deng ruled by day and little Deng ruled by night”, as the saying went. Here “Old Deng” refers to Deng Xiaoping, who was the paramount leader of China from 1978 until 1992, who shared the same surname as the Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng – Deng Lijun in pinyin (official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in the People’s Republic of China, and also the main romanization system in this article). The gentle voice Teresa Teng was to many unlike anything they had ever heard before. Campbell quotes “an early rocker” remembering his experience on first hearing Teng’s music: “The voice was pure velvet … I just worshipped it” (Campbell 2011: 35).

Cui Jian was revolutionary in more ways than one. He sang with a hoarse voice, backed up by distorted electric guitars, a rocking rhythm section, spiced up with recognizably Chinese musical elements. He performed dressed up in a People’s liberation army uniform, decorated with the Communist red five-corner star (Steen 2011: 133). It is thus understandable that when he took the stage at the Worker’s Stadium, the impact he made was unprecedented in the history of Chinese popular music. Chinese rock music, yaogun yinyue (摇滚音乐), was born. But what, exactly, was created that day? Was it a new genre of music that could only be called yaogun (itself a literal translation of rock ‘n’ roll), something that could not have been created anywhere else? Or rather, was it simply a form of an imported musical genre, that now had its first representative in the People’s Republic of China? Perhaps one can just simply call it rock with Chinese characteristics – but then, what are these characteristics and what make them particularly Chinese?

Of course, Chinese rock music didn’t come out of nowhere. It is often seen as the evolution of a musical style known as “northwest wind” (xibei feng, 西北风), originating from the northwestern provinces of China. Xibei feng combined Western rock and roll instrumental accompaniment with Chinese northern folk melodies. A distinguishing feature was a hoarse vocal timbre “suggesting rustic virility and sincerity”, lyrics were often about “disappointment with limited life choices”, and it represented rock music’s “initial Chinese beachhead” (Huang 2003: 186). Thus, the early works of Cui Jian – prior to rock music being “invented” in China – were put under the label of xibei feng. Another early style emerged in the 1980s, dubbed “prison songs” (qiuge, 囚歌), written from the perspective of ex-convicts and those sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (Campbell 2011: 40-41). Yaogun yinyue was soon to replace these styles.

While Cui Jian is often credited as being the father of yaogun, he was not the first one to ever play rock music in China. The first Chinese rock band was founded as early as 1979 (or 1980, depending on the source) and it was called Wan-Li-Ma-Wang (万里马王). The band name derived from the family names of the four members and the band played covers from bands such as The Beatles and Rollings Stones. Another early band was called Seven-Ply Board (Qiheban, 七合板), featuring Cui Jian and six other classically trained musicians. (Steen 2005: 711-712). The first Chinese rock album was released in 1989 by Cui Jian, titled Rock ‘N’ Roll on the New Long March (Xin changzheng lu shang de yaogun, 新长征路上的摇滚).

Defining rock in the Chinese context

Before diving deeper into the topic, further definition of the terms rock music and pop music in the Chinese context is needed. In Andew F. Jones’ Like a Knife (1992), the terms yaogun and tongsu (通俗) were introduced as two opposites in the spectrum of Chinese popular music. The differences between these two genres cannot be explained only by musical style but also by differences in fundamental ideology. Jones explains: “These two genres are produced, distributed, and performed in fundamentally divergent ways, and discussed by musicians, fans, and critics in altogether different terms” (Jones 1992: 3). Tongsu (literally meaning something common or everyday) is here defined as officially-sanctioned popular music, and its counterpart yaogun as underground rock music, and independent by definition.

Another common term for Chinese pop music is gangtai (港台), literally referring to the pop songs from Hong Kong (in Mandarin Chinese, Xianggang) and Taiwan. In the early 1980s, it dominated the Chinese popular music market, and many mainland musicians imitated the style. Tongsu was a new term coined to describe popular songs of the “Deng Xiaoping era” (Huang 2003: 186). Xibei feng emerged as an alternative for the soft gangtai and tongsu, later evolving into yaogun. The Gangtai style of music was often characterized as soft and feminine (yinrou, 阴柔) and xibei feng as strong and masculine (yanggang, 阳刚) (ibid.).

Nowadays a much more common term for popular music is liuxing yinyue (流行音乐) (meaning, literally, popular music). The term can be viewed either as a hypernym for various genres of popular music including yaogun, like it is nowadays often used, or, like tongsu, its counterpart or even enemy. (Steen 2011: 132). Interestingly, according to Jones, until as late as the early 1990s, liuxing yinyue often had a negative connotation, referring to “yellow music” (Jones 1992: 20). The term yellow music (huangse yinyue, 黄色音乐) itself was a label used to describe Chinese popular music, mainly jazz and a genre knowns as shidaiqu (时代曲) in Shanghai, from the 1920s to the 1940s. Shidaiqu was a form of popular music originating in Shanghai in the 1920s, combining European jazz with Chinese folk melodies. The term literally means “songs of the era”. Li Jinhui is considered the founder of shidaiqu (Jones 2001). In Chinese, “yellow” (huangse) is often used to refer to something pornographic. It is safe to say liuxing yinyue does not have such connotations anymore. With roots in Beijing, yaogun yinyue is often called a product of the north, while liuxing yinyue, and especially gangtai, is a more of a southern phenomenon (Steen 2011: 132).

To some extent, the not-so-thin line between rock (yaogun) and pop (tongsu, gangtai or liuxing) remains, even if the times have been changing. Back in the early 1990s, all of the musicians interviewed by Jones, both tongsu and yaogun artists, were very clear in identifying rock music as a separate genre, and the pop-rock dichotomy has remained a relevant theme in Chinese rock discourse long after Jones’ work. Jeroen De Kloet quotes Sar, the drummer in the Beijing band Thin Man (Shouren, 瘦人):

Rock music is totally different from pop… Rock comes from our souls, it is original music, composed and played from the same heart. Pop is the ultimate assembly-line product. (De Kloet 2010: 32; Kovskya 1999.)

As will be examined later, the commercialization of the rock scene has made the situation somewhat less clear-cut.

One more thing should be pointed about about yaogun. As Cui Jian himself once said, “rock is an ideology, not a set musical form” (Cui Jian, in Jones 1992: 115). This gives considerable freedom in using this term, not having to define it as a strict musical form. Thus, yaogun has often included a wide variety of musical genres, from rock ‘n’ roll to folk (minyao, 民谣) and from punk (pengke, 朋克) to metal (jinshu, 金属). And even though the “rock circle” (yaogun quanzi, 摇滚圈子) itself has split into different scenes and has become more fragmented (see e.g. De Kloet 2010: 40), there is still a fundamental difference between the officially-sanctioned and the underground. Thus, yaogun is not so much a description of specific genre as it is a “spirit”. As a great deal of yaogun is still – by definition of production and distribution – independent, it might be simple to refer to it as independent music (duli yinyue, 独立音乐). Another option would be non-mainstream music (feizhuliu yinyue, 非主流音乐), in contrast to the mainstream (zhuliu, 主流).

One artist whose popularity has perhaps in some way questioned this dichotomy is Wang Feng. He started his rock career in the mid 1990s with the blues rock band Baojia Street No. 43 (Baojiajie 43 hao, 鲍家街43号), and since the early 2000s has become extremely popular as a solo artist. In China, where rock music is still not mainstream, he is to the general public often (together with Cui Jian) the only rock singer one has actually heard of. However, Chinese rock fans almost never consider him a rock artist and he is seen as having early on moved entirely away from the yaogun scene and into mainstream pop music. But I would still argue that he has, at least to some extent, transcended the barrier between yaogun and liuxing by having operated on both sides of the spectrum. Here my source material consists mainly of numerous conversations over several years both with those who consider themselves rock fans and with those who hardly ever listen to rock music. Most of the young Chinese that I’ve talked to have heard songs by Wang Feng, even if they didn’t know a single other rock artists. They also generally consider him a rock singer. In the “rock circles” – mainly in Beijing – I’ve found it rather difficult to engage in a conversation about his music, since quite often the discussion ends very quickly with the words “not rock”.

Listening to one song from his latest album, The River (Heliu, 河流), released in November 2015, one could play with a funny idea: in the song You walk your way Wang sings “You walk your way, I also walk your way” (Ni zou ni de lu, wo ye zou ni de lu) surely it is just a love song, but what if one was to interpret it as him admitting he has finally abandoned his yaogun spirit and follows the path others are showing?

Interestingly, when I interviewed Yu Yang, the festival organizer, tour manager and co-founder of Painkiller magazine, in August 2014, he estimated that within five years yaogun will be more or less a part of liuxing. The reasons for this change lie in young music listeners’ changing perceptions of music and listening habits as well as the music industry itself. A little over two years after the interview with Yu, rock has indeed become somewhat more mainstream, but I would argue the underground is still alive and well and there is still a good distance to full integration. Based on the discussion and these observations, one might draw the conclusion that mainstream rock has become an existing phenomenon in China, but the question of its authenticity, “degree of rock”, divides opinion.

Rock and politics

A very common discourse in Chinese rock music research has been its challenging coexistence with politics. It’s true that rock music in China has had – and up to some extent continues to have – a bumpy ride along the long road leading to approval and acknowledgment in a country perhaps still not quite ready to rock. In its early years, rock in China was indeed often seen as a form of political dissent and was kept away from radio and television. This is reflected in how Chinese rock was written about by Western scholars at that time (e.g. Brace & Friedlander 1992: 127). The most famous of all yaogun songs, Cui Jian’s Nothing to My Name, became an unofficial anthem during the Tiananmen protests of 1989. This naturally added to the rebellious reputation of rock music. The lyrics of Cui Jian have been subject to such analysis. Nothing to My Name has been seen by many as a political song, even though Cui Jian himself has never admitted this (Brace & Friendlander 1992: 120-123, Jones 1992: 133-143). The name of the song in Chinese, Yi wu suo you, does not indicate a clear subject, therefore it could be translated either as “I have nothing” or “we have nothing”, and in latter case could be interpreted as a reference to the whole generation not having anything. Which then could be seen as an outcry for a better life not only for the individual, but for the whole nation. Even today the song is still a controversial one, highlighted by the fact that Cui was not allowed to play the song when he was invited to perform at the CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala in 2014, which ultimately lead to him canceling his appearance. The incident was widely covered by the media (see e.g. South China Morning Post 2014; personal note: the article’s way of referring to the song as “protest song” is somewhat misleading). The show attracted an estimated 800 million viewers in 2014 (see e.g. China Daily 2014) .

Today, most rock musicians in China steer away from political topics. Chinese rock has also become more commercial, and in order to achieve success, certain compromises are often necessary. The perhaps sometimes overly-politicized discussion can also stir up arguments from the rockers themselves, who wish to move the focus back to the music itself. Such an opinion is voiced for example by the band Carsick Cars, interviewed in 2009 for the AFP (Barriaux 2009) . For many young rock musicians, it’s “not about revolution, but about everyday life” (Foo 2009). Not about revolution but about freedom in terms of individuality and expressing one’s feelings of anger and hope (Steen 2011: 133). China’s underground is less political or revolutionary than the Western observer often expects – or perhaps sometimes hopes. Rock in “red China” is an intriguing idea for the uninitiated, and it’s easy to form “romanticized” views of the scene. The reality can be more mundane and subject to the laws of China’s capitalist and highly competitive consumer oriented society (Steen 2013: 132). Sometimes the ways of the government are not very clear to the musicians, as rock musician Yang Haisong exemplifies in his interview for Asia Times in 2009:

We haven’t really 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. (Yang Haisong; Liu 2009.)

Rock music as a form and musical genre isn’t anything forbidden in China, but obviously there are limits to what one can say out loud. The Ministry of Culture is the main decision maker, either promoting certain cultural forms or censoring them (Steen 2013: 136), but it is often unclear how exactly these decisions are made.

All this being said, there are some musicians who hold on to the right to state their opinions and don’t avoid political subjects. Ordnance (Junxiesuo, 军械所) is Beijing-based metal band that is very outspoken in their lyrics. On their album Rock City, released in 2008, they have several songs with highly controversial lyrics, for example a song called Fuck You (titled in English), aimed directly at the “people’s police” (renmin jingcha, 人民警察). I met personally with the guitarist and songwriter Liu Lixin in Beijing in August 2014, and he spoke about their new upcoming album (that was released later in 2014):

Perhaps when the new album comes out the police are coming to look for me … I’m a bit worried, but I don’t want to censor myself, to think about it and be like, “okay, I’ll just change this”, first I just sing it like it is, and if you [the government] say it’s not okay, then I can change it. But I’m not going to reject it myself.

As of October 2016 there hasn’t been an unwanted knock on Liu’s door. However, the band has encountered problems before, being banned from performing live (a ban later lifted) and not being able to release their album through a record label. After self-releasing Rock City, an official notification was sent out to broadcasting networks about a ban on playing songs of the band. Liu was kind enough to send me a copy of the original notification, archived 2009/49 and sent out by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Guojia guangbo dianying dianshi zongju, 国家广播电影电视总局) . An excerpt of the notification reads as follows (translated from Chinese):

Notification about a domestic ban on broadcasting works of the band “Ordnance”

Up investigation, the works performed by the band named “Ordnance”, Fuck You [misspelled as FUAK YOU] … and other songs attack the current system and damage the country’s honor. According to the Provisions on the Administration of Internet Video and Audio Programming Services …. works of the band … should be immediately deleted. (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television 2009.)

Yaogun as Chinese rock music

When defining yaogun as Chinese rock, the question remains if there’s actually something particularly Chinese about it. As mentioned earlier, many agree that Chinese rock music was born on the day when Cui Jian sang that he had “nothing to his name”. And the song, apart from being the very first, is also distinctively Chinese – two minutes into the song, the sharp sound of suona, a traditional Chinese reed instrument, cuts through the air and demands attention. Jonathan Campbell goes as far saying that the very moment when the suona kicks in, yaogun is born (Campbell 2011: 62). However, Campbell also continues to state that it wasn’t really the suona that made the song “Chinese”:

It is with Cui’s literal leap into Liu’s [Liu Yuan, a long time member of Cui Jian’s band] suona solo where yaogun truly begins. … The suona doesn’t make the song “Chinese” rock; geography does that, but only confuses things by doing so.

Regardless of how meaningful we experience the appearance of a suona in the first Chinese rock song, yaogun was undeniably born with strong Chinese elements. But it is also true that only a few of the early Chinese rock bands had anything particularly Chinese in their music. For example, the music of Black Panther (Hei Bao, 黑豹), a band that was also one of the pioneering bands of Chinese rock, is musically closer to, say, Bon Jovi than anything natively Chinese.

Tang Dynasty (Tang Chao, 唐朝), on the other hand, as their name suggests, was influenced by the particular period of cultural wealth in Chinese history (618-907). The music of the band often regarded as the first Chinese heavy metal band (formed in 1988) features various traditional Chinese cultural elements, from lyrics to vocal stylings as well as instrumentation. It can still be argued that their music was even more influenced by classic Western hard rock and heavy metal. In their TV interview for CCTV9 in 2007, filmed before releasing their third album (and first one in almost a decade), lead singer Ding Wu explains their approach to music:

Musically we employ the pentatonic scale, and also [employ] ancient Chinese poetry. To maintain our own style, we try not to merely imitate the Western style. (Ding 2007.)

Guitarist Liu Yijun continues to explain how the members are influenced by Chinese culture on a fundamental level:

Actually, if you look at Lao Ding [Ding Wu], Lao Zhao [drummer Zhao Nian] … in our every day life we cultivate ourselves [in traditional Chinese culture], reading poetry, playing guqin [plucked seven-string zither], writing calligraphy, or painting. I think this is the point. (Liu 2007.)

Whether or not the use of Chinese traditional instruments, or other elements of Chinese music, are factors that make Chinese rock uniquely “Chinese”, is a question that divides opinions. De Kloet (2010: 52-53) quotes a Chinese music critic who felt the band Zi Yue (子曰) was the first to successfully combine Western rock with Chinese elements in their debut album in 1996:

… the most commonly mentioned weakness of Chinese rock is that Chinese people with no rock culture foundation cannot really truly fulfill this Western music style with authentic local content. … Some people added guzheng [plucked instrument with 16 or more strings] and some people added pipa [four-stringed plucked instrument] …. but no matter what they do, it all feels awkward and unnatural. Until 1996 … The instruments were all the same … But if you listen carefully you will find it is a mixture of traditional vocal technique from old Chinese drama and Western rock and rap, plus … carefully chosen traditional style music … The whole album smells really Chinese. (Xie, F. 2008, quoted in De Kloet 2010: 53.)

In the summer of 2014, on my own quest to find out if such a thing as uniquely Chinese rock music exists, I met with quite differing opinions from the people I sat down with. Yang Haisong, vocalist of P.K.14, one of the best known post punk bands in China, as well as co-founder of Maybe Mars records, simply stated that:

Actually I think… there really isn’t such a thing as Chinese rock, or American rock, or Danish rock … If you want to say that there is Chinese rock, well if Chinese bands really had their own [sound]… the moment you hear them you know this is a Chinese band … you recognize it as a so-called Chinese rock sound … It’s more like a certain sound [said in English for emphasis]. But right now there isn’t such a thing in China. Everyone is still searching for something like this. … Right now it’s mostly just copying. … There really isn’t such a thing [as a Beijing sound].

Yang Haisong, who has been performing rock in China for twenty years, thus thinks that such a thing as Chinese rock or a Chinese sound, or Beijing sound, doesn’t exist – at least yet. When asked about whether or not he thinks adding Chinese elements to the music is one way of defining Chinese rock music, the answer is very clear:

Very strange. … If we take a guitar and an erhu [two-stringed bowed instrument],or a guqin, in reality we’re closer to the guitar. We might have seen and played a guitar since we were small, had it by our side the whole time, but a guqin, honestly, for about 30 years I didn’t even see one … If you want to say, what is our culture, maybe it’s closer to a guitar. … So if we need to add a guqin to express that we are a Chinese band or that we are Chinese… this kind of an idea is very strange. This is not reality [said in English for emphasis]. I think rock… should be about reality.

Nevin Domer, COO at the Maybe Mars label, also interviewed by myself in August 2014, shares Yang Haisong’s views for a particular sound, not so much a national one or one that would have the force to define the music of a whole country or a genre, but one that is rooted in a certain place and time.

I wouldn’t say that there is such thing as Chinese music and natively Chinese music, but there is music coming from Beijing, there is music coming from China. And it reflects a certain time and a certain place … But, I want to avoid the discussion that Chinese music has to be “Chinesey”.

Tulegur Gangzi, a singer-songwriter of the Mongolian minority, who has also toured in Finland on several occasions, saw things differently and shared with me his views of rock music that he feels is particularly Chinese and that couldn’t exist anywhere else. He considered Cui Jian as the most important representative of Chinese rock music.

In his book Ziyou fengge (自由风格) (“Freestyle”), writer and scholar Zhou Guoping asks Cui Jian himself a very similar question, to which Cui answers:

Actually, people [from the West and from China] are really the same, for example their feelings towards music, we are all the same. Looking at it from a perspective of the individual, I think we should emphasize what we have in common and not our differences. … When we make music, on the one hand we enjoy the spiritual and musical riches the West has created for us, but when we express something, we want to represent something Chinese … Finally it is realizing folk music suits the best, sounds most natural, and it is only because of this that I use Chinese folk instruments, there is no other reason. (Zhou & Cui 2012: 40–41.)

Here Cui Jian’s words are similar to those of Askhan of the Inner Mongolian folk metal band Nine Treasures (Jiu bao, 九宝). I met Askhan in Beijing in August 2015. Most of the band members are of the Mongolian minority and their music combines heavy metal with elements of Mongolian music, such as the morin khuur (Mongolian bowed stringed instrument, so-called horsehead fiddle, matouqin, 马头琴, in Chinese). When I asked him what are the reasons behind adding Mongolian musical elements to the mix, he told me the main reason is that it felt natural, simply felt like something worth trying, and he personally didn’t feel there has to be any grand idea behind it.

This brings us to another question. Even if yaogun was to be defined as Chinese rock music, we would still have to ask what is Chinese music? It could refer to the music of the Han Chinese – that of by far the largest of the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, constituting well over 90% of China’s population – or to music of all the many minorities of China. Some of them, like the Mongols, such as Askhan of Nine Treasures, and the Uyghurs, have very distinctive musical cultures different from the Han Chinese. This is however a question that has to be discussed elsewhere. Continuing the discussion of “Chineseness”, how nationalism presents itself in the context of modern China is also an intriguing matter. Music, not unlike many other art forms, has also been used as a tool for state-led nationalistic objectives. However, popular nationalism can manifest itself in a very different way, also within Chinese independent music scene.

Difference should be made between nationalism (minzu zhuyi, 民族主义) and patriotism (aiguo zhuyi, 爱国主义). Zhuyi means ideology, an -ism, and minzu refers to nationality or ethnic group. Aiguo on the other hand literally means “to love one’s country”. Even though the ideology behind the term zhonghua minzu (中华民族, Chinese nation/nationality) includes not only the Han Chinese but all ethnic groups, minzu zhuyi can still be viewed as essentially Han nationalism. Aiguo zhuyi is thus more inclusive.

Nationalism itself is of course a rather complicated concept in the Chinese context. Even though Chinese history dates back thousands of years (in the minds of many Chinese, five thousands years), one could argue that China as a uniform nation state is considerably younger. Due to the different ways of interpreting the core concepts, Chinese nationalism isn’t very easy to grasp in terms of theories dealing with Western nationalism (Duara 1996: 31). According to one interpretation, Chinese nationalism didn’t actually exist before the 20th century, and it can even be viewed as a somewhat artificial construction (Unger 1996: xii).

Speaking of modern Chinese nationalism, a rough division can be made between campaigns coordinated by the state and spontaneous manifestations (Asikainen 2005: 187). The former can be called pragmatic nationalism (wushi minzuzhuyi, 务实民族主义), which is always state-led and uses the ethos of national unity in order to maintain economic grown, and the latter can be defined as popular nationalism (renmin minzuzhuyi, 人民民族主义), which isn’t always in accordance to the official line and can be seen as undesirable (Asikainen 2005: 189-190, Hughes 2006: 102).

The philosophy of Tang Dynasty, China’s first heavy metal band, can be seen as including both irony and true reclamation of popular nationalism (De Kloet 2010: 57). Choosing a historical Chinese dynasty as their name and emphasizing their Chinese roots can be considered an example of their sincere nationalist pride. As for their certain irony, an example could be their take on The Internationale (in Chinese Guojige, 国际歌), the famous left-wing anthem, of which they recorded a heavy metal version for their first album in 1992.

Ordnance is a band with lyrics featuring both very upfront criticism of the government as well as strong implications of popular nationalism. In their song This Is Ours (Zhe shi women de, 这是我们的) the band lists places and things they feel belong to us – included are for example Taiwan, Tibet and the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku in Japanese). Here the implication of us is not the Chinese government but the people. This was confirmed to me personally by lyricist Liu Lixin when I met him in Beijing in August 2014. He admitted that the lyrics were indeed very nationalist and a response to the foreign policy that was viewed as being too subtle. Interestingly, he also explained that his views have since changed, and that the band is no longer performing the song in question. He ironically added that if they did play the song now, the lyrics should be changed from “this is ours” to “this is yours”.

It should be noted that there is a relatively new concept in Chinese popular music known as Zhongguofeng (中国风), commonly translated as “China Wave”. The creation of the Zhongguofeng is often attributed to Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou (周杰伦, Zhou Jielun in pinyin) (Zhou 2011: 175) or sometimes seen as having been born a bit earlier in the 1990s (Han 2014). At the core of Zhongguofeng is the combination of “the three old and the three new” (三古三新, san gu san xin): old poetry, old culture, old melody (古辞赋、古文化、古旋律, gu cifu, gu wenhua, gu xuanlü) with new singing style, new composition (or arrangement) and new concept/idea (新唱法、新编曲、新概念, xin changfa, xin bianqu, xin gainian) (Huang 2007; Zhou 2011: 173). This definition of Zhongguofeng was penned by musician Huang Xiaoliang (Huang 2007). Huang further divides the concept into “pure Zhongguofeng” (纯粹中国风, chuncui Zhongguofeng) and, in lack of a better English translation, “semi-Zhongguofeng” (近中国风, jin Zhongguofeng). The “pure” version of the style refers to songs that include all six olds and news. The“unpure” version thus refers to songs, which lack one or more of these but are still close enough to the “pure” version. The research on concept has so far concentrated on pop songs and Zhongguofeng can be seen as more of a phenomenon of the pop world and it is not a very popular way to discuss rock music with traditional Chinese influences.

The Chinese rock scene back then and today

The so-called second period of Chinese rock – the first period being the early days until the release of Cui Jian‘s first album in 1989 – is regarded by many as the heyday or “golden age” of Chinese rock in terms of creativity and authenticity. Turning points were Cui Jian’s nationwide tour (even though it was canceled midway) and the “Concert of Modern Music” (Xiandai yinyue yanchanghui, 现代音乐演唱会) in 1990 featuring several Chinese rock bands on a big stage. (Steen 2005: 712.) Yaogun thrived with big record deals with the Taiwanese label Rock Records, and with bands like Black Panther and Tang Dynasty playing stadiums. Talking about Tang Dynasty in the early 1990s, Campbell says that “they lived like rock stars” (Campbell 2011: 105). Interestingly, the band’s lead singer Ding Wu remembers those times slightly differently in his 2013 interview for National Humanity History (Guojia renwen lishi, 国家人文历史):

Chinese rock never had the glorious days people imagine. After the album [the band’s debut album in 1992] came out, it was merely enough to provide some food on the table … at least you could hear your own work, see some news in the paper, but nothing else changed. (Ding Wu; Xie 2013: 87)

This does seem quite the opposite to “living like a rock star”. Ding goes on to compare the “golden days” of the early 1990s to the current situation: “Today there are so many rock bands in China, there are also many shows, there is no way to compare it to the two shows per year of those days” (Ding Wu; Xie 2013: 87). So perhaps the glory days weren’t so glorious after all? Kaiser Kuo, Chinese American founding member of Tang Dynasty, also said in a recent interview he felt that we have “to a very large extent over-idealized” the early days of yaogun (Kuo 2016).

Around 1994, with a new batch of recording deals, solo artists such as Zhang Chu, Dou Wei. (previously of Black Panther) and Zheng Jun gained some mainstream success. Still, around mid 1990s yaogun‘s popularity was declining. In some way, it had returned to the underground. Moving on to the 2000s and beyond there has been a revival of sorts, and the number of bands as well as musical variety has skyrocketed.

From the rock fans’ perspective, the internet is today’s dakou – which itself deserves at least a brief mention in any article related to Chinese rock. Dakou (打口) CDs emerged in the mid 1990s and refer to illegally imported CDs that were originally intended to be recycled and punched with a cut (hence the name, da kou, to punch a cut) to prevent them from being sold. In reality, most of the songs on a dakou CD were still playable. When access to more alternative forms of Western music was very limited, dakou CDs provided a whole new world of music for Chinese music fans and they had a significant impact to the development of the scene (e.g. De Kloet 2010: 16–20).

In many ways, the Chinese rock scene has become much more commercial while at the same time having very limited influence on the society as a whole. When I met with Nevin Domer of the Maybe Mars record label in the summer of 2014, he told me that some artists come to him wondering whether they should sign with Maybe Mars or (the considerably bigger) Modern Sky – in other words, whether they should “go commercial” or stay more true to their own musical vision. Domer felt that the Chinese music scene still lacks the important “middle level” – there is the underground, and then there are the superstars, but not yet a healthy scene between them. He explains the difference between Modern Sky and a smaller independent label:

Modern Sky has sought that stuff, they’ve pushed their bands to do very commercial gigs. They also put the music in the KTVs. They do stuff that Maybe Mars hasn’t, either because we haven’t wanted to or because we can’t. Because when it comes down to it Maybe Mars is still mostly foreign run. Putting music in the KTVs, building connections and guanxi with the higher level music industry is something we haven’t been able to do.

In this respect the old line between pop and rock has to some extent been replaced by the commercial and the underground within the rock music scene itself. Rock music itself isn’t a taboo, but going commercial often also means putting aside its rebellious nature.

There has been a rock festival boom in China, with a growing number of festivals taking place in different cities around the country. Even though there isn’t yet a big international rock festival comparable to, say, Fuji Rock in Japan, there have even been Chinese rock festivals outside of China – Modern Sky, China’s biggest independent music label and a major festival organizer, have brought their festival to North America (New York in 2014 and Seattle in 2015) and Europe (Helsinki in 2015 and again in 2016).

While more and more Chinese bands are performing outside of their borders, more and more foreign artists are also touring China. Arranging performances in China, however, isn’t always easy, and every now and then tours are cancelled. This happened to for example Bon Jovi in September 2015. The band was scheduled to perform in Beijing and Shanghai in September 2015, but the shows were cancelled apparently due to previous use of Dalai Lama images (see e.g. Duggan 2015). Illustrative of the current situation is that in his 2007 documentary film Global Metal, documentarist Sam Dunn stated that no major metal band has ever toured China (Dunn 2007). Recently bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden, both arguably worthy of the title “major metal band”, have toured in China, in 2013 and 2016, respectively. It is quite common that the bands have to make small to medium compromises to get performance permits, such as omitting a few songs from their setlist (see Blabbermouth 2013 & 2016). For example, Metallica was not allowed to play their song Master of Puppets. Among Iron Maiden’s “not-to-do”-list was for example all swearing on stage and waving a Union Jack Flag during the performance of their song The Trooper.

About ten years ago, many were talking about the “D-22 scene” – centered around one particular rock club in the Wudaokou district of Beijing credited as the most important venue at the time – and it almost seemed as if anything prior to that moment was deemed irrelevant. While the importance of D-22 – founded by Michael Pettis, financial strategist and professor of finance at Peking University – cannot and should not be ignored, one could argue that it might have been a bit overemphasized. D-22 was closed in 2012, signaling the end of yet another era.

Some artists themselves do feel that the scene is maybe not quite as vibrant as it was some years ago. In August 2014 I met with Yan Yulong and Wu Qiong, guitarist/vocalist and bassist of the band Chui Wan (吹万). Yan felt there isn’t as much vitality as there was during the period of (roughly) 2005 to 2010. He mentioned bands such as Carsick Cars – a band appearing in practically every article written in the Western media about Chinese rock during those years – and Queen Sea Big Shark (Houhai da shayu, 后海大鲨鱼) as especially interesting or inspiring artists. Wu Qiong didn’t fully agree with this notion.

There’s no denying that the last few years have been difficult for Chinese rock. Several rock clubs in Beijing have been closed down due to rising rents, low attendance and other trouble (such as occasional drug busts). After D-22, Pettis opened XP, another rock club, which was later closed in July 2015. The struggle of MAO Livehouse, one of the most famous live clubs in Beijing, located at the central area and home to many venues commonly known as Gulou (named after the actual Gulou, the Drum Tower of Beijing), finally ended in the summer of 2016. Interestingly, as of October 2016, the club still hosts occasional shows. The rent for the area is extremely high and the venue is yet to find a new tenant. Most likely it will not be a rock club.

The latest closure was Old What?, a rock bar famous among other reasons for its location right next the Forbidden City, in August 2016. The bar was owned by Beijinger Gao Bo and his Finnish wife Hanna Holttinen. Holttinen herself explained the reasons behind the closure:

The main reason is that we can’t renew the business license for this location as the landlord died. Could always try and find a new place but the rents are too high for a bar as marginal as ours. We knew the end was coming but were hoping for another six months! (Holttinen 2016.)

Despite several clubs having closed down, there are still plenty left in Beijing. There is also a certain contradiction between what media outlets such as Reuters and Los Angeles Times have been writing as a response to the recent closures and the experience of living in Beijing during that time. After MAO closed its doors, Reuters stated that “Beijing rock dies before it gets old” (Campbell 2016). In June, Las Angeles Times blamed it on China’s current leader and his new policies with “How Xi Jinping’s crackdowns have squeezed the life out of Beijing’s indie rock scene” (Kaiman 2016). Statements like these have met with opposition from within the scene. Badr Benjelloun, owner of the Caravan Restaurant & Bar in Beijing hosting many rock shows, responded with an article on City Weekend titled “Two Takes on the Beijing’s Music Scene: Reality Check Part 1”, where he stated that more often than not, the closing of venues has nothing to do with the “powers that be” but are subject to the changing reality of Chinese music and entertainment industry (Benjelloun 2016). He argued that even though licenses and permits might be harder to get than before, often these permits are still obtained and the number of foreign bands playing in China is steadily rising. On a personal note, admittedly it is somewhat hard to take too seriously an ominous headline predicting the death of the Beijing rock scene when, having recently lived in the city, there is a rock show or several to catch every night of the week. Changing, yes, but hardly dying.

At the same time the scene has become more decentralized, and Beijing hasn’t for a long time been the only place to find rock music in China. Many of today’s best known Chinese bands come from other cities and some are moving away to cheaper playgrounds. It is still unlikely that Beijing will lose its title as the rock capital any time soon.


After thirty years, rock music in China has yet to reach mainstream popularity. The pop-rock dichotomy in contemporary Chinese popular music still exists, even though it has partly been replaced by division and fragmentation within the rock scene itself. The rock scene faces many problems such as closing down of venues, but this is more likely the result of the changing dynamics of the entertainment industry and economy itself rather than due to government policies. On the other hand, there has been a rise in rock festivals, opportunities for Chinese artists to play abroad are improving and more foreign artists have been able to tour in China.

The idea that Chinese rock music, or yaogun, could be or should be characterized by the presence of elements of traditional Chinese music seems to be refused by most musicians and others working within the scene, even though these elements are not uncommon. Some artists consciously aim at creating a fusion of the East and the West while some dismiss the whole idea as unnatural or at least unnecessary. Whether or not there actually is something that could be called Chinese rock music – in other words, whether or not yaogun is its own musical entity per se – is also debated. It might be more appropriate to speak of a certain sound unique to a certain time and place. Whether or not a specific Chinese rock sound, a Chinese sound, or a Beijing sound, exists, is also subject to discussion.

Finally, the definition of Chinese in this context is not entirely unambiguous either. How minority musicians with musical cultures different from that of the Han Chinese situate themselves within the scene is a question that can’t be sufficiently answered in this paper.



The following interviews were conducted in Beijing between August 21, 2014 and August 3, 2015.

Askhan ( 阿斯汗), singer and guitarist in the band Nine Treasures (Jiu bao, 九宝), August 3, 2015 (Chinese spoken)

Domer, Nevin, COO at the Maybe Mars label and founder of the Genjing Records label, August 21, 2014 (English spoken)

Liu Lixin (刘立新), guitarist and vocalist in the band Ordnance (Junxiesuo, 军械所), owner of Beijing’s 13 Club, August 29, 2014 (Chinese spoken)

Tulegur Gangzi (刚子 图利古尔), singer-songwriter, August 28, 2014 (Chinese spoken)

Wu Qiong (吴琼) & Yan Yulong (闫玉龙), musicians in the band Chui Wan (吹万) (interviewed together), August 21, 2014 (Chinese spoken)

Yang Haisong (杨海崧), co-owner of the Maybe Mars label and vocalist in the band PK14, August 28, 2014 (Chinese spoken)

Yu Yang (于阳), festival organizer, co-founder of Painkiller magazine, August 29, 2014 (Chinese spoken)


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Suomenkielinen tiivistelmä

Kiinalainen rockmusiikki, yaogun yinyue, on ehtinyt kolmenkymmen vuoden ikään. Tässä artikkelissa luodaan katsaus kiinalaisen rockin historiaan ja nykyhetkeen, käsitellään kiinalaisen populaarimusiikin kentän rock- ja pop -kahtiajaon erityispiirteitä ja esitellään aiempaa tutkimusta aiheesta.

Erityisesti pohdin, mikä – jos mikään – tekee kiinalaisesta rockmusiikista erityisen “kiinalaista”. Lähestyn aihetta erityisesti kiinalaisten rockmuusikoiden omien näkökulmien kautta.

Kiinalaisessa rockmusiikissa on alusta lähtien ollut läsnä kiinalaisen perinteisen musiikin vaikutteita esimerkiksi instrumentaation kautta, se, missä määrin nämä elementit vaikuttavat itse musiikkityylin määrittelyyn, on lopulta subjektiivinen kokemus. Monille nuorille kiinalaisille länsimainen populaarimusiikki on kulttuurisesti lähempänä kuin kiinalaiset musiikkiperinteet, joten kiinalaisen rockmusiikin määrittely näiden elementtien kautta voi tuntua keinotekoiselta, eikä sille voi asettaa tällaisia vaatimuksia. Kysymyksenasettelun ongelma on lopulta myös “kiinalaisuuden” määrittelyn vaikeudessa.

Rockmusiikki ei Kiinassa ole edelleenkään valtavirran musiikkia, vaikka osittain vanha pop- ja rock -kahtiajako on korvautunut rockpiirien sisäisellä jakautuneisuudella. Rockmusiikki on kohdannut viime vuosina haasteita, mutta näiden taustalla olevat syyt ovat useammin taloudellisia kuin poliittisia. Kiinassa on kuitenkin viime vuosina ollut kasvava määrä esimerkiksi rockfestivaaleja, ja ulkomaisten esiintyjien määrä Kiinassa kasvaa tasaisesti.

Käsittelen artikkelissa ainoastaan mannerkiinalaista rockmusiikkia, sillä vaikka Taiwanissa ja Hongkongissa on tehty kiinankielistä rockmusiikkia Manner-Kiinaa aiemmin, on populaarimusiikin kehitys kulkenut näillä alueilla hyvin erilaisia polkuja.

Asiasanat: Kiina, kiinalainen populaarimusiikki, kiinalainen rockmusiikki


Cover picture: cover of Tang Dynasty’s first album (1992). © Magic Stone (Culture Co., Ltd..)