Beijing Rocks: Rockin' in the Not-So-Free World

by Steven Schwankert

On a blustery Saturday in October, the American-owned Beijing Amusement Park is filled with families enjoying a day off. Little boys in People's Liberation Army uniforms run around with their parents and grandparents in tow. At the park's performance stage, the afternoon's entertainment starts with a raffle of soccer balls and candy. The show continues with a series of singers, a Michael Jackson impersonator, and a cover band playing mispronounced classics such as "Surfin' USA" and "Live and Let Die."

Among the crowd of Mao-jacketed senior citizens and eight-year-old kids, a group of guys sporting black leather and long hair stick out. They've come for the day's feature bands, mainstream rockers The Compass (Zhi Nan Zhen) and thrashers Overload (Chao Zai), two of Beijing's most established rock bands. Gao Qi, Overload's lead singer, seems pretty psyched for the gig. "We've never played outdoors before. It's kind of exciting," he beams.

The Compass take the stage first, sporting their new vocalist Rong Rong, who joined the band only one month earlier. Prior to his arrival, The Compass were probably more famous for Rong Rong's predecessor, lead singer Luo Qi and the fateful story surrounding her, than for their music. Luo lost her left eye when she was hit with a beer bottle during an underground rock party. After that, she sported sunglasses to cover her injury. At this day's gig, The Compass' mainstream rock is well-received by the day-tripping crowd of about 100.

"You know how we do this, don't you?" asked Beijing Amusement Park General Manager Bob Lamb. "We just go ahead and do it. The park puts on a popular music show every day. If we went through the proper channels, this would never happen." During The Compass' set he added, "What's wrong with this music? It's just good music."

Later on, the normally laid-back Gao Qi transforms himself into a screaming maniac when he and Overload take the stage. "Are you ready?" he asks the small but enthusiastic crowd, which had risen to its feet and gathered near the stage for Overload's set. The band plays like they're on fire--literally. Halfway through their first song, an amplifier at stage-right ignites and burns until technicians beat it out. Guitars and vocals cut out at various points as wires come loose, but the show goes on. At the end of the set, a 50-year-old man standing in front of the stage joined Overload's fans in a chorus of "one more!" Such are the stretch marks of rock's growth in the People's Republic of China.

It would be easy to dismiss Beijing's rock scene as a copy of Euro-American music. It would also be wrong. Rock in China is innovation, not imitation. Developing in a nation historically isolated from the West, China's rock musicians are adopting a foreign concept and adapting it to their own situation. Beijing's rockers reach deep into China's rich musical and cultural history for symbols and material. "We chose the name 'Tang Dynasty (Tang Chao)' because that was China's greatest period. It was also the greatest era for the arts," drummer Zhao Nian explained about his band's moniker. "We use [natural] symbols because they're universal," said Tang Dynasty's bassist Zhang Ju.

Rock really isn't anything new in China. Guo Chuanlin, Chinese rock's unofficial historian and manager/founding member of the soft metal group Black Panther (Hei Bao), shows just how far rock has come in 15 years. "I bought the first electric guitar in Beijing," Guo said matter-of-factly. It cost him 80 yuan ($9), two weeks' salary for a government worker at the time. Guo continued his version of the creation: "In 1982 a Filipino surf band did a show at a park. It was all covers, Beach Boys and stuff. We stood there stunned. We had no idea a guitar could make those sounds! That was a turning point."

In 1985, a former Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra trumpeter named Cui Jian drew on the influences of Simon and Garfunkel, his musical training, and his experiences during the Cultural Revolution and began writing his own songs. "Cui Jian developed differently than the rest of us. He started writing his own stuff much earlier," Guo said. At first few Chinese identified with or enjoyed Cui's provocative lyrics and sandpaper vocals. However, during a 1987 televised concert of various musical acts , Cui performed his song "I Have Nothing" (yi wu suo you) and touched a nerve among a growing number of disillusioned Chinese youth. The song became an enormous hit, and the phrase yi wu suo you (literally "one without everything) is now part of the vocabulary many young people use to describe their predicament and future prospects.

Around the same time, many other bands were coming together: Cobra (Yan Jing She), the all-female group; Black Panther, Guo's band; The Breathing (Hu Xi), Gao Qi's original band; and Mayday, a seminal group that featured He Yong, China's semi-punk guitarist. It was also in 1987 that Chinese musicians began using the phrase yao gun, as rock-and-roll is translated. "Before that, who really knew what rock was?" Guo said.

Then came 1989. Though Cui Jian and other groups performed in the Square, most avoided direct participation in the movement, fearing that their music would be labeled political or even counter-revolutionary. "I went to the Square every day," said Gao Qi, who had dropped out of college where he was studying to be a tourist guide. "When June 4 [the night of the government crackdown] happened, we were absolutely shocked. But our parents really weren't that surprised. They'd seen this kind of thing happen before," he said.

After the crackdown, China's youth took a new direction. Previously they had talked about women guojia, our country. After June 4, they spoke of women ziji, ourselves. Gao Qi explains: "Pre-89 we were idealistic. Post-89 we are realistic. Since 1989, a lot has changed. I've changed, my music has changed. Some people are still writing songs about the government, but I don't see the point. Now I write about how we can live, what our purpose is."

In the late 80s, rock had been a hot potato both politically and financially. Rock's popularity, and therefore its marketability, was mostly limited to Beijing's college students and artistic circles. Because it spoke of individuality, depression, and made veiled references to the government, the state-run recording studios would not produce rock albums. However, in the early 90s, many state-run publishing houses lost their subsidies and were forced to turn a profit. As rock's popularity increased both within and outside of Beijing, and the post-Tiananmen dust settled, studios and publishers in major cities began producing albums by bands like The Compass and the now-defunct The Breathing.

At the same time, foreign music producers began to take an interest in Chinese rock. EMI signed Cui Jian, and a Taiwan record company, Rock Records, began looking for Beijing musicians to sign. "We started looking at the situation [in Mainland China], to understand it," said Rock Records producer Chia Min-shu. "In the U.S., there are so many choices. Here, there's only Taiwan and Cantonese pop. However, we felt that Mainland [Chinese] would want to listen to music made by Mainlanders. When we came [to Beijing] we looked for composer/artists that we could assist in producing," he explained. Rock Records' new Mainland China division, Magic Stone Culture, signed Black Panther and Tang Dynasty. Since then Magic Stone has added former Black Panther vocalist Dou Wei, He Yong, and folk-rock artist Zhang Chu, and backed them with production assistance and money for equipment and video production.

In the late 80s and early 90s, bands longed for the chance to cut an album. The established groups now have their own records or have participated in compilation albums. Videos for Tang Dynasty and Dou Wei can be seen on Channel V, part of Rupert Murdoch's Star TV system. Last year, Cui Jian, Tang Dynasty, Cobra, and singer Wang Yong toured Germany as "The Chinese Avant-Garde." He Yong traveled to London to perform. In October, Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty went to Japan for separate concerts in Tokyo and Fukuoka, respectively, and Dou Wei, Zhang Chu, He Yong, and Tang Dynasty did a combined show in Hong Kong in December. In Europe, Cobra released their first compact disc, "Hypocrisy" (it is not available in China yet). Now that they have achieved a measure of international acclaim, China's rock musicians are hoping for more: a broad domestic audience and a decent living.

"Do you know where most Chinese get their music?" Cobra drummer Wang Xiaofang asked. Sitting on the floor of her small southwest Beijing apartment, she tapped her thumbnail against the glass picture tube in with disgust. "Television," she said. Pop music videos and performances are regularly broadcast on Chinese television. Cable television subscribers in the rest of Asia, along with Chinese owners of illegal satellite dishes, can tune into Hong Kong's Channel V. At night Channel V switches primarily to Mandarin language broadcasting. Thanks to that network, Tang Dynasty has become Taiwan's most popular band in a market it might not otherwise have reached. Dou Wei's video "Behave" reached the top three in Channel V's video countdown, and coupled with his relationship with Hong Kong pop star Wang Jingwen, has helped him make in-roads into the otherwise impenetrable Hong Kong market. Although these are breakthroughs for China's rockers, Channel V is still dominated by Kylie Minogue-ish pop tunes and candy floss love songs.

China's radio stations have also proliferated, playing anything from Beijing opera to dissident disc jockey Zhang Youdai's flamboyant "New Music Magazine" rock program. A graduate of the same drama school that produced Chinese film star Gong Li, Zhang's ponytail earned him the label of "dangerous" at Beijing's Number One radio station. In a supreme irony, his name, Youdai, is the same pronunciation for the phrase "have tapes." Originally his program was started by the American Kenny Bloom Communications (KBC), which wanted to sponsor a radio program to introduce foreign music to Chinese listeners. After two years, KBC pulled out and the show ended abruptly. However, Zhang's popularity brought in a flood of letters asking if the show would return. In 1993, he started two new programs which are still being broadcast, "New Music Magazine," a rock program featuring both Chinese and foreign bands, and "Midnight Blues," dedicated to show the involvement of blues music in the growth of rock. Zhang's program is now syndicated in the cities of Changchun and Qingdao, home of Tsingtao beer, and he is generally believed to be the most popular DJ in China. Zhang is hoping that someday "New Music Magazine" will get a better time slot, feeling that its current broadcast time of 4:00 pm keeps the show from being heard by many more who would tune in if the program were broadcast at night.

Chinese rock has suffered from government indifference. Cui Jian's success began with his 1987 television appearance, an opportunity that neither Cui nor other performers have had in recent years. His popularity then grew when the government forbade him to perform, and held up the release of his records. In the beginning, when rock had a much smaller following, the government actively opposed it, which made the music more of a rallying cry. At times the government has allowed big concerts when they needed to promote an event, such as the 1990 Asian Games or its 1994 bid to hold the 2000 Olympics. With those exceptions, stadium concerts are almost unheard of in Beijing, though other cities allow them. As rock's popularity has grown, the government has changed tactics: rather than support or denounce the music, they ignore it, denying it bona fide or de facto endorsement.

Instead, state-run media advocates and promotes tong su, a kind of popular music that originated in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Asian pop music industry as a whole is based on love songs sung by handsome men and beautiful women. "Once a singer and a record company agree to cooperate, the company handles everything," said Wu Yue, one of Central Chinese Television's top music video directors. "The company does it all: they choose the singer's image, write the songs, shell out the money for production, make the videos, market the record. All the singer does is sing and live up to their image."

Popular music also translates well into karaoke, one of Asia's favorite pastimes. China's rock musicians despise pop's simplicity and those singers who write none of their own lyrics or music. "If the people want Hong Kong pop shit, that's fine, but that's not what we're about," Gao Qi said.

As in other parts of the world, rock appeals to China's youth, disillusioned and frustrated by changing social conditions, low job prospects, and a generation gap unparalleled in the West. However, acceptance, especially among university students, rock's largest audience, is not universal. "It's too loud. I just can't appreciate this kind of music," a recent graduate of People's University said. "They're just aping foreigners," remarked a college student from Hunan Province. One of her classmates added, "Why the long hair? What's the point? It's ugly." A Beijing Foreign Language Institute graduate student added, "I think the long hair, the leather, it's just some kind of identity crisis." Zhang Ju, whose hair spills to mid-back, acknowledges the awkward position of the extensively-maned: "When people first started coming to our shows, it wasn't to listen, it was to look. They wanted to see what we were all about. Chinese journalists came around to interview us, having never listened to our music. Their first question was always, 'Why do you have long hair?' Their second was always, 'What do your parents think?'"

Beijing's foreign community has a different perspective. Most rock parties have a contingent of foreign students and teachers, who view the underground and unadvertised parties as Beijing's "club scene." They also know solid rock music when they hear it. "These guys are fantastic. They would totally fit in at the [UK] Reading Festival," said a British teacher during Cobra's first gig in nearly a year. Other concert-goers were disappointed to learn that Cobra's album is still unavailable in China. "That really sucks. These guys are fucking great," said an Australian student.

Concert organizer and band manager Lu-Fei Han Qiang said that rock's audience has really changed since 1989. "In the late 80s, if you held a rock party, everybody was there to see the band, they were serious about the music. Now, it's a social thing. The people want to talk with their friends, have a few drinks, dance, listen to whomever's performing. Money's too important now. They don't listen to the message," Lu-Fei said.

The bands are more hopeful. "I think the influence of rock is great, especially among college students," said The Compass' Zhou Di. "[Young people] are not satisfied, and they're looking for something to [fill the gap] in their lives. We need that kind of audience," Compass lead singer Rong Rong said. "Intelligent young people will accept our music and understand our message," Zhang Ju said.

"We're so poor," sighed Wang Xiaofang. He Yong said that in the past there were times when he didn't have enough to eat. The musicians live outside the system of the dan wei, or work unit, which allows them greater freedom, but offers none of the system's benefits, like housing and a guaranteed salary. In the beginning, most rock musicians lived at home, practiced anywhere they could find, and spent whatever money they had on instruments and any rock tapes that were available.

Despite increased notoriety, China's rock stars do not enjoy the lifestyles of their Western counterparts. Zhang Ju summed it up best: "We're famous, but we're poor." He's not kidding. His bandmates Lao Wu and Zhao Nian arrive for rehearsal on bicycles. Dou Wei and He Yong live in apartments owned by their parents. Wang Xiaofang sadly admits that if it weren't for her ex-husband, former Cui Jian band member Wang Di, she wouldn't have her apartment. Cobra won't be recording another album until the band repays what they owe on their first one, Wang said. The members of Black Panther stated that one of their biggest problems is debt.

And then there's Cui Jian. In Beijing it's hip to call him "Lao Cui," or Old Cui, a term usually reserved for people over 50. Cui isn't exactly hobbling at 33, but as far as rock in China goes, he's the oldest and by far the most popular. He released his first album, Rock n' Roll for the New Long March in 1990 in the depths of the post-Tiananmen air of fear, and followed up a year later with Solution. When the Chinese government needed money for the 1990 Asian Games, they allowed Cui to go out on tour, something that has not yet been duplicated. However, just because he had government backing didn't mean Cui intended to behave. Each time he performed "A Piece of Red Cloth" from Solution, he produced a strip of red fabric and blindfolded himself. The message wasn't lost on anyone, including the government. Halfway through the tour, the remaining performances were canceled and Cui was banned from doing large concerts. Only this year has he resumed stadium shows.

Though he's a long way from retirement, Cui and his new album, Eggs Under the Red Flag, are more introspective than Rock and Roll for the New Long March and Solution. Those albums were about large issues facing China's youth and the nation. Eggs still has a political edge, but now the questions are on the individual's level, like "My body is here/Where are my ideals?" from "Casket." "My music has become more personal. I've become more realistic," he said. Because of 1989 and Chinese youth's subsequent shift in direction, Cui's audience has changed considerably. Once a singular voice for Chinese youth, Cui isn't exactly sure he likes what he sees. "The difference between the 80s and the 90s is in the ideas. In the 80s they [Chinese youth] wanted to be heroes. Now they probably worry most about their salaries," Cui said.

Cui has both his loyal followers and his detractors. A young businesswoman in the southern Chinese province of Hunan said, "I think Cui Jian understands Chinese people better than anybody else." Throughout Beijing's rock circle, he is the exception. Unlike most rockers, Cui has made money. He doesn't need to worry where funding for his albums or videos is going to come from. To many Chinese, Cui is Chinese rock music, everyone else is just an imitator. He isn't unaware of his position. "I feel two kinds of pressure: the pressure I put on myself and the pressure from others. I don't want to make the same music, that's boring. If you don't work hard, you go stale. If I listened to what others say, I should be satisfied with my position, but I'm not."

No one doubts Cui's sovereignty as China's rock emperor, but other musicians don't always send tribute. One fellow musician said, "He's still writing about the Cultural Revolution. I had to force myself to listen to his new album. I couldn't believe it was Cui Jian." Another top rocker said, "Cui Jian's conquered China. He wants to be an international star now." But Wang Xiaofang said it best: "Nobody's going to be as big as Cui Jian."

For the moment, the fate of Chinese rock music lies in the hands of Beijing's top managers as much as in the hands of the musicians. Without the capital and clout of people like former Cui Jian manager Wang Xiaojing, albums don't get made and bands remain in obscurity. When the members of The Compass rolled into Beijing from Sichuan Province three years ago, they had few friends and nowhere to go. "They had no place to stay, they had no place to practice, and ran out of money after 10 days. They crashed in my office for two weeks until I found them a place to live," recalls Wang, who has since had a bitter split with the band. Wang later produced The Compass' first album, Strong Decision, and a compilation record, Rock N' Roll Beijing that included performances by The Compass, Cobra, Dou Wei's second band The Dreaming, and Gao Qi's Overload and The Breathing. Wang admits that he and his company receive 20 percent of revenues generated by his artists' record sales. "Things are okay now, I have a car," he said. His car and cellular phone show that, by Chinese standards, Wang is rolling in money, but when it comes time to produce an album, it's going to be his cash that will finance it. Tang Dynasty's manager Guo Dawei and Black Panther's Guo Chuanlin are in similar positions, forced to absorb many of the costs of marketing and producing their bands. Tang Dynasty's rehearsal room costs 150 yuan ($15) per day. "I pay half and the company pays half," said Guo Dawei. In U.S. dollars the price is almost pocket change, but in a country where a state employee makes only 500 yuan ($60) per month, expenses are roughly on a par with their Western counterparts. Unlike Western managers of big acts, who would have at least an assistant, Guo Dawei said he is almost solely responsible for arranging Tang Dynasty's concerts, which requires dealing with promoters and tedious public security officials. He also sets up video shoots and deals with the band's promotion and media relations. "Everything requires time and money," he said.

In contrast to what they faced in the early days of rock, things are looking up for China's rock musicians. When rock started in China almost 10 years ago, there was no money and seemingly no future. Now Chinese rockers have a chance. Rock is still blazing trails for other musical genres to follow. Up and coming is "city folk," acoustic music with more simple contemplations of China's place in the 1990s. Jazz and hip hop may follow. They are currently in their infancy, playing Western cover tunes the way Cui Jian once played Simon and Garfunkel.

There are still new frontiers for Chinese rock. Guo Chuanlin believes that concert tours will be possible sometime this year. Many bands, like Tang Dynasty, are gearing up for their next album. Beijing Television is producing a special presentation on the city's rock scene. There's even a rock music school, Midi, operating in the university district of northern Beijing. Despite official resistance to rock and other obstacles to acceptance, rock's audience is growing, with national record distribution and sold-out stadium concerts across China. Even if the situation weren't improving, none of the musicians seem concerned about losing their livelihood. "We're doing our own thing. We're looking for freedom in a place where there isn't much," Zhang Ju said. Gao Qi reiterated what many others had stated with his own feelings: "I could do other things. I could go into business. But I'm a musician, this is what I do. I write songs and make music. If I never get the chance to show others what I can do, I don't care." (Author's Note: On May 11, Tang Dynasty bass player Zhang Ju was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. The band plans to continue despite the devastating loss.)

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Wire magazine, September 1995.

Copyright © 1995 Steven Schwankert; reproduced with permission.