A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
Thing is, I’m not convinced that the Chinese music I have – or will have – should be filed in and amongst the other piles. It would get eaten up in there, never to see the light of day again. But I’m also convinced that only if yaogun artists were distributed amongst the proverbial piles in the rock world’s library, would recognition be possible that many – not all, but some – yaogunners are playing international quality rock and roll music. Because there is nothing more patronizing to yaogun, which is still today finding its bearings, than being completely uncritical. That attitude, coupled with hype, is downright disingenuous and produces nothing but mediocrity and inflated egos.
And that’s one thing this book is for: To show the world that yaogun is special enough and can command the respect to earn its own section, while also being good enough and worthy of sharing space with the rest.
I’ve come to learn that yaogun is as much about the highs as it is about lows that descend to depths unimaginable. Just underneath the façade of the Midi Festival – which has weathered storms metaphoric and meteorological – are layers of breakdowns threatening an implosion from within. One doesn’t say this merely to burst a bubble, because the bubble reinflates; yaogun soldiers on and always has. One says this to point out the simple fact that yaogun is hardly ever just what it seems.
Much of this book delves into the steps with which yaogun’s thousand-mile journey began, and how it was that the first generation was coaxed into making them. Its roots lie in the late seventies, when the existence of people, culture, phenomena outside China was barely recognized by the Chinese, except inasmuch as it exemplified China’s superiority. In order to fully explain how yaogun became yaogun in its current form, we need to uncover the foundations upon which the first generation of musicians, venues, audience and scene were built – whether or not current rockers choose to acknowledge it, or overcome the short-term memory that tends to define a large swath of the population both inside and outside of the scene. Those foundations were carved out of a political and social situation that seemed to preclude the possibility of anything different, let alone something imported.
Rock and Roll to Yaogun in the New China
In the Beginning, goes the general story, a twenty-four year old named Cui Jian sang a song. It was 1986 when he got up onstage dressed something like a normal person – not like the pop stars with whom he shared the stage – and sang that he, like so many of those watching, had nothing to his name. I was about to say that his now-legendary song, “Nothing to My Name” wasn’t created in a vacuum, but the truth is it pretty much was. “Real rock ’n’ roll should come from the underground, but China didn’t have one,” Cui told a reporter twenty years after he first performed the song. “ ‘Nothing to My Name’ just appeared out of nowhere.”
There was, at the time, a large cultural void preventing rock from taking off, as the pop singer turned producer Wang Di observed: “From the first time I heard rock, I knew that it had nothing to do with our culture.” Thus, to many people it did, in fact, come out of nowhere, and for many people it still doesn’t resonate. Which is why, to get the real story, we need to take a couple of steps even further back – back before “Nothing,” when there was, well, Nothing.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and ended ten years later upon the death of Mao Zedong. It was a decade marked by destruction and chaos when the nation, under Mao’s direction and the auspices of “class struggle,” became hell-bent on destroying any vestiges of the past to make way for a Revolutionary future. In its wake, there were two kinds of “Nothing.” There was the plain-old literal Nothing, in terms of musical options to hear and play, but, even more significantly, there was the Nothing about which Cui sang: the disillusionment and disorientation that so many Chinese felt as their society emerged from Maoism.
The years following the death of Chairman Mao – who was once known as the “Sun in the Hearts” of the Chinese people and who I have heard called, with convincing argument, China’s first punk – were defined by a particular and intense confusion. Everything that the Chinese had been raised to believe about their country and their society was being re-examined in the frenzy that was the new policy of ‘Reform and Opening’. Society, according to the Party Line, was supposed to be the combination of the efforts of the collective, but some people now saw an out-of-control rush to a me-first mentality. It was these citizens who would be the first to hear and process all that rock music had to offer and, eventually, create a Thing – a kind of music, yes, but also more – called yaogun.
If Western rock blew the minds of young Chinese in the early eighties, Cui’s song twisted heads clear off bodies and drop-kicked them across time and space. Western music was one thing, but with “Nothing to My Name” the lyrics were decipherable, not to mention completely sympathetic to so much of the nation’s state of mind. Cui’s voice was different, too: Instead of either shouting out the slogans of the day like a good comrade or whispering sweet nothings like the pop singers at the time, Cui’s groan carried the aches, tensions and restlessness of a lost generation.
The casual follower of yaogun will have heard of the Legend of Cui, and how one night in 1986 he changed everything. But in the internet age it is all too easy to underestimate the significance of such an event. After all, Now is happening; Then is done.
But then you discover Then, and find that Now isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The emergence of rock and roll defined the way in which yaogun developed, and continues to develop. Because there was no way that rock in China could be like rock in America or England or Russia or Japan – not, that is, until the new millennium, when societal and technological developments truly freed Chinese citizens from constraints that may not have been physically preventing contact with and absorption of foreign culture, but might as well have been.
While yaogun’s later period is about how the music, the fans, the musicians and the scene in general developed alongside that of the West, its early period was marked by music finding its way through the country against unimaginable odds. Forget the struggle, say, over which Beatles album to start with; rockers had to figure out who, or what, the Beatles were. When he was sixteen, Zhang Fan fell in love with “Norwegian Wood.” “It sounded like a fairy tale,” said the baby-faced head of the Midi Music School and Festival – so much so that it inspired him to find out more about the artist. “So I looked up the word [Beatles] in the dictionary, but it wasn’t in there.” Zhang, and others across the country like him, eventually got together to educate each other; thus did a homegrown understanding of rock emerge almost completely isolated from its source.
Yaogun in the twenty-first century is similar to many other stories of contemporary China in that it is defined as much by its links to and commonality with the rest of the world as it is by an isolation that alternates between unintentional and self-imposed. It’s exciting in a way that even the best music can’t be, because of the odds.
Iggy Pop and the Stooges, wrote rock critic Lester Bangs in 1970, were “probably the first name group to actually form before they even knew how to play.” This is the essence of rock and roll, he continues, and, one is quick to add, of yaogun. “Rock is mainly about beginnings,” he said, and:
[A]sserting yourself way before you know what the fuck you’re doing… Rock is basically an adolescent music, reflecting the rhythms, concerns and aspirations of a very specialised age group… [E]verybody else seems either too sophisticated at the outset or hopelessly poisoned by the effects of big ideas on little minds. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The Stooges were certainly not the last name band to form before they knew how to play. It has happened and continues to occur in the Middle Kingdom with the kind of regularity and results that are both extremely impressive and monumentally depressing.
Yaogun is especially about beginnings: The beginnings that laid the path for the rest of the story. The best yaogun acts have been blessed with Bangs’ “little knowledge.” With little more than shards of information and a lot of “concerns and aspirations” musical and social, these are some of the bands that, over the years, have kept the yaogun flame from not, to borrow a phrase, fading away. Not necessarily the most (in)famous of rock bands to emerge over the past twenty-odd years, they are bands whose stories tell us about what it is, and was, like to rock China and, just as important, about how China was, and is still, rocking.
All the clichés about this country are true: old/new, communist/capitalist, order/chaos, rural/urban, rich/poor and all the rest. Take your pick of the pastiche imagery that abounds across the country. Gleaming skyscrapers full of the new middle and upper class white-collar big spenders flanked by filthy shantytowns home to the disheveled and destitute working millions that build the New China but can’t quite seem to join it. Donkey-drawn carts hauling the bricks that are all that remains of the neighborhoods paved over to make way for the latest urban improvement battling shiny new SUVs through crowded intersections. Folding tables set up roadside, where hearty men gather to guzzle the local firewater at pennies per liter while Chivas is chugged by the several-hundred-dollar bottle just down the road in dance clubs as neon-, laser- and iniquity-filled as their Western counterparts. The thousands of years of history slowly disappearing in the nation-wide march to an uber-modernity of no particular kind. An economy kept straight by the State but yet wilder than any West ever imagined. There is more. Much more.
How phenomena of the contemporary world have entered, worked their way through and emerged from the culture of the Middle Kingdom is the story of the nation’s last three decades. These were decades which were defined by an emergence from the isolation of the meta-if-not-completely-physical Great Wall, which, save for a few not-so-minor hiccups, tended, over the centuries, to keep out the barbarians and their ideas, and their stuff. But since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the dawn of the new New China, China’s cities have become places that, in many ways, would not be completely unfamiliar to your average barbarian. What with the concept of borders becoming irrelevant and all, China’s contemporary society increasingly reveals phenomena familiar to residents of Beijing and Boise alike.
Like, say, rock and roll music.