Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Jonathan Campbell
Kaiser Kuo from the band Tang Dynasty

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

A month before Nevermind, Black Panther, one of China's first rock bands, released its debut record in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The difference between the two records approximates the distance between the worlds that birthed the two acts. If 1991 was the year punk broke, China never got the memo. Or, more accurately, it wasn't in a position to process a memo of that nature.

Rock was still new to the Middle Kingdom in 1991 -- heck, music outside of the Eight Model Operas, some patriotic songs, and the barely-ten-years-old pop industry was still new. Cui Jian, who was already several years into his position as Chinese rock 'n' roll's Chairman of the Board, had introduced China to the new sound in 1986, when he unveiled a song called "Nothing to My Name" at a We-Are-the-World-esque variety show broadcast across the televisions of the nation. "Introduced", though, isn't quite right; "hit the nation upside the head with a sledgehammer" is more like it. With that song, a departure from the plethora of pop stars also on the bill, Chinese rock 'n' roll began. Suddenly, Cui and his newly recruited fellow rockers had something, and it had a new name: Yaogun ("yow-goon").

There are many reasons that the shock of Cui's song was so intense. There's the legacy of the previous four decades of Mao Zedong's rule, and particularly the chaos and destruction of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when, in an effort to cleanse the leadership and the nation of undesirable elements, universities were closed, culture was erased, and lives were ruined. On top of that was the nation that emerged after Mao's death, which abandoned the ideals of the Revolution upon which the individual could depend and began to be confronted by and entangled with the rest of the world. There was the message of the song, which, despite Cui's insistence that "Nothing" is just an old-fashioned love song, put to music the angst and confusion that would come to a head three years later. But the quick answer is that it was shocking as brand new rock 'n' roll has always been and always will be: Chuck Berry's duckwalk, Elvis's pelvis, Cobain's chaos.

As the shock of Tiananmen Square set in, a change came. The citizenry had discovered the lengths to which its government would go when challenged, while the authorities discovered a societal dissatisfaction on a level that was frightening. Betting that the citizenry would rather get rich than fight the power, the authorities allowed something resembling a free market. For the most part, they were right: The intellectual debate, cultural exploration, and optimism for the future that was vibrant through the mid- and late-'80s dried up as resources shifted to the earning of money. If folks like Cui Jian were confused and angst-ridden about their nation in the '80s, it would be hard to capture the extent to which they were set adrift by the capitalist mission now undertaken.

Cui, who released his real debut in early 1989 (he had released records not in the yaogun canon before then) and a follow-up in 1990, remained atop the rock heap as Black Panther's first album hit the streets, and does so to this day. But from the first days of the '90s, that heap expanded by leaps and bounds. Black Panther had first gotten together in 1987; four years later, they were scooped up by Taiwanese record label Rock Records, which would invest heavily in yaogun on the Mainland throughout the '90s. Drawing influence from both Bon Jovi and Wham! (who had performed in China in 1984 and left a strong impression among music fans of all stripes), Black Panther rocked differently from Cui Jian. While Cui incorporated folk, Afropop, and more, Black Panther and the other longhairs emerging in the early '90s played a straight-up, heavier rock, influenced by Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and more.

In 1991, bands like Black Panther, the Breathing, and Compass were regulars on the limited "scene": Parties and the rare stadium show, the former mainly confined to various Beijing venues (cafeterias, restaurants, parks, apartment building function rooms), the latter slowly spreading across the country. It would be some time before a real club-level circuit would emerge, so yaogun, for the most part, was confusingly confined to the extremes, deep underground or atop massive stadiums. In 1992, when Black Panther's album came out in China proper, it wasn't Rock Records' only release: The debut of prog-metal band Tang Dynasty and a compilation, China Fire, also came out. In contrast to Cobain and Co., those three releases, and much of the yaogun being produced at the time, presented rock for the stadium: You can see the lighters held aloft, the massive laser-light show, the forty-five-piece drum kit, the long hair blowing in the winds as a thousand fans pointed stageward. In short, China was producing, in 1991, music as far from Nirvana's stripped-down raw power as is possible. The difference between the world that grunge conquered two decades ago and the one that yaogun slowly seeped through is the difference between a world living with rock and one that had no idea what to do with it.


Guitarist Kou Zhengyu, who plays in two of today's heaviest metal bands -- Suffocated and Spring and Autumn -- told an interviewer that Chinese rock 'n' roll started with two mistakes. The first was that everyone listened to metal. The second was that everyone listened to grunge. The point here isn't whether grunge or metal put China on the wrong path; Kou is right to worry about the lack of a range of inputs. The point is that grunge was everywhere, and like their overseas counterparts, most bands that began playing in the mid-'90s started with "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

But "Smells Like Teen Spirit", like all Western rock 'n' roll, didn't come to the young rockers of the '90s so much as they found their way to it. Access to rock was extremely limited: There were the overseas visitors who brought tapes and knowledge, then a scattered few diplomats and journalists in the late '70s and a few students in the '80s. But by 1995, the demographic grew to the point where an English-language magazine emerged in Beijing to point them toward each other and the goings-on around town.

Meanwhile, tapes and CDs marked for the trash started making their way far beyond the Chinese dumps for which they had initially been destined. Dakou ("dah-koh"), or cut-out, albums were the product that major labels couldn't sell back home and had shipped off as garbage. Shops opened around China stocking the unwanted music of the Western world, and Chinese rock benefited from the collection. But there was a problem with both of these sources: They skipped context. Early rock fans in China were simultaneously prisoners of a mixtape nightmare and the recipients of a rock 'n' roll dream come true: A ton of new and exciting music, but a soundtrack with little in the way of liner notes.

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