Photo: Cover of Tang Dynasty Band: Tang Dynasty

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

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 duck walk, 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.

The liner notes that existed were put together from a variety of sources. In the ’80s, translated English books on American culture made their way into China, and language-learning textbooks often had cultural content. And the rock critic eventually emerged. Hao Fang, a philosophy professor turned music critic, is truly one of the heroes of yaogun, despite never having played or sung a single note (and, one is quick to add, despite being a critic). Like the original rockers — and unlike many contemporary fans, musicians and critics — Hao saw and sees still rock as more than simply a kind of music. Certainly, his academic background contributed to this outlook, but so did his grounding in the traditions of the Revolution that was supposed to be ongoing.

Communists, to be sure, don’t tend to identify with rock ‘n’ roll — they tend to see it as the kind of sugar-coated bullet that kills revolutions — but they do identify with revolution. Brian Eno once said that the difference between the Commies and “us” is that the Commies truly believe in the power of art to change the world. It’s been a long time since those of us in rock ‘n’ roll’s homeland believed in that power, so Hao Fang’s outlook might seem trite, or even naïve, but that doesn’t change the intensity with which he believed (and believes) in it.

And he wasn’t alone. Back in the ’80s, when he and his posse discovered rock ‘n’ roll, they did so via recordings and writings. “We looked into the history of rock,” Hao told me, “and, to be honest, we envied [it]. The atmosphere in China in the ’80s resembled, to us, the US of the ’60s: A few people in the cultural realm thought they could change the world.” More than that, they understood that it was their job to do so. That philosophy dates back to 1942, when the Chinese Communists, still guerrillas fighting a civil war that they were seven years from winning, gathered to talk about the role of art and culture in the Revolution. Art’s goal, they said, was to “awaken and arouse the popular masses, urging them on to unity and struggle and to take part in transforming their own environment.” The best yaogunners did just that, to the dismay of the authorities trying to uphold that standard. And what those rockers did with music, Hao Fang did with ink.

Influenced deeply by the events of 1989, Hao turned to writing about music, where he felt he could raise the bar on both rock writing and yaogun. His first two books looked at pop’s role in culture (Connect Your Soul to My Line: Pop Music in Popular Culture) and the social and cultural significance of rock ‘n’ roll (The Wild Blooming of Wounded Flowers: Rock’s Bondage and Struggle). All along, though, he was thinking of Kurt Cobain.

He was also thinking of the poet Hai Zi, an obscure poet who became somewhat less so after lying across some train tracks near Beijing. “I heard the same spirit in Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and music. The loneliness, the depression and the things about society that he wasn’t satisfied with.” Hao Fang was intrigued by Cobain and, he says that he “always wanted to write about him.” When Hao wrote about him, he realized just how widely Cobain’s shadow fell. “I wasn’t setting out to write an encyclopedia,” he said. He wound up writing a Bible.

It’s not that Cobain was unknown before Hao’s 1997 book on him, Radiant Nirvana, appeared: Word of his suicide and music had spread among the still-small and tight-knit community of rockers. In 1995, the first memorial gig was held in Cobain’s honor in Beijing, and is a tradition that continues to this day. In 1997, a Cobain memorial gig in central Wuhan galvanized the community there and, within years, the sleepy city became one of the most important yaogun cities as a hotbed of punk and rock.

But when Radiant Nirvana came out, it had the kind of effect upon the rock community that Cui Jian’s first record did: It woke a lot of people up. Feelings that so many kids couldn’t express, acknowledge, or even sense suddenly became crystal clear. They found, in Cobain, someone out there who knew what they were going through. There was the middle school principal who scolded Hao Fang after a student named his intramural basketball team “Rape Me”, but there was more: The letters that Hao got from his readers, many of whom had not come to his book because of any interest in rock ‘n’ roll, blew his mind.

There are many he couldn’t bear to finish, letters that insisted he’d been writing about them, about their angst and depression, not about Cobain. The books kids brought to him to sign were worn down to shreds; they saw it, says Hao, as “an important weapon”. The book’s effect, in many ways, went far beyond the rock world, demonstrating that there was a large number of young Chinese lost in the new developments around them. But it also had a serious role in the evolution of yaogun.

“Kurt Cobain allowed [young people] to realize that punk and alternative is not only a choice of music, but a way of life as well,” Hao Fang said. His fellow critic, Yan Jun, took things one step further: “The whole underground spirit represented by Nirvana became reality” in the wake of the release of Radiant Nirvana. By then, Yan continued, “explaining to others ‘we are an underground band’ already seemed very respectable.” In its wake came a ton of new bands eschewing the more technical and production-heavy stadium rock of their elders, and an underground culture spread through the yaogun world. “Metal was for superstars”” said Gao Jingxiong, co-founder of Underbaby, a band that helped to kickstart the punk movement. “Punk was for normal people.” Punk and alternative music, and the “underground” in general, rose up in opposition to the state of yaogun in the mid-’90s, when the superstars were selling millions and were seen as deserters. Punk band 69 put it best in their song “Rock and Roll with Chinese Characteristics”: “Use rock and roll to sell your conscience / Turn anger into cash…Use long hair to cover up the emptiness / Use music to deceive the truth.”

Suddenly, the nation was a much different sounding one than that which birthed Black Panther, who became, for all intents and purposes, a pop group. Compilations abounded beginning in the mid-’90s, as those with sensitive ears rushed to record the new sounds. No longer was Magic Stone (Rock Records’ yaogun operation) the only player: Imprints Modern Sky and Scream both inspired and survived on the emerging alternative music, as did other similar one-man record labels. Meanwhile, in Tree Village, a dusty no-frills neighbourhood far outside of Beijing, a large number of bands wearing the underground badge with pride found a home.

By 1998, Beijing’s punk scene attracted international attention, and culminated with the release, in 1999, of a double album by the Boredom Brigade, a posse of the scene’s four best bands. That same year, Rage Against the Machine-esque Thin Man became the first truly “underground” band to break through when its Scream Records release moved tens of thousands of units. All the while, Cobain watched from the walls of bedrooms, rehearsal spaces, record stores, and live venues in cities around the country, as Nirvana Unplugged emanated from speakers far and wide.

Most obviously, Nirvana’s legacy remains in the scraggly figure of Xie Tianxiao (aka XTX), Cobain incarnate, even if his music is these days moving away from the grunge with which it began. A highlight of Xie’s career, and of yaogun in general, is Cold-Blooded Animal’s self-titled release from 2000. But what’s interesting about the current situation is how it echoes the one from which Black Panther emerged. Once again, context is missing. “Underground”, “indie”, and “punk” are words thrown about with the kind of abandon emblematic of the world in which yaogun now lives. China, and yaogun, have come a long way, but yet again, whether they recognize it or not, both could surely use another 1991.

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This article was originally published on 16 October 2011.