100 Flowers: Introduction The genesis of underground Chinese music, 1986-1999

100 Flowers is a roots-level view of the of the contemporary Chinese musical underground. The aim of this column is to articulate the contingencies of the Chinese scene and arrive at a parallax view of Chinese society from the perspective of its most peripheral negotiators. Email the author here.

This is the beginning. The man in the video above is Cui Jian (pr. tsway jyen), ‘Old Cui,’ the axeman said to have single-handedly created Chinese rock ‘n’ roll. As China’s political climate thawed in the economic opening of the post-Mao 1980s, its government slowly warmed to the possibility of adapting homegrown pop music to the task of normalizing Chinese culture internationally. Old Cui, with a background in State orchestral ensembles and the fledgling mainland Chinese pop tradition, was one of over 100 stars called on in May 1986 to participate in a “We Are the World”-style charity jam to be broadcast from Beijing’s Worker’s Stadium. Cui had a few token lines in the main track, but begged the producers for the opportunity to perform a solo song. The result was “一无所有” (a Chinese idiom meaning ‘owning nothing at all,’ translated in the Cui Jian context as “Nothing To My Name”). Cui’s performance that night reached countless impressionable Chinese kids and punched their brains the way Elvis did when he swung his pelvis toward America’s collective boob-tube-facing youth 30 years prior. It was China’s Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, and it instantaneously catapulted the nation’s musical history into the 20th century.

Or so the legend goes. Moving beyond the hyperbole that attends such foundation myths, it’s true that before Cui Jian there was practically nothing coming out of mainland China besides (Communist) Party anthems and syrupy, censored pop mimicking contemporaneous radio jams from the more outward-facing satellites of Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a dire scarcity of ‘alternative’ music of any kind and virtually no record store infrastructure to peddle foreign music. So for a while there, Old Cui was the underground.

The next decade saw the dust settle into local varieties of hair metal, arena rock, and folk — though these were strains forged in the crucible of a turbulently changing China. Cui Jian, along with metal gods Tang Dynasty and classically-trained, all-female rock band Cobra, toured Germany in 1993 as ‘The Chinese Avant-Garde.’ And they were. To extend an essentially militaristic metaphor, they were the first of their kind, an advance guard charting the way for a still-forming army of alternative Chinese musicians. These early leading lights, along with Bon Jovi-worshipping Black Panther and unhinged proto-punks Mayday, were rounded up in a 1995 Wire article in which one expat chronicles the musical avant-garde of the time as a raucous frontier of daytime public fairs and “underground and unadvertised parties.” Denizens of the underground met up in friends’ apartments and abandoned cafeterias to see bands eke out sets on combustible PAs and hear DJ sets of illicit grunge and metal cassettes bought from black market stalls. For most, there was no other way to experience off-radio music.

While much of the music from this era sounds heavily derivative to outside ears, some of it is so touched with the spirit and consuming energy of the moment, so haphazardly and oddly constructed, that it holds its own on the leveled playing field of unashamedly weird vanguard music. One standout here is Mayday. The song in the video above is their hit, “Garbage Dump,” which sounds like a slowed-down, drawn-out Minutemen riff overlaid with incongruous metal guitar fiddling and some kind of no-wave jerk pounding the keyboard with his forehead. The band’s key member is vocalist-guitarist He Yong, an individual rightfully considered China’s first punk. While many of the early rockers, including Cui Jian, flirted with political activism, He Yong was one of the few anarchistic enough to openly goad the authorities in his performances. He had the stones to perform “Garbage Dump” live in Tiananmen Square during the protests of 1989, caterwauling the lyrics “People are just like worms/ Fighting and grabbing/ What they eat is conscience/ What they shit are thoughts” to the hyped crowd of student activists. This performance was given weeks before the infamous crackdown that came on June 4 of that year. As Jon Campbell reports in Red Rock, his book on the early Chinese scene: “after the authorities accused [Mayday] of involvement in ‘counterrevolutionary turmoil,’ He Yong headed for the countryside… He believed that all Chinese had blood on their hands — himself included — and saw a bleak future ahead.”

It was at this point that the early underground suffered a radical epistemological break, a generation gap with no analogue anywhere outside of mainland China. Tiananmen was a harsh reminder that there was, in fact, a red line that could not be crossed and a government willing to use military violence to suppress the hardest peddlers of soft power. “I went to the Square every day,” recounted early metalhead Gao Qi six years after the fact. “When June 4 happened, we were absolutely shocked. But our parents really weren’t that surprised. They’d seen this kind of thing happen before.”

He Yong would go on to light himself on fire and spend time in a mental institution. Over the course of the 1990s, many of his generation would succumb to addiction, some getting prison time and others moving to southwest China to be further away from the government’s seat of power and closer to the ‘golden triangle,’ a region of Southeast Asia known for large-scale heroin and opium production. Others would get day jobs. Cui Jian, after years of flirting with the red line, eventually abandoned politics to focus on the apolitical side of his thriving brand.

Most Read