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

100 Flowers

The title of this column comes from a Chinese idiom: 百花齐放 (bai hua qi fang; ‘let one hundred flowers bloom’), a platitude used to promote unfettered artistic expression. It was most infamously invoked by Mao Zedong in the Summer of 1957, when he briefly invited Chinese intellectuals to constructively criticize the Communist regime’s cultural program. Within weeks, Mao reversed his position and cracked down on those who had dared to participate. For decades to follow, the only culture was the Party culture, a brand of propagandist kitsch of the kind to which Clement Greenberg refers when he writes: “the main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too ‘innocent,’ that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end.”

These days, Chinese kitsch takes many different forms — including Cui Jian covers on American Idol knockoff shows — as it circulates in the much larger sphere of advanced capitalism’s global culture industry. Likewise, today’s musical underground finds itself more than ever part of a global movement, yet also more than ever confronted with the question: “What is Chinese?”

In the next few articles, I’ll drill down into the experiences of Yan Jun, Yang Haisong, and Li Jianhong, who all began their musical lives in the 90s and had an active role in birthing the current underground. From there, I’ll profile key members of today’s avant-garde, musicians who were in diapers or still unborn at the time of Cui Jian’s 1986 performance and who came up in a China foreign to their forerunners. These were the first internet natives and as such never needed to sift through stacks of damaged cassettes to discover new music (that is, until China got its first boutique tape labels — the topic of another future article). They are derided by armchair critics and old scene heads as “pampered” and overly Westernized relative to their local predecessors, but their reality is much more complex. On one hand, they operate in a post-national terrain, drawing tangential lineages of influence with a freedom to access information that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier. On the other, they are defining an entire generation of Chinese youth, fielding ravenous corporate demand for access to the suddenly emergent demographic of upper-middle-class Chinese 20-somethings (in a word: hipsters).

The goal of this column is to explore China’s underground music scene as a postmodern pastiche of forms, born relatively recently into a vacuum and developed by a specific set of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural conditions into a unique, multi-headed organism. In articulating the contingencies of the contemporary Chinese musical avant-garde — and critiquing the very concept of an ‘avant-garde’ in this context — we arrive at a parallax view of Chinese society from the perspective of its most peripheral negotiators. The 100 flowers bloom themselves.

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