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.

Da Kou Generation: The Beijing New Sound

In 1992, Chairman Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping officially retired from politics, but not before instituting a radical program of economic reform and allegedly replacing the Party line with a new slogan: “To get rich is glorious.” Thus, he kickstarted China’s exponential GDP growth curve and implanted a culture that is scrambling the nation’s roots to this day.

The musical underground, too, was shaken up by the nation’s great leap toward the new millennium. While the more successful members of the erstwhile avant-garde soldiered on, some snaring major label deals and massive domestic followings, a younger generation dubbed Beijing New Sound took the reins from their predecessors and carved an underground of their own. These bands picked up shards of grunge, metal, and punk left behind by the first wave and welded them together in new ways, with more references to the world outside.

The mid-to-late 90s saw a huge influx of Western music in the form of 打口 (da kou): surplus cassettes and CDs with chunks cut out, presumably destined for third-world dumps. These articles of capitalist excess were sloughed off by Western labels as a cost-cutting measure, “gashed with a saw to prevent resale.” They nonetheless spawned a thriving black market in China, prompting Deng-era entrepreneur types to stock Nirvana, Metallica, The Cure, Joy Division, and other Western alt staples in unsorted piles nationwide.

On the domestic front, China got its first big-indie label in Modern Sky Records, whose founder Shen Lihui cut his teeth plumbing the depths of the Beijing New Sound and dredging the results up in comps, zines, and showcases at his club, the No. 17 Bar. More and more venues sprung up in Beijing, bringing live music culture from secret private parties to prime position at the heart of the city’s nightlife. The newly available space for capitalization at the margins of Chinese culture allowed for the development of a more robust music industry infrastructure and for canny businessmen to introduce the rumblings of the Beijing underground to a national audience. In December 1999, Modern Sky started pushing out a large-format magazine + CD/cassette compilation package in a monthly edition of 30,000. Earlier that year, music critics Ou Ning and Yan Jun published the conceptual photo essay-cum-long-form prose poem Beijing New Sound, giving a name to the zeitgeist and canonizing the prime movers of the “da kou generation.”

This was the era when Chinese punk came into its own. Where the proto-punks of the first generation responded to perceived societal ills with righteous indignation and ideological grandstanding, the new legions mustered only apathy. A signal release was 1999’s Bored Contingent, a four-way-split featuring first-wave punks Brain Failure, 69, Anarchy Jerks, and Reflector. For these bands, ‘anarchy’ manifested in its purest form: not an anti-government directive, but a nihilistic resignation to forces beyond hope of change. As Shen Yue, the Anarchy Jerks front man, said at the time of release: “We have no freedom of speech, so our way to rebel is to not care, and just do what we like to do.” The ethos of the Bored Contingent would be taken up by generations of Beijing punks to come — most notably Joyside, a massively influential band formed in Beijing in 2001. The title of Joyside’s first album, Drunk is Beautiful, succinctly captures the band’s entire raison d’être and that of myriad young punks sloshing through sets in China’s dive bars to this day.

At this time, the most acerbic social criticisms and esoteric sonic experiments — the shifted core of the avant-garde — came from a smaller subsection of the Beijing New Sound. While the Bored Contingent was basically rehashing well-worn forms of Oi and pop-punk, bands such as NO and The Fly were finding ways to turn Chinese musical culture — both traditional and post-Cui Jian — on its head. Dutch cultural theorist Jeroen de Kloet describes a 1997 encounter with NO’s mastermind, Zuoxiao Zuzhou:

He starts playing the guzheng [a traditional Chinese zither], this time in the familiar way. Now I recognize the peaceful sound, a sound used by classical musicians and also by other rockers in Beijing such as Cui Jian and Wang Yong. “You know, I can play the instrument in a classical way, like they do. But what’s the point? It makes no sense!” Then he puts a pair of scissors between the strings and starts to pull them more violently. The sound transforms; gone is the myth of the peaceful, deep Chinese traditional culture. What remains is a disturbing noise in which anger competes with confusion.

Zuoxiao Zuzhou got his start in the music world slinging da kou cassettes on the streets of Shanghai. He moved to Beijing in 1993 and started his band alongside a career as a visual artist, which is his main hat today. Zuzhou, like the members of the Bored Contingent, eschews political themes in his work. “I don’t know anything about politics, don’t want to either, it hypnotizes me,” Zuzhou told music writer Wang Ge in 2010.

Rather, Zuzhou and Feng Jiangzhou, lead singer of The Fly, craft surrealist parables of an alienating postmodern China, a failed Marxist state in the thrall of grotesque capitalism. “I am disgusted by Marxism. In my opinion, it has cheated me,” Zuzhou tells de Kloet. In the song “Let Me See the Doctor Once More,” he sardonically laments his misplaced roots: “Let me see you once more, doctor/ I want to recover my/ Left thigh, left rib, left hand, left lung, and my right-wing dad.” For Feng Jiangzhou, the site of contention is the body, individual sexuality. His lyrical landscapes recall the fetid sublimity of transgressive author Georges Bataille, as in the song “Nirvana” when he sings: “Under my bottom shines the first ray of sun/ I want to bring with me this entire hut of the fragrance of shit/ I am in Nirvana.” Rather than taking aim at the political institution, Jiangzhou’s avant-garde arises in opposition to Chinese kitsch and entrenched forms of cultural hypocrisy:

I choose sex as the subject matter… as a reaction to the pop music of China. The government seems to if not encourage at least condone pop music… I find pop music so superficial, but it represents its own vulgar aesthetics. It would be very difficult for me to write very sophisticated lyrics as its critique. The only way to do so is to find another subject matter which could be as vulgar for the general people, and sex seems to be very appropriate to counter Chinese pop music.

The musical avant-garde of NO and The Fly dissipated as each band’s leader shifted their focus to the larger and more lucrative platform of the Chinese art world. Zuoxiao Zuzhou went on to release a CD with a 500 RMB (~$80) sticker price in a museum, score soundtracks for some of China’s biggest indie filmmakers, and collaborate with Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist. Feng Jiangzhou dipped heavily into electronic music in the 2000s, eventually emerging on the other end of the wormhole a respected multimedia artist. While neither have been active on the penniless underground shit-bar live music circuit for years, they led the way for the subsequent avant-gardes that would take the gauntlet in the 21st century.

Just as the government was largely irrelevant to the Bored Contingent, NO, and The Fly, so were these bands mostly invisible to the government. Aside from sliding lyrics by State censors to get a barcode for domestic release or running a setlist by a local wonk to get the stamp to play a large-scale music festival on government-owned land, today’s underground musicians are largely free to develop rudderless in the backwater culture of a blithely globalizing China. Some view this situation with a quiet despair. Such is the attitude of Yang Haisong, front man of Beijing post-punk godfathers P.K.14 and one of the country’s most active proponents of DIY music culture. As he’s quoted in Red Rock: “Because the government doesn’t care about us, we aren’t forbidden from playing. Maybe we’re not dangerous. It’s sad.”

Others, such as music critic, label runner, and internationally renowned sound artist Yan Jun, regard the situation with the anarchic abandon of a true avant-garde soldier. “Chinese people don’t know the best music system,” he told a New York Times reporter in 2007. “There are no rules. No teacher. I can use this, I can use that — that’s all interesting. In the West everything was created already. But here we don’t know that.”

Still others, such as free-improv guitarist Li Jianhong, developed in sync with other undergrounds, drawing more from artistic analogues in Japan and the West than his domestic situation. Jianhong and others of his ilk — such as the semi-mystical collective of harsh noise acolytes grouped under the NOJIJI label — make music born of psychedelic introspection and personal experimentation, music that aims to jar the deep folds of the gray matter rather than exert a bludgeoning force on the structures of the outside world.

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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