100 Flowers: Yan Jun The godfather of Chinese experimental music

Paradise Found, Paradise Lost: Beijing Rock in the Early 00s

Yan titled his 1998 fanzine Sub Jam: “Sub is related to sub-culture and something just emerging; Jam, of course, is about [making] some noise together.” This name and its embedded meanings would define his creative output for the next 15 years. When Yan first visited the capital in 1997 to write his book Beijing New Sound, he was already well-enough known to be sought out by key members of the underground rock scene, including Modern Sky label founder Shen Lihui, No’s Zuoxiao Zuzhou, and veteran rock critic Hao Fang. Yan moved permanently in 1999, immediately establishing a role as the scene’s resident philosopher. He wrote prolifically, romanticizing the solidarity and spartan living conditions in Tree Village and raising its protagonists — bands like No, Tongue, and The Fly — to the quasi-mythic status of Buddhist demon gods who alternately challenged and ignored the world above: “Devil Kings took their courage to resist the gods and assembled in the underground, but it was not as simple as a struggle for their lost paradise – clearly the main reason was that they were all very fierce, had a staunch attitude, dangerous thoughts and fresh music.”

The Beijing underground rockers at this time rejected the mainstream labels their predecessors had embraced, but there wasn’t a strong framework for DIY self-releases as an alternative. Modern Sky and the metal-focused Scream Records were formed in the late 1990s by musicians-turned-businessmen, insider members of the scene, but still operated according to old industry standards. Modern Sky in particular gained a reputation for focusing on quantity over quality, funding only the mixing and mastering part of the recording process and reneging on word-of-mouth deals if album sales didn’t meet expectations. Yan was in the middle of the struggle to maintain independence and underground feeling while facing the practical problem of how to record and distribute music from the scene: “Nobody knew how to bring this underground rock to the public. And these bands, they also didn’t know; they were just waiting… waiting for Scream Records, waiting for Shen Lihui, waiting for some unknown money, some unknown company.”

Yan entered this void in 2000, publishing a book of his collected writings and a compilation featuring Zuoxiao Zuzhou, Tongue, his hometown friend Wang Fan, and others under the name Noises Inside (内心的噪音). This was Subjam 001. Yan recycled his 1998 zine’s title, giving his new label the Chinese name Tie Tuo (铁托): “iron supporter,” diehard, a name that the members of the Tree Village community used to identify fellow insiders.

Over the next few years, Yan Jun grew to become the biggest DIY promoter of underground music in Beijing. He put out Subjam releases for Wang Fan, Tongue, early Beijing punks Brain Failure, and Nanjing post-punk transplants PK14, who by then had moved into Tree Village. He organized Chinese tours for kindred spirits within the Japanese avant-garde like Ōtomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M, and curated shows at various dive bars across the city like Happiness Palace (开心乐园) in Beijing’s university district and River Bar in the embassy district of Sanlitun. The scene around River Bar was the last bastion of the unified underground scene that had brought Yan to Beijing and inspired him to start Subjam in the first place. “[River Bar] was a family, the last illusion of our life. We called that utopia… Family every day, birthday party every day, everybody loving each other every day. It’s too heavy. It’s not possible to [maintain] this as real life… it had to break.”

In April 2003, the SARS epidemic that had spread across eastern China was finally acknowledged in the Beijing media, effectively freezing domestic travel and nightlife activity. One month before, President Jiang Zemin — a man who rose to power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protests and pushed Deng’s plan of economic reform into the red — retired, handing the Presidency to Hu Jintao and the Premiership to Wen Jiabao, known for his suspiciously ostentatious public displays of emotion: “It was a different time. No more Jiang Zemin, no more big, bad guy, but a nice guy [Wen Jiabao], who knows how to cry. So this crying leader changed the simple mind of rockers… Everybody thought, ‘There’s nothing to fight with.’ This was a big problem.”

Mainstream media had started to pick up on the new sound from Beijing. Tongue and prog-metal group Yaksa were featured on the cover of prominent magazine Popular Music (通俗歌曲), leading to in-fights within the Tree Village tie tuo contingent. Bands started asking for large guarantees, half of their members desperate to become financially successful stars and the other half maintaining a ‘Fuck you, we’re rockers’ attitude. “For me, this was the year of the death of underground rock, and the end of my post-teenage [years],” Yan laments. At the 2003 MIDI Music Festival in Beijing, after a gross display in which visiting Japanese band Brahman was pelted with garbage by young Chinese nationalists, Yan Jun realized his dream was over. “The dream was that rock ‘n’ roll is a line [we draw], a weapon. We [draw] this line to escape from that society, escape from all the ugly things, but one day, we realize there’s nothing pure.”

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