The Beijing Beat

Chinese rock arrives

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In her 1995 book about culture on the Chinese mainland, China Pop (The New Press, $15), journalist Jianying Zha contrasts the dramatic and exhilarating fall of European communism with 'a slow, soft, and messy meltdown of the old structure' in China. The result is 'an impure, junky, hybrid quality in nearly all spheres of Chinese life.' Aging authoritarians remain in power yet allow all sorts of entrepreneurial energy to express itself; cynicism and idealism mingle as onetime Red Guards get rich in stocks and bonds while dissidents languish in jail.

For Chinese rock 'n' rollers, this hybrid time is both a blessing and a burden. As the Hong Kong-based newsmagazine Asiaweek (May 19, 1995) reports, high-profile Chinese bands like Tang Dynasty are making it big on Hong Kong and Taiwan record labels while the Beijing government remains skittish about allowing large concerts (the Culture Ministry hasn't approved an arena show in Beijing since 1993). Even established groups like the all-female Cobra barely make ends meet playing in tiny clubs and karaoke bars.

This mix of opportunity, adversity, and social complexity has helped mainland bands create some fascinating music, and it's having an impact in non-mainland Chinese communities from Hong Kong to Singapore. In these places, where bouncy, treacly pop music rules the airwaves, the hard-rock edge of the mainlanders is bringing audiences to their feet. And it's not like Beijing rockers are Aerosmith clones; in a search for an authentically Chinese rock sound, Tang Dynasty has incorporated Beijing Opera instruments, and the guitar-trashing punk star He Yong has performed alongside his father, a master of the traditional three-stringed sanxian lute.

While most bands avoid direct political protest (more out of boredom with ideology than fear of repression), rockers find indirect ways to comment. Tang Dynasty does an irreverent heavy-metal version of the Communist anthem, the Internationale. China's first rock star Cui Jian, who brought down the house at a tepid, officially sponsored pop show in 1986 by appearing in ripped army fatigues and making like an angrier Springsteen, continues to write cleverly ambiguous songs that urge young Chinese to think and act for themselves.