The Beijing Beat

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.

UTNE
UTNE
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