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This is a personal blog where I catalog images that I come across, and sometimes speak on the things in the public space I feel compelled to talk about. My general text content focus will be on the intersection of ideas and politics, with a special focus on global security. You can also find me at the sites above.
[I happen to really like basketball and independent/underground hip-hop.]
The long winter is over, the smog has relented, for a few days at least, and now it’s festival season in Beijing. Large crowds are taking advantage of the May 1st holiday sun to see the Midi and Strawberry music festivals, both held far out on the outskirts. Home-grown acts share the stage with international guests; an opening night saw a Chinese punk band, New Pants, which was formed in 1996, warm up for Scottish rockers, a band called Travis. Later in May there is to be a folk festival, one electronica festival at a waterpark; and another on the Great Wall.
But the music scene isn’t just for fair weather. All year round, genres and their associated subcultures, from post-punk to hip-hop, attract young Chinese and expats to venues scattered around town, including the mosh-pits of Mao Livehouse, in a central hutong district that has been called Beijing’s Brooklyn (think Williamsburg or Bushwick), or the more experimental XP, which is tucked behind a roasted chestnut stand. And while the capital is a hub, the spokes reach Shanghai, which is home to its own distinctive and thriving scene, and also to inland cities, such as Wuhan, Chengdu and Guangzhou.
So far, so what? Alternative music in China is not, as some descriptions of it would breathlessly declare it, the outlet of anarchy that some have been awaiting ever since Cui Jian, a rock musician, performed to the protesting crowds on Tiananmen square in 1989. “A Chinese youth with a mohawk, tattoos and heavy-metal T-shirt!,” goes the cliché, sometimes tokenised on a book cover; “Revolution is surely next.” Nor are these subcultures singularly “Chinese” in a musical sense, to say nothing of being about China. “You would never ask an American, German or English [band],” said Michael Pettis, owner of XP, “why don’t you sound more like you’re supposed to.”
But there is a Beijing sound nonetheless, notably in punk and rock genres. It derives its freshness in part from the sudden exposure of new influences that Chinese musicians have experienced over the past few decades. In the 1990s, a new generation was introduced to foreign music on cut-out or remaindered dakou C.D.s, which had been discarded as surplus only to be snapped up and sold on the Chinese black market. Now you can search for almost any song on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, or Xiami, a music-streaming website and app, and play it for free.
Of course, the vast majority of what’s being listened to on the mainland is less post-punk, more Avril Lavigne. Because of its limited audience, with few exceptions no one can make a living out of alternative music in China (the piracy doesn’t help either). Liu Xinyu, the lead guitarist of a psychedelic band called Chui Wan, earns his keep fixing self-service ticket machines in a Beijing railway station. In the station, he says, he occasionally bumps into other bands as they go travelling on tour.
Music subcultures are nominally subject to the same censorship and strictures as any other cultural endeavour in China, but they are often too small to attract real notice (and it is easier for those who sing in English, not Chinese, to escape notice). The content and spirit are seldom overtly subversive, but they can express frustrations common to this stage of China’s development. For many in the generation born after the 1980s, it has become a natural way to rail against a vapid consumer culture, of a sort that is now familiar to most of the world, or to break free of a restrictive education system and the careerist rat race.
Which are, after all, hardly unfamiliar grounds for youthful anxiety. That China now has as broad a range of music genres as anywhere in the West is not proof of its exceptionalism, so much as another example of how a more open cultural environment has made way for greater varieties of individual expression, of hopes and vexations both particular to China and universal.
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