Rockin’ in The Mainland China’s Sonic Uprising by Caroline Cooper
Some of the strongest rock and electronic music isn't coming from the bowels of the Bowery or the well-appointed turn tables of Midtown. Rather, new sounds are being made atop milk crates in the middle of Asian streets. Despite somewhat antiquated production techniques and rampant piracy, China is home to a rising brand of modern music. Banish all thoughts of chirpy pop. What the West thinks of as Chinese rock -- slapdash Spears rip-offs and the bleating of Hong Kong pop stars -- is all wrong.
Consider instead the work of Thin Man. Jumping between classical Chinese Mandarin and the Mongolian dialect of lead singer's Dai Qin's home region, and often featuring traditional Mongolian sounds alongside classic electric guitar and keyboard, Thin Man has emerged as a rock staple across China's most prosperous cities, from southern Guanzhou to northern Beijing. Acts like the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Rammstein, Fishbone and Rollins Band are on to them, as they all joined Thin Man at the Japanese rock festival Fuji Rock 2000, held last July at the Naiba Ski Resort just outside of Tokyo. During their first show outside of China, Thin Man played to a packed crowd and has since been invited back for a Japanese tour in November.
With bracing drum beats and hard guitars forming lilting, often enigmatic harmonization, Thin Man draws crowds of 20 and 30-year olds that are a mix of expatriates and upwardly mobile Chinese hipsters with money to burn. "I have been a fan of this Thin Man for almost two years," commented a Beijing University senior at a show in late April, clutching a high-end import beer. "They're doing something new here."
Thin Man's not alone. The band's among a swelling tide of Chinese rockers who, though still struggling with poorly outfitted studios and legions of pirates out to bite off profits, are gaining increasing attention and respect in a country often uncomfortable with individual expression. Supermarket is heralded as China's first all-electronic band, blending harder backbeats with shots of melody that evoke electronic greats like Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. Yao Shi (formerly Zi Yue, or "Confucious Sez") offers a superb live show with frontman and bassist Qiu Ye providing a spoken word performance in heavy Beijing accent in his hard, brash live songs. Supermarket managed to capture the attention of Cui Jian, the nation's foremost rocker to perform for the students in 1989's Tiananmen Square protests. Cui produced the band's first album, Di Yi Ce, an enormous accomplishment for Yao Shi, in a country where pioneers of the modern Chinese rock scene are no longer few and far between but where recognition remains elusive.
Besides Cui Jian, there's the venerable Zhang Yadong, described as "the Mainland's best known rock producer" by Kaiser Kuo, a former member of the very influential rock group Tang Dynasty who now covers the Chinese rock scene for his Beijing-based Web site, Chinanow.com. But most Chinese rockers have a slim shot of ever courting these big name producers, who still have to contend with floundering recording environs. Says Kuo, "Some Japanese kids go to 10 big rock shows a year and spend lots of money on live music, because they are so well produced. But a Chinese kid, he'd rather spend 10 kuai (about $1) on a pirated VCD (video CD) of his favorite western band than pay 100 kuai [about $12, which is considered a lot of money in China -- Ed.] to see a good Chinese rock band play through a shitty sound system."
Bands frequently record directly to tape and have scant opportunity to upgrade to CDs, a medium that only invites greater piracy. And, in a country where 93 percent of all music sold is pirated as China continues to grapple with the details of its first copyright law penned in 1991, the music industry is still in its infancy. Shenzhen-based music critic Ou Ning described the industry as little more than "thousands of tons of Dakou tapes (foreign music confiscated by customs officials that still manages to hit the streets) and rash youngsters playing the guitar." Ironically, it is in this communist nation in which a huge capitalist music market is thriving.
Without legal protection, or adequate representation, musicians are fighting for themselves -- almost. As China coughs and sputters through its present transformation, an assortment of off-beat companies have begun to pick up and promote music that has otherwise been trammeled by insufficient development and marketing know-how. Take Sonic China, an independent advertising and design company that has started to tap into China's burgeoning music and film scene with comprehensive publications. The New Sound of Beijing (Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House), the company's latest work, grabs Thin Man, Supermarket, New Pants and others for quick chats, then incorporates quotes into the artistic vision of company photographer and graphic designer Nie Zheng and writers like Beijing critic Yan Jun to produce a sort of portable rocumentary in Chinese. The books are sold at legal markets, with the original musicians gaining in profit and public awareness. Sonic China is a watershed, pumping life into an often defeated industry and at a pace on course with China's current economic and social movements. "This new music culture," Ou Ning says triumphantly, "is a result of the all-around society transformation of China in the 90s."
Unlike the battle of the American music industry over MP3 rights and Napster regulations, China's music scene, having little to lose, has welcomed the Internet. "The Internet serves as a more convenient and quicker pathway for the spread of music and, with better conditions, working on music no longer means the innumerable trials and hardships as in the past days," commented Ou.
Ou and his editors have deemed the current movement China's "New Culture," and are eager to bring it to the world. "I think Sonic China is a company trying to spread the new culture in China and do some different things," he said. As Thin Man and others gain international attention from other musical artists, China's rock roots are beginning to reach beyond Mainland borders.