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Rocking Out in China (Part Four) Posted by on Sep 8, 2021 in Culture, Music

Are you ready to rock? (你准备好摇滚了吗? nǐ zhǔn bèi hǎo yáo gǔn le ma?). I sure hope so, because today concludes our series on Rocking Out in China. In case you missed the previous posts, here are the links to get you caught up – Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. From the godfather of Chinese rock Cui Jian (崔健 cuī jiàn) and the sound known as Northwest Wind (西北风 xī běi fēng), to the legendary bands Black Panther (黑豹 hēi bào) and Tang Dynasty (唐朝 táng cháo) in the 80s-90s, to punk pioneers He Yong (何勇 Hé yǒng) and Brain Failure (脑浊 nǎo zhuó), it’s been a wild ride so far. In this final post, we’ll see what the rock scene has been like in China since the start of the millennium.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Girls Get in the Game

Since the beginning, the rock scene in China had been very male-dominated. That changed just before the turn of the millennium with the founding of Hang On the Box (or HOTB for short) in 1998. Described as “bitch punk,” the quarter was the first all-female rock band since Cobra (眼镜蛇 yǎn jìng shé), who formed in 1989 and only released one album.

HOTB got started with gigs in a Beijing dive bar called Scream Club (嚎叫俱樂部 háo jiào jù lè bù). The band attracted enough attention to be featured on a cover of Newsweek, accompanied by the headline “China: The Limits on Freedom.” The mainstream attention caused them to be shunned by their peers and led them to sign with a record label in Japan called Sister Benten. They would go on to tour internationally, including a stop at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

To learn more about HOTB, check out this interesting illustrated history of the band. You can also listen to their full album Yellow Banana here:

A Rock Revival in the Middle Kingdom

With the rise of Cantopop and increasing censorship, the future seemed bleak for rock music in China. A revival started in the late 90s, though, thanks to bands like Reflector (反光鏡楽隊 fǎn guāng jìng lè duì). They even wrote a song about the legendary Scream Club, which you can rock out to in this YouTube video:

Another influential band of the early aughts is Joyside. They were the subject of a documentary called Wasted Orient by American filmmaker Kevin Fritz. You can check out a very short trailer for the movie here:

Joyside even embarked on a European tour in 2007 and they became the subject of yet another documentary as well. This one was created by Berlin filmmakers about the underground punk rock scene in Beijing. It features a few other Chinese rock bands in addition to Joyside. Here’s a short clip from the film:

When we talk about Chinese rock in the 2000s, we can’t forget a band called Carsick Cars (晕车的车 yùn chē de chē). The indie-rock trio formed in 2005 and would go on to tour Europe alongside rock legends Sonic Youth. Their song “Zhong Nan Hai” (中南海 zhōng nán hǎi) is considered to be an anthem for the underground rock scene in China.

The name is a bit of a play on words, as it’s a popular cigarette brand in China yet is also the headquarters of the Communist Party near the Forbidden City. Watch the band rocking this song live in Brooklyn in this video:

The lyrics are pretty simple and you can probably sing along even if you’re a lower-level Chinese speaker. See for yourself:

中南海,中南海
中南海,中南海
x2

中南海,中南海
抽烟只抽中南海
x2

中南海,中南海
生活离不开中南海
x2

中南海,中南海
中南海,中南海
中南海,中南海
谁他妈抽了我的中南海?

Zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
x2

zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi chōuyān zhǐ chōu zhōngnánhǎi
x2
zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
shēnghuó lì bù kāi zhōngnánhǎi x2

zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
zhōngnánhǎi, zhōngnánhǎi
shéi tā mā chōule wǒ de zhōngnánhǎi?

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
x2

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
I only smoke Zhongnanhai
x2

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
I can’t live without Zhongnanhai
x2

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Who the f*** smoked my Zhongnanhai?

At a Chinese music festival.
Photo taken and used with permission from Sasha Savinov.

Music Festivals Come to China

A key development in the rock scene in China came with the introduction of the Midi Music Festival (迷笛音乐节 mí dí yīnyuè jié) in 1999. The festival has gone on almost every year since, drawing upwards of 80,000 fans and 100 acts from all over the world.

The festival was such a big hit that it even expanded into other cities. It’s now held in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Shenzhen. Here’s a rocking clip from the 2013 Shenzhen edition of the band Escape Plan (逃跑计划 táo pǎo jì huà):

This was just the beginning of a new wave of festivals in China, including Modern Sky Music Festival (摩登天空音乐节 mó dēng tiān kōng yīn yuè jié) and Strawberry Music Festival (草莓音乐节 cǎo méi yīn yuè jié). If you’re curious about what it’s like attending a Chinese rock festival, check out some of my past posts about the Yi Xian Music Festival and Zhang Bei Music Festival.

While the big festivals have been postponed these past two years due to the pandemic, it’s clear that rock music is here to stay in China. What will the future hold? We will just have to wait and see…

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


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