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Rocking Out in China (Part Three) Posted by on May 13, 2021 in Culture, Music

For the past few months, we’ve been taking a closer look at rock music in China. You can go back and check out Part One about Cui Jian and the sound known as Northwest Wind, as well as Part Two where we looked at Black Panther, Dreaming, and Tang Dynasty. Today we’ll continue into the 90s to see how Chinese rock continued to develop. I just have on question for you – are you ready to rock? (你准备好摇滚了吗? nǐ zhǔn bèi hǎo yáo gǔn le ma?).

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

Chinese Rock Goes Punk

As I mentioned in the last post, Tang Dynasty’s debut album was a smash hit. It sold over 2 million copies and helped propel rock music to the mainstream in China and throughout Asia. Rock & roll even made it onto the airwaves of CCTV! People loved the heavy metal (重金属 zhòng jīn shǔ) guitar riffs and nostalgic lyrics that harkened back to an era thought to be the pinnacle of Chinese civilization.

Unfortunately, the popularity and accessibility of rock music at large started to decline in China in the mid-90s. Much of this had to do with censorship from the government, with restrictions on performances and the banning of rock from TV. The nostalgia soon faded into the rearview mirror, as Chinese rockers of the mid-90s turned punk (朋克 péng kè) and went underground.

He Yong (何勇 Hé yǒng) is considered a pioneer of the punk scene in China. His one and only album titled Garbage Dump (垃圾场 lā jī chǎng) came out in 1994. Most of the songs were written during the height of the Tiananmen Square protests. As you can imagine, some of the lyrics on this album turned out to be pretty controversial as a result. Here’s the music video for the title track on that album followed by the lyrics. I actually managed to get a good English translation for this one!

我們生活的世界
就像一個垃圾場
人們就像蟲子一樣
在這裡邊你爭我搶
吃的都是良心
拉的全是思想

你能看到 你不知道
你能看到 你不知道

我們生活的世界
就像一個垃圾場
只要你活著 你就不能停止幻想
有人減肥 有人餓死沒糧
餓死沒糧 餓死沒糧 餓死沒糧

有沒有希望 有沒有希望
有沒有希望 有沒有希望

Wǒmen shēnghuó de shìjiè
jiù xiàng yīgè lèsè chǎng
rénmen jiù xiàng chóngzi yīyàng
zài zhè lǐbian nǐ zhēng wǒ qiǎng
chī de dōu shì liángxīn
lā de quán shì sīxiǎng

nǐ néng kàn dào nǐ bù zhīdào
nǐ néng kàn dào nǐ bù zhīdào

wǒmen shēnghuó de shìjiè
jiù xiàng yīgè lèsè chǎng
zhǐyào nǐ huózhe nǐ jiù bùnéng tíngzhǐ huànxiǎng
yǒurén jiǎnféi yǒurén è sǐ méi liáng
è sǐ méi liáng è sǐ méi liáng è sǐ méi liáng

yǒu méiyǒu xīwàng yǒu méiyǒu xīwàng
yǒu méiyǒu xīwàng yǒu méiyǒu xīwàng

The world we live in
Is like a waste yard
People are like worms
Feeding on each other
They eat all the hearts
Shit out all the thoughts
You think you saw it, you did not
You think you saw it, you did not
The world we live in
Is like a waste yard
As long as you are alive
You cannot stop imagining
Someone is on a diet
Someone is starving to death
Starving to death
Starving to death
Is there any hope
Is there any hope
Is there any hope

 

While his music was definitely controversial, He Yong was still quite popular. Along with Dou Wei (Black Panther) and Zhang Chu, He Yong was part of the trio known as the 3 Moyan Heroes (魔岩三杰 mó yán sān jié) after their record label Moyan Culture (魔岩文化 mó yán wén huà). The name Moyan means “Magic Rock” and it was a bit of a play off the name Rolling Stone. He played a huge gig in Hong Kong with Tang Dynasty at the end of that year. Before the show, he gave an interview where he trashed the entire genre of Cantopop (粤语流行音乐 yuè yǔ liú xíng yīn yuè) that was becoming wildly popular at the time.

 

A Legend Lost

A tragic loss for He Yong and the entire rock community in China happened a few months after that concert. Zhang Ju (张炬), bass player for Tang Dynasty, was involved in a fatal motorcycle accident. He was just six days away from celebrating his 25th birthday. There was a funeral for him at the Western Qing tombs that was attended by most of the big names in Chinese rock.

This loss of Zhang Ju hit He Yong especially hard. The musician fell into a deep bout of depression and alcoholism from which he never really recovered. He attempted to take his own life by setting himself on fire and was placed in a mental institution as a result. He has not released any music since and has remained out of the public eye for the most part.

A few years later, remaining members of Tang Dynasty got together with some other rock musicians to record a double album called Goodbye Zhang Ju (再见张炬 zài jiàn zhāng jù). Here’s the opening track titled “That Day” (那一天 Nà yītiān) by Luan Shu (峦树) of Black Panther fame:

那一天,我流下眼泪
那一天,看着你离开
生命原来那么脆弱,一切在瞬间
从未想要触摸的世界出现在你面前
那一天,你是那么的遥远
那一天,没有说一声再见
你说不愿每天醒来,渴望地等待
等待阳光亲吻你的脸,只为拥有自己
我用歌声伴你飞向天堂
那里撒满温暖的阳光
你的身边从此不再有冰冷目光
只怀念你的笑容
我用歌声伴你飞向天堂
那里撒满温暖的阳光
从此不在世间寂寞
一个人更自由自在
还有我们拥抱的那一天……

Nà yītiān, wǒ liúxià yǎnlèi
nà yītiān, kànzhe nǐ líkāi
shēngmìng yuánlái nàme cuìruò, yīqiè zài shùnjiān
cóng wèi xiǎng yào chùmō de shìjiè chūxiàn zài nǐ miànqián
nà yītiān, nǐ shì nàme de yáoyuǎn
nà yītiān, méiyǒu shuō yīshēng zàijiàn
nǐ shuō bu yuàn měitiān xǐng lái, kěwàng de děngdài
děngdài yángguāng qīnwěn nǐ de liǎn, zhǐ wèi yǒngyǒu zìjǐ
wǒ yòng gēshēng bàn nǐ fēi xiàng tiāntáng
nàlǐ sā mǎn wēnnuǎn de yángguāng
nǐ de shēnbiān cóngcǐ bùzài yǒu bīnglěng mùguāng
zhǐ huáiniàn nǐ de xiàoróng
wǒ yòng gēshēng bàn nǐ fēi xiàng tiāntáng
nàlǐ sā mǎn wēnnuǎn de yángguāng
cóngcǐ bù zài shìjiān jìmò
yīgè rén gèng zìyóu zìzài
hái yǒu wǒmen yǒngbào dì nà yītiān……

 

Punk Rock Lives On

As they say in the business – “the show must go on.” The punk rock craze of the mid-90s continued with some new blood in the scene. This included Underground Baby (地下婴儿dì xià yīng’é), or UnderBaby for short. They got their start playing at a memorial show for Kurt Cobain and stunned the audience by belting out a bunch of raw original punk songs instead of standard rock covers. Check out a video of them playing one of their biggest songs “All the Same” (都一样 dōu yī yàng):

The band was formed by two brothers, Gao Xing (高幸) and Gao Yang (高阳). After that gig, a community of musicians started hanging out at the brothers’ home in a Beijing hutong. This is where another punk band named Brain Failure (脑浊 nǎo zhuó) got their start. Along with a few other bands they put out an album called Boredom Contingent (无聊军队 wú liáo jūn duì), representing the boredom and frustration felt by much of the youth in urban China during the 90s. If you’re interested, you can listen to the entire album here:

Of the bands on that album, Brain Failure has achieved the most success. They were the first Chinese punk band to release an album and tour internationally. To reach a wider audience, the band sings in both Chinese and English. They’ve even recorded with members of the famous American band Dropkick Murphy’s. If you’re curious to hear what a Chinese punk band singing in English sounds like, here’s their track “Coming to the USA”:

We’re not quite finished rocking out in China just yet, so stay tuned for the fourth and final post as we take a look at what the 2000s brought to the rock scene and where it’s headed next.

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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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