Why Most Chinese Rock Criticism Sucks

2009 Feb 17

Chinese rock music is a rather different beast from Western rock music. Mao died in 1976. Deng came to power in 1978. The reforms started around 1980, bringing the Beatles and the Stones with them. Before that, no Western music since the 1940s.

According to popular accounts, Chinese rock music began in the early 1980s when a Korean-Chinese trumpet player named Cui Jian grabbed his electric guitar and played Nothing to My Name at a peace concert in Beijing. “Nothing to My Name” is not what we would normally think of as a rock song. It’s more of a modern Chinese folk song, a slow sad one at that, set to electric guitars. Once he got started, Cui Jian also experimented with rap, jazz, ska (trumpet player, remember), and, more recently, electronic music (check out “City Boatman” from his 2005 album).

When I interviewed the lead guitarist of Lun Hui in 1999 (Zhao Wei is the long-haired guy rocking the awesome solo in this video), he said that, in the beginning, the early rockers really didn’t have much context to understand what they were doing. He said something like, “We called ourselves ‘hard rock,’ because we thought that’s what we sounded like, but we really didn’t know what that meant.”

If you walk into a CD shop in China, for one, everything is fake. Finding genuine CDs takes a lot of work. Secondly, very frequently you’ll be able to find every Rhapsody album but nothing by Sly & the Family Stone. Consequently, the perspective you get on Western rock music in China is a rather interesting one. If you’re a high school or college student on a limited budget, your musical education in rock music is bound to be eclectic, assuming you have one at all.

Another thing: nobody listens to Chinese rock music in China. 95% of people are happy with Western music and the Asian pop mainstream. The folks who like it are 25% older musicians, 25% teenage rebels, 25% not really interested but at the concert anyway, and 25% Westerners. People often say that liking rock music is a phase that teenage boys go through but quickly mature out of.

And yet… when I read Western criticism of Chinese rock music, I see all these assumptions that it’s basically just an extension of rock elsewhere in the world. Take the “post-punk” label frequently applied to the kinds of bands that generally show up on Modern Sky. Punk barely happened in China at all and then it was mostly Green Day and Blink-182 inspired pop-punk in the late 1990s. Where does Chinese “post-punk” come from? That music is really more of a reaction against mainstream Chinese pop, previous Chinese rock music, and a host of other social issues (vocal and instrumental aesthetics, disillusionment with economic reforms, the rise of auteur culture). Yeah, it’s also part of a dialog with Western rock music, but that’s not nearly the most important aspect.

The other thing I see a lot is assumptions that Chinese rock musicians are mimicking Western artists that they like. In some cases, this is undoubtedly true, such as the way Ashura is very clearly inspired by the Linkin Park school of emo rap. However, in most cases, critics have no way of knowing what kind of music Chinese musicians have been exposed to unless the artists choose to talk about it. Maybe they never really listened to the Talking Heads until everybody started comparing their band to those guys, like the way Coheed & Cambria weren’t into Rush until later on.

In general, the problem is that nobody talks about Chinese rock in comparison to other Chinese rock bands, putting it in the context of what else is happening and has happened in the past. Often, this is because the critics themselves are just dabbling in this music and don’t have enough context to really make sense of it themselves. That’s cool and people should definitely come check this stuff out, but it sucks that more thorough and insightful commentaries are super hard to come by.

4 Responses to “Why Most Chinese Rock Criticism Sucks”

  1. Li Tai, one of my best friends in highschool, came from a family of famous music teachers. They used to host jam sessions at their little Chinese restaurant in downtown Opelika, AL. We were an eclectic bunch of freaks, improvising a melange of gypsy, bluegrass, blues, death metal, and Chinese traditional music: accordion, mandolin, erhu, congas, upright bass, and guitar.

    Then his dad would come in from practicing Tai Chi in the parking lot and cook something for us that did not look like what we then thought of as Chinese food.

    Tai turned me on to Cui Jian in the form of a worn out cassette mix tape. Cui Jian is awesome, and you can hear the eclecticism that comes from being exposed to three decades of American music at once.

    Also, I never listened to Nick Cave until people started comparing my music to his. Turns out we listen to the same folks.

  2. That’s a fantastic story.

    Yeah, I have a post in me that I’m pondering that’s about the true autuers within Chinese rock, the folks who are impossible to classify musically and are brilliantly successful at whatever they do. My list so far goes like: Cui Jian, Dou Wei, Zhang Zhenyue, New Pants, Long Kuan, Nand, and I’m not sure who else. Those are a good start.

  3. Are those guys easy to find? Could you be persuaded to make a playlist of their best work?

  4. Yeah, I’ll try to do that when I post about them.

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