A History of Chinese Rock: Post-Punk, Post-Politics and Post-Putonghua

In an academic NSOC side-project, Paul Kendall traces the development of Chinese rock music, and the gradual shift from rock with Chinese characteristics to an international sound.


(English – 英语)

aoyunI’ve chosen to start this show, for very personal reasons, with a band named Second Hand Rose. Simply put, my experience of their live show in early 2002 marked my first real appreciation of Chinese rock, an appreciation which would shape the next few years of my life. Up to that point, I had been building an impression of Chinese rock as a poor imitation of its older Western brothers, yet Second Hand Rose forced a complete revision of this view. The singer was dressed and made-up as a woman, just as I had seen in Farewell My Concubine, and singing in a style that I could identify as unmistakably Chinese. He was accompanied by not only guitars and drums, but also by some exotic-looking instruments which I’d never seen before, but which I knew I liked the sound of.  Second Hand Rose led me to search for further bands with Chinese characteristics, examples of which can be heard in the first half of this program. However, as time progressed, I became disillusioned with Chinese rock, as new bands adopted an increasingly global, non-localised sound. This program will attempt to trace the development of Chinese characteristics in the Beijing rock scene over the last three decades, and also explain how we have reached today’s situation, where the demands of Westerners for “local authenticity” leaves Chinese bands both angry and confused.

Cui Jian – Fake Monk 

Released in the late 1980s, this track by Cui Jian is a typical example of the early era of Chinese rock, and its incorporation of Chinese characteristics. Localisation of sound is provided by instrumentation, with introduction dominated by the zheng, a Chinese zither, before giving way to a vocal melody in the Chinese pentatonic scale.  Despite these local features, this song is quite clearly constructed around a typical Western rock framework. Moreover, this fusion of Western genre with Chinese characteristics is unremarkable, and even to be expected, in the context of 20th century Chinese music, with earlier hybrid examples including the yellow music of Li Jinhui (Jones 2001), and Xian Xinghai’s “River Cantata” (Kraus 1989: 57)


He Yong - 何勇

He Yong - 何勇

He Yong – Drum and Bell Towers


This track by He Yong is another example of the use of Chinese instruments in rock music, this time with the inclusion of the sanxian, a three-stringed plucked lute. Indeed, the use of instrumentation to add local flavour was by far the most popular method among early bands. This is not altogether unsurprising, since a number of rock musicians had studied Chinese instruments before dropping out of the local conservatory system. For example, Andreas Steen informs us that Cui Jian, best known for his trumpet and guitar playing, is also able to play the suona, or shawm (1998: 156).

In the case of He Yong’s song, the sanxian player is actually his father. This track also uses lyrics to provide a localised, Chinese context; the first line tells us that He Yong’s family home can be found within Beijing’s second ring road, while the title “Drum and Bell Towers” reinforces the story’s location in the heart of Beijing, with its distinctive old-town culture. This use of lyrics to add Chinese characteristics is taken even further by the soft metal band Again, whose “On the Way to Wartime Yangzhou” uses a Song poem by Xin Qiji (Jones 1994: 159).

Again – On the Way to Wartime Yangzhou 

Again’s use of Song poetry and pipa, a four-stringed plucked lute, highlights the preference of early Chinese rockers for invoking images of ancient, rather than modern, China. This might seem strange considering their oft-stated opposition to feudalism and traditional Chinese culture. However, there are good reasons for this contradiction, with ancient Chinese characteristics needed so that rock musicians might maintain their credibility. De Kloet writes that Beijing rockers run the constant risk of being labelled copycats if they sound too Western (2005a: 230) – consequently, the authenticating tactic which he describes as the “invocation of ancient China” is the most obvious response to this danger (Ibid: 237). This policy has been taken to the extreme by the next band Tang Dynasty, whose first album not only featured opera-style falsetto and Song dynasty poetry, but whose entire image is informed by a romanticised interpretation of China’s past.


Tang Dynasty - 唐朝

Tang Dynasty - 唐朝

Tang Dynasty – Moondream


The efforts of early rock bands to sound Chinese were also influenced by nationalist feelings, or what Andrew Jones refers to as “nativist sentiment” (1994: 159). In his essay on the post-1989 politics of popular music, Jones provides ample evidence of the self-conscious approach taken by rock musicians, as they attempt to create something Chinese out of a foreign form. Interviews conducted in 1992 provide illuminating quotes from early rock stars, who state the pressing need to make music based on Chinese life, and even profess hatred towards Western culture for its pernicious influence on modern China (Ibid). Amusingly, the most vocal of these interviewees, Tang Dynasty, have been praised as examples of assertive nationalism by none other than the Chief of the Beijing Bureau of Security (Huang 2001: 8).

Audience response also appeared to be validating such nationalistic reasoning. For example, the best-selling rock release in 1993 was a track by Ai Jing, called “My 1997”, which sold 50,000 copies on the mainland in its first month of release (Jones 1994: 161). This song cleverly interweaves US-style AOR with interludes of sanxian and stereotypically Chinese vocals, while expressing the singer’s wish that the Hong Kong handover might come quickly, so that she could visit her Hong Kong boyfriend.

Ai Jing – My 1997

Yet by the time 1997 did actually come around, Chinese rock had taken on a more complicated, multi-faceted appearance, with one of many new sub-genres heard on the next track by Sober.

Sober – Alright! 

Apart from the use of Chinese lyrics, a person could be forgiven for thinking that Sober hail from London or Liverpool, rather than Beijing. Their music and image is reminiscent of the Beatles and their 1990s imitators, with deliberately lazy vocalisation, simple guitar lines, note bends, quirky music videos and urbane lyrics. Nor have the band hidden their influences, freely describing their sound as Britpop (de Kloet 2005b: 619). Moreover, Sober’s impact has been magnified beyond usual proportions by their lead singer, Shen Lihui, who not only runs Modern Sky, Beijing’s main independent record label, but who is also extremely outspoken.  He has dubbed Cui Jian “an irresponsible shouter [who is] still recovering from the complaints of his childhood”, and sees the late-1990s rock era as being more global in outlook than older, local bands like Tang Dynasty (Steen 2000: 55). In return, Cui Jian has condemned this second generation of rock musicians as “charlatans without culture” (de Kloet 2005b: 619).  In fact, neither judgement is quite right, or at least not if the next extract is any guide.


子曰乐队 Confucius Says

子曰乐队 Confucius Says

Confucius Says – Ciqi


We just heard the track Ciqi, Beijing slang for “friend”, from Confucius Says, members of Shen Lihui’s supposedly global generation of rock musicians. In fact, the track title and band name alone emphasise local characteristics, while the lyrics begin with a famous poem found in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Yet whereas earlier bands would have venerated the old, and left things at that, there is a definite air of mockery detectable in the vocal delivery of Qiu Ye, lead singer of Confucius Says. Using an affected intellectual tone, he sings the ancient verse:

“They were boiling beans on a beanstalk fire; Came a plaintive voice from the pot,

O why, since we sprang from the selfsame root, Should you kill me with anger hot?” Then following this, the music shifts forward a gear, and Qiu Ye spits out his update of the poem’s concept of fraternal ties: “Grab a clod of earth, roll it into a ball, you spit on it, and I’ll add two tears. Mix it to mud, and there you go!” Similar irreverence can be heard on a second clip, which seems to poke fun at the whole idea of using Chinese characteristics in rock, interspersing a heavily rhythmic section with a fine piece of chinoiserie on lead guitar.

Confucius Says – Dream 

As we can hear, Confucius Says neither fit into Cui Jian’s rant about “charlatans without culture”, nor do they comply with the global vision of Sober and Shen Lihui, described by de Kloet as a “refusal of Sinification” (2005b: 620). Instead, they are characteristic of the second stage of Beijing rock, beginning around 1997, with what is often described as the “Beijing New Sound Movement”, and continuing into the early 2000s with bands such as Second Hand Rose, who opened the programme. These innovators feel no particular urge to borrow from traditional Chinese culture, but those who do often deliberately distort meaning, in accordance with an underground, anti-commercial aesthetic. (0:30)

The American academic Hao Huang writes that early rock musicians found their sources restricted mainly to the music collections of visiting foreign students (2003: 187). Given a relative lack of Western pop knowledge, it is perhaps no wonder that these rock bands instead looked to Chinese culture for inspiration. In contrast, members of the Beijing New Sound Movement had access to a huge black market of cassettes and CDs, which came into existence during the early 1990s (Groenewegen 2005: 52). This resulted in music of far greater diversity; bands no longer had to rely on Chinese elements to avoid sounding derivative, since they were now borrowing from a far wider variety of sources. Meanwhile, bands such as NO were busy subverting traditional culture, as evidenced by their leader Zuoxiao Zuzhou, in his description of the cover for their first album. 


“For the first release of this album, the Missing Master, I used on the cover a Tang Dynasty painting of a handmaiden leading a dog, with me as the dog. I hoped that old people would buy my album, since my head imposed on the dog’s body is very small, so that they might take my album home thinking it to be Chinese folk music or opera, yet upon listening, after the intro – ‘deng deng deng deng deng’ – the screaming starts, scaring them out of their minds. I was playing something of a practical joke. I noticed later that the shops really did place my record in the folk and opera section, since no-one knew my name then, and they didn’t know about Chinese rock music. Because of this incorrect placement, it would be very easy for an old gentleman to do himself a mischief when he got my album home, especially since the beginning section uses a picked violin – they might think it was a sanxian, although it’s actually a violin, and think it was Chinese pingtan storytelling or something similar, with ‘deng deng deng deng deng’, before the “aaaaah” screaming starts.”

NO – Missing Master Plainly, there is little reverence here for traditional Chinese culture. Whereas Again would proudly claim in interviews that they were the very first band to use a Song poem in their music, Zuoxiao Zuzhou and his band seemed more concerned with being the first to make a Chinese instrument sonically unrecognisable.


“I’m from a county town and grew up listening to Chinese opera. Before I was twenty I never had the chance to listen to heavy metal. But I naturally came to like that genre.”

“The sanxian you just mentioned, the way it’s played is not the way Chinese usually play it, you understand. This is kind of my subversion of Chinese instruments – it’s not Chinese music, Chinese traditional music, traditionalists would really hate me using a Chinese instrument in this way, they would consider that I’m ruining their instrument.”

“The sanxian can be heard in the second interlude – ‘da da di da….’ – playing alongside the guitar solo. During my early period of making music I was always altering the essential sounds of instruments. The proper way of playing this instrument is completely different from how it is played here.”

NO – Religion 

While early Beijing rock self-consciously incorporated traditional Chinese culture, and the mid-era bands took delight in distorting this same source, the trend of younger bands, as members of the so-called “post-80s” generation, has been the complete de-localisation of sound. Accordingly, over the last part of the show, I wish to play some clips from the most popular bands of the last few years. These bands share a number of common characteristics. Far from using Chinese instruments, they don’t even use Chinese lyrics, with use of English even extending to band and track names, which are sometimes then translated back into Chinese for the benefit of their domestic audience. Album sleeves and lyrical content have also been successfully stripped of traditional Chinese context. A good example is the song “Chorus” by Car Sick Cars, which takes the earlier prototype of Sober and Shen Lihui to its logical conclusion.


Car Sick Cars

Car Sick Cars

Car Sick Cars – Chorus (Rock’n’Roll Hero)


The switch from local to global in non-Anglo-American pop scenes has been noted by a number of writers, including Stephen Epstein in reference to Korean punks (2006: 2000-203), and Tony Mitchell in his examination of rock music in the Czech Republic (1996: 127). In the latter case, this switch occurred upon emergence from communism, alongside a massive increase in the availability of Western popular music. Similarly, there has been a second shift in the supply of rock music to Beijing, with the second generation’s illegal cassette and CD imports replaced by MP3 downloads, which are equally illegal, but also cheaper and far more obtainable. The result is a rock sound which is not only less Chinese to the Western ear, but which is also extremely up-to-date, with Car Sick Cars, and the next band, Re-TROS, closely following their Western colleagues’ recent preference for post-punk revivalism.

Re-TROS – Death Bed Song

Hand-in-hand with a global sound is the expectation of global success. Many of the new Beijing bands are actively trying to break the international market, with Car Sick Cars having played in Europe alongside Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior, while Re-TROS have played gigs and released their first EP in North America. Unfortunately, international press coverage remains sparse, and the reaction of foreign listeners such as myself has quite often been dismissive, ironically on the grounds that these bands are too global and lack Chinese characteristics. To illustrate, an American acquaintance of mine conducted a test, whereby he sent MP3s of the last band, Re-TROS, to various friends, keeping the musicians’ nationality a secret from some and revealing it to others. The response was very positive from those listeners who were not informed of Re-TROS’s nationality, while those who were made aware of their Chinese origins rejected the music, with the typical comment that it sounded too Westernised. I talked to Michael Pettis about this perception of these new bands, who congregate and perform at his Beijing bar, D22, as well as appearing on his record label, Maybe Mars.

Michael Pettis 1

“About a week before the Olympics I was approached by a Swedish television producer who was doing a programme on the Chinese cultural scene, and he had gone to see a few bands. And he asked me, ‘Isn’t it a problem that all these Chinese bands sound Western, they don’t sound at all Chinese’. I found that question and the assumptions behind that question really frustrating because it’s not that they sounded Western, it’s that they were playing a type of music that is widely listened to internationally, that’s become the vocabulary and the music of urban, middle-class, educated young people, whether in China, or in Peru or in Sweden. He would have never asked that question of Swedish bands. And yet the music that Swedish bands play is either international and truly global urban music, or, if you want to define it very narrowly, it’s American music that comes from Chicago and the south-west. But Swedish musicians playing this kind of music was acceptable in a way that Chinese musicians playing it wasn’t.”




Snapline – S2 Voice 14 (28:18)


That was Snapline, a band on Maybe Mars, the record label of Michael Pettis, who we heard railing against the injustice of Chinese bands being criticised for sounding too Western. I have come to agree that it is unfair to expect musicians to experiment with Peking opera and Chinese zithers when they have grown up listening to Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire. Indeed, the current plight of Chinese rock musicians is not altogether dissimilar to that of the Asian Underground in 1990s Britain, when second- and third-generation British Asians were expected to produce traditional Indian sounds. Alternatively, consider Deborah Wong’s case of the Mountain Brothers, a Chinese American hip hop group, whose press kit for non-Asian American listeners carefully conceals evidence of ethnicity, thus allowing them to pass as authentic African American rappers and gain a fair initial appraisal (2004: 251-252). For the new bands of Beijing, their predicament is even more extreme, as they compete with Western expectations of an oriental Beijing, expectations which are far removed from their own perceptions of living in an international city and participating within a global rock community. While the earlier rock bands lacked the ambition and technological resources to succeed in the West, the new bands have the right contacts and the right equipment, but  also the wrong sound and the wrong image. In the case of rock music from the non-Western world, it seems that global success can only be obtained through the stress of local characteristics, regardless of whether these markers are actually reflective of local reality.



Books and journals

Epstein, Stephen. 2006. “We are the punx in Korea.” In Korean pop music: riding the wave, ed. Keith Howard: 190-207. Folkestone, Kent: Global Oriental.

Groenwegen, Jeroen. 2005. Tongue – making sense of underground rock, Beijing 1997-2004 (MA thesis). http://www.keepmakingsense.com

Huang, Hao. 2001. “Yaogun yinyue: rethinking mainland Chinese rock ‘n’ roll.” Popular Music 20(1): 1-11.

Huang, Hao. 2003. “Voices from Chinese rock, past and present tense: social commentary and construction of identity in yaogun yinyue , from Tiananmen to the present.” Popular Music & Society 26(2): 183-202.

Huq, Rupa. 2006. Beyond subculture: pop, youth and identity in a postcolonial world. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Andrew. 1992. Like a knife: ideology and genre in contemporary Chinese popular music. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program.

Jones, Andrew. 1994. “The politics of popular music in post-Tiananmen China.” In Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China 2nd ed., ed. Wasserstrom and Perry: 148-165. Boulder: Westview Press.

Jones, Andrew. 2001. Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

de Kloet, Jeroen. 2005a. “Authenticating geographies and temporalities: representations of Chinese rock in China. Visual Anthropology 18(2/3): 229-255.

de Kloet, Jeroen. 2005b. “Popular music and youth in urban China: the Dakou Generation.” The China Quarterly 183(1): 609-626.

Kraus, Richard. 1989. Pianos and politics in China: middle-class ambitions and the struggle over Western music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, Tony. 1996. Popular music and local identity: rock, pop, and rap in Europe and Oceania. London: Leicester University Press.

Ou, Ning. 1999. New sound of Beijing (translated by Simon Young). http://www.alternativearchive.com/en/archives/newsoundofbeijing02.htm

Steen, Andreas. 1998. “Buddhism and rock music – a new musical style?” CHIME 12-13: 151-164.

Steen, Andreas. 2000. “Sound, protest and business: Modern Sky Company and the new ideology of Chinese rock.” Berliner China-Hefte 19: 40-64.

Wong, Deborah. 2004. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York: Routledge.


Internet (all sources accessed 12 February, 2009)

Romance of Three Kingdoms: http://threekingdoms.com

Sina: http:www.sina.com

Sohu: http:www.sohu.com



Again (Lunhui yuedui). “On the Road to Wartime Yangzhou” (Fenghuo Yangzhou lu). On Yaogun Beijing I. 1993: publisher unknown.  

Ai Jing. “My 1997” (Wo de 1997). On My 1997. 1993: Gunshi yousheng chubanshe.

Car sick cars. “Chorus (Rock’n’roll Hero).” On Car sick cars. 2007: Maybe mars records.

Confucius Says (Zi yue). “Ciqi” and “Dream” (meng). On First volume (diyice). 1997: Jingwen changpian youxian gongsi.

Cui Jian. “Fake Monk”. On Rock’n’roll on the long march (xin changzheng lushang de yaogun). Zhongguo lvyou shengxiang chubanshe.

He Yong. “Drum and Bell Towers” (Guzhonglou). On Garbage dump (lajichang). 1994: Gunshi yousheng chunbanshe.

NO. “Missing Master” (Zoushi de zhuren) and “Religion” (Zongjiao). On Missing Master (Zoushi de zhuren). 1999: Modern sky records.

Re-TROS. “A death-bed song.” On Cut off! EP. 2007: Tag team records.

Second hand rose (Ershou meigui).  “Trick” (jiliang). On Second hand rose (Ershou meigui). 2004: Guoji wenhua jiaoliu yinxiang chubanshe.

Snapline. “S2”. On Party is over, pornstar. 2007: Maybe mars records.

Sober. “Alright!?” (Hao ji le!?). On Alright!? (Hao ji le!?). 1997: Modern sky records.

Tang dynasty (Tang chao). “Moondream” (Yuemeng). On Tang dynasty (Tang chao). 1992: Gunshi yousheng shubanshe.



Zuoxiao Zuzhou (lead singer of NO) – 11 February, 2009 – telephone.

Michael Pettis – (owner of D-22 bar and Maybe Mars records) – 29 August, 2008 – telephone.

2 thoughts on “A History of Chinese Rock: Post-Punk, Post-Politics and Post-Putonghua

    • fubidoubidou说道:

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