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Rock is Not Revolution, Part II

[For Part I of this series, see Chris Heselton’s post from 12/23/08.]

By Chris Heselton

One of the early rock musicians to make the jump to mainstream and become a household name was Xu Wei. His popularity is probably due to a style that some have called Chinese country or folk rock. This style does not have the explosive rage of heavy metal that many in the popular audience find hard to accept. Instead, he Xu Wei style is a more calm and relaxing melodic rock. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Xu Wei’s music is how similar it is to many of the romantic and nostalgic lyrical themes of pop music. Hometown (故乡, 2000), one of his best known songs and one often sung in Karaoke (KTV) bars, has many of these typical romantic and lament-filled lyrics seen in pop music. This is the kind of lyrical and musical style that wins broad acceptance in 21st century Chinese society:

The setting sun on the horizon shines again upon my face
Reflecting again that restless heart of mine.
What place is this still so desolate as before
This endless journey goes so slowly.

I am eternally heading towards a distant place – a lonely wanderer
You are amongst a vast sea of people –my woman
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That’s your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

In my heart, you are forever the “hometown.”
Alone, you always abided and silently awaited me.
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That is your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes.
And then my heart is again awakened.
Always in my dream I see you walking on the road back home.
You stand below the setting sun, looking so magnificent.
That’s your dress flapping freely.
That’s your grace like the water.

天边夕阳再次映上我的脸庞 
再次映着我那不安的心
这是什么地方依然是如此的荒凉 
那无尽的旅程如此漫长

我是永远向着远方独行的浪子
你是茫茫人海之中我的女人
在异乡的路上每一个寒冷的夜晚
这思念它如刀让我伤痛

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
我站在这里想起和你曾经离别情景
你站在人群中间那么孤单  
那是你破碎的心 
我的心却那么狂野

你在我的心里永远是故乡 
你总为我独自守候沉默等待
在异乡的路上每一个寒冷的夜晚
这思念它如刀让我伤痛

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
我站在这里想起和你曾经离别情景 
你站在人群中间那么孤单
那是你破碎的心 
我的心却那么狂野  

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
总是在梦里看到自己走在归乡路上
你站在夕阳下面容颜娇艳 
那是你衣裙漫飞 
那是你温柔如水

Currently, one of the more popular mainstream rock groups is the Taiwanese band May Day. This group is probably the quintessential pop-rock group in the Chinese-language music world. This group proudly touts its image as an energetic high-spirited college band that sings, principally, about love. Their popular songs such as Eternal Stars of Eternal Hearts (恆心的恆星), Embrace (擁抱), and Tenderness (溫柔) all play on romantic themes yet have a clear pop-rock feel to the instrumentals. In many ways, May Day is no different from many Chinese boy bands except the rock instrumentals. However, sometimes their origins as a college rock band can be heard. The cover song for their first album, Long Live Love (愛情萬歲), may surprise listeners that it does not sing about love, but promiscuity and emotional detachment – uncommon in Chinese pop music but not hard to find in rock.

I need the warmth of you body
Although at this moment I don’t feel the least bit cold.
I feel an enormous hunger.
Although full with boredom – expanding my soul.
Requited love cannot cause again “the kingdom and the city to collapse”,[1]
But collapse your emotions, (your emotions) are getting colder, a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.

I don’t care about your name.
Your tomorrow, your past, you’re just a man or woman.
I’m clear about that.
I don’t plan to leave you, but I also don’t plan to really love you.
Requited love cannot cause the kingdom and the city to collapse,
But collapse your emotions, (now your emotions) are getting colder, (becoming) a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.

我需要你的体温
虽然此刻我一点也不觉得寒冷
我感到巨大的饥饿
虽然无聊满满的撑涨我的灵魂
相恋不能再倾国倾城
倾倒你心里越来越冷坚固的灵魂
此刻你也就别再等

不能再等不能再等让热情变冷
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我刺探你最深深深处你的秘密
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
别再等待不曾降临的真理
黎明之前
只要和你
尽情嬉戏

我不在乎你的姓名
你的明天你的过去你是男是女
我是如此的清醒
不打算离去也不打算真的爱你
相恋不能再倾国倾城
倾倒你心里越来越冷坚固的灵魂

此刻你也就别再等
不能再等不能再等让热情变冷
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我刺探你最深深深处你的秘密
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
别再等待不曾降临的真理
黎明之前
只要和你
尽情嬉戏

In the early days of Chinese rock, there is clearly an emphasis on originality. In many ways, older songs of the day simply couldn’t express the meanings these bands wanted to put out for their generation. For Chinese pop music, the emphasis is more on melody, and for many romantic songs, the message is pretty universal. Sometimes remaking a classic can be a sure seller that has a guaranteed accepted melody and message. Recently, Chinese rock has also taken on this trend as well with everything from Zheng Jun remaking the classic Why are the Flowers Thusly Red? (花儿为什么这样红?) to Cui Jian’s perversion of Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) classics like Small Town Story (小城故事). More interesting is the emergence of the “translation version” (翻版) of many foreign songs. It is extremely common in Chinese pop music to take songs from the American and Japanese musical traditions and merely to re translate or re-conceptualize the lyrics. Chinese rock music has also begun to follow suit. The popular mainstream rock artist Zheng Jun (郑钧) has made several remakes and “translation versions” as well as his own original works. Many American rockers may recognize this remake of Coldplay’s song Yellow translated into Chinese as Falling Star (流星):

I want to know how long can a falling star fly
Is its beauty worth pursuing or not

The flowers of the night sky, are scattered behind you
Giving me long lasting happiness. It’s worth going to wait for.
So my heart runs like mad from dusk till dawn.
I cannot bear it again.

Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
The insects become the breeze of the moon light – become the breeze of the moon light
I leap from my body – leap into your river
I swim all the way to the end. It’s so free there.

I make a wish, I make a wish to protect
And set my heart still at the most beautiful moment.
Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
Willing myself to never see again the radiance of the sky.

Happiness leaps into your river
Swims all the way to the end
(It) leaps into your river. I make a wish to protect
At the most beautiful moment, I make a wish.
I want to know how long can a falling star fly.
Giving me long lasting happiness.

我想知道流星能飞多久
它的美丽是否值得去寻求

夜空的花散落在你身后
幸福了我很久值得去等候
于是我心狂奔从黄昏到清晨
不能再承受

情愿缀落在你手中
羽化成黑夜的彩虹
蜕变成月光的清风成月光的清风
我纵身跳跳进你的河流
一直游到尽头那里多自由

我许个愿我许个愿保佑
让我的心凝固在最美的时候
情愿缀落在你手中
羽化成黑夜的彩虹
情愿不再见明媚的天

幸福跳进你的河流一直游到尽头
跳进你的河 我许个愿保佑
在最美的时候我许的愿
我想知道流星能飞多久
幸福了我很久

[1] A Chinese idiom that refers to how beautiful women can cause the kingdom to collapse. Similar, in many ways, to the idea of Helene of Troy.

Chris Heselton is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

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By Chris Heselton

Rock is revolution! Rock is rebellion! Rock is democracy! Well, at least Axl Rose seems to think so with his new album Chinese Democracy. A rock legend singing to democracy in China seems almost poetically fitting. When people tend to think of China and rock music, it almost always comes back to democracy, more specifically, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Rock was the theme genre of the liberal, underground democratic movement. Ever since Cui Jian (崔健) played “I Have Nothing” (一无所有)—sometimes translated as “Nothing to My Name”—at the protest, rock music has been associated with democracy in China, and this song its theme song.

Few think of Chinese rock as a popular mainstream conformist genre, but they would be mistaken to believe that rock is impervious to pop music trends and the lure of a larger audience (and profit). Since the turn of the century, Chinese rock has made a roaring comeback – surging this time not into a political movement but into the mainstream of Chinese language music. This rock music is different from the rock of the 80s and 90s. Mainstream popular music has now fused with rock to form a musical genre fitted to the popular music taste of young Chinese listeners. Whereas rock in the 80s dealt with depressing themes of individualism, social alienation, and disassociation (though plenty of young people who listened to Cui Jian then also consumed their share of gentle and sometimes upbeat Canton Pop on the side), now bands are looking to the same themes that have always figured in modern pop, regardless of the country – love, loss, nostalgia, upbeat felicitation.

What’s to account for this change? Some have argued it is government repression of more underground rock music in the recording industry, but I think that is probably giving the government too much credit. Many non-mainstream rock bands do get recorded – just this year one of the elites of Chinese rock, Tang Dynasty (唐朝), came out with its new CD, The Knight of Romance (浪漫骑士, 2008); however, many of these albums from non-mainstream groups never achieve the popularity that turn them into musical figures of national adoration. Even Cui Jian, the father of Chinese Rock, had his latest CD Show You Color (给你一点颜色, 2005) bomb. To put it simply, the majority of Chinese youth generally find it hard it to relate to the lyrics and melodies of some of the more hardcore rock.

A video about the band Tang Dynasty
For rock to enter the mainstream, bands have had to adapt and conform to popular music taste to which a young general audience can relate and find acceptable. It is no different from popular music trends in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, or even American rap music in the 1990s. Musicians have the option of either conforming to the mainstream and hitting the big time or remaining in obscurity. For many rock bands, this means breaking away from themes of individuality and emotional detachment from society and singing more generally about love. The instrumentals also become subtler and lighter, and swear words and inappropriate themes are generally avoided (with exceptions). The influence is not one way, however. Many elements of rock music have entered into the repertoire of, especially Taiwanese, pop singers/groups like S.H.E. and Jay Chou (周杰论).

This does not mean that the good old days of rock are gone though some may think so. It really shows a new diversity in the options of artistic styles. Not everyone has to be the non-conformist anti-social rocker to be a rock star. Rock stars and groups like Xu Wei (许巍), Zheng Jun (郑钧), May Day (五月天), and Shin (信乐团) have all become household names in recent years employing the electric guitar with softer lyrics showing the influence of Cantonese pop music. Leading the way in this popular transition of Chinese-language rock are Taiwanese bands, but this does not mean that Chinese musicians have been left in the dust. Even some of the old school rock stars like Tang Dynasty and Cui Jian are willing to be at least partially co-opted to achieve a portion of fame and their proverbial slice of the pie.

Meanwhile, the more hardcore groups like Overload (超载), Yaksa (夜叉), ChthoniC (閃靈樂團), and Brain Failure (腦濁), although they all have several albums, are relegated to an underground sub-culture unable to capture large audiences with their rebellious lyrics and rough instrumentals. This diversity of approaches in Chinese rock is a far cry from the revolution, rebellion, and democracy that some once believed rock stood for, but it is the new dichotomy of Chinese rock as some have become popular rock stars and others underground cult favorites.

The lyrics are where one really can see the differences. To show you how these bands are made, in the next section of the article, I would like to share with you the lyrics of several popular rock songs that do succeed and compare them with those that did not.

[Part II can be found here.]

Chris Heselton is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

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Rocking Beijing

By Eric Setzekorn

Like almost every aspect of Beijing life in the past five years, the live music scene has undergone rapid but uneven development. Beijing has always prided itself onthe gritty originality of its live music compared to the dominance of cover bands in Shanghai or the saccharine Canto-pop of Hong Kong. The recent opening of new, modern venues on both sides of the city has allowed dozens of new bands and a newly affluent urban youth to establish a flourishing but still shallow live music scene.

For live music, particularly rock and hip hop music, the Olympics are bringing challenges such as new rules and regulations but could allow some bands to develop a global fan base which remains a central difficulty for Chinese groups. A less immediate and more difficult issue will be resolving the internal contradictions between Chinese rock and its relation to Chinese society. The elephant in the room of any discussion of China’s music scene is how to rectify the anti-authoritarian values which infuse rock music and even more so punk and hip-hop with the boundaries of the Chinese political system. At present the young, often highly nationalistic youth seem to be pulling in the same direction as the government, which comes as a shock to many foreign visitors and seems to betray the core anti-establishment values of rock, punk and hip-hop. However, the post-1989 cultural détente in which musicians stayed away from politics may be eroding.

Beijing has slowly struggled to rebuild its music scene after rock music had been identified by the government as a “bad element” following the events of 1989. The introduction of punk and alternative rock sounds from groups like Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the 1990s helped influence new groups like the all-girl band Hang on the Box, which was the first Chinese band on the cover of Newsweek Asia, and whose music marked a sharp change from the Bruce Springsteen-esque Cui Jian types of the 1980s.

However, the still small underground rock scene suffered from a lack of funding and limited exposure that kept most groups at a non-professional level. It has only been in the past few years that bands have been able to perform in purpose-built, high quality venues in front of large crowds. The opening of D-22 in 2005 by American professor Michael Pettis was a turning point and helped revitalized the Haidian university district’s languishing nightlife and live music scene. Across town in business-oriented Chaoyang, several venues with a capacity of up to 2,000 opened their doors to both local and foreign groups.

One of the most interesting clubs is the centrally located “Mao Live House” near the Bell and Drum tower, north of the Forbidden City. A converted movie theater, it has space for up to 400 and, with backing by the Japanese “Bad News” record label, installed high quality lighting and sound equipment–surely a first for Beijing. Its snarky logo features only the hairline of Mao circa 1970 in black set against a white backdrop. Mao also shows various local underground films during set breaks. A recent five-minute film showcased a young film student doing tai-chi while standing on an on-ramp to the second ring road. Throughout the five minutes the incredibly brave/foolish filmmaker was not questioned or stopped by any passerby or even the police but his attached microphone recorded a constant stream of profanities from drivers.

It would be easy to assume that venues like “Mao” possess and cultivate the anti-establishment ethos that permeates many rock, punk or hip-hop clubs in the U.S. or Europe, but the non-political tone of the majority of musicians and fans limits many of the protest aspects of rock music. The majority of live music fans are under thirty, urban, middle class, often have a university education, and have benefited greatly under the current political system. For a variety of reasons–strong economic growth, a tightly controlled education system, and no memory of 1989–the younger generation is generally optimistic and supportive of current policies, which means bands that inject politics into their music risk isolating themselves. In addition, some Chinese musicians are highly sensitive to criticism they are “acting like foreigners” by playing rock or punk music. At a recent show at D-22, a lead singer prefaced his set by appealing to the audience to remember that even though he wore western style clothing and his band used western style guitars and drums they remained wholly Chinese in spirit.

More than any other event, the now infamous Bjork concert in Shanghai on March 4th, where the Icelandic singer closed her song “Declare Independence” by shouting “Tibet,” has deeply affected Beijing’s music scene prior to the Olympic games. For fear of other political disturbances by foreign acts, the always-cautious Beijing city government postponed until October the widely anticipated annual Midi rock music festival that normally draws over 10,000 rock fans.

There is also a fear of violence by Chinese fans directed towards any band that might make a political statement about Tibet or Darfur. Even without provocation, Chinese fans can be highly temperamental; in 2003 and 2005, nationalistic young Chinese pelted Japanese bands with beer bottles during the music festival. The Tibet protests this spring have also encouraged nationalistic tendencies and a more belligerent attitude among many young Chinese, musicians included. In one of the small CD stores catering to underground and local rock groups, one of the most prominent DVDs is a brutally graphic account of the Lhasa riots showing charred bodies and graphic violence captured by security cameras. The video’s narration continuously denounces the rioters as traitors who serve the Dalai Lama and his foreign sponsors and stresses the need for firm action to regain control. Adjacent to this grisly and apparently popular documentary, shop workers sat on the floor with guitars strumming along to a Nirvana Unplugged CD.

However, not all musicians are in step with the party line and many do succeed in hiding political and social criticisms in their lyrics. The wildly popular Carsick Cars song “Zhongnanhai” has a chorus of,

“Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, if you smoke just smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, can’t live without Zhongnanhai,
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?”

The subtly of the double meaning (Zhongnanhai is both a brand of cheap cigarettes and the senior government housing area adjacent the Forbidden City) no doubt overshoots many listeners, but vagueness is necessary when every recorded lyric must be vetted by the Ministry of Culture. In a recent Time Magazine article that listed Beijing band PK14 as one of its five bands to watch in 2008, lead singer Yang Haisong listed American protest singers Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan as his inspirations. While not every band will go to the extreme of the hip-hop group Pan-Gu, which is currently in exile in Sweden due to their anti-party message, the growing cross-pollination of foreign and Chinese bands could possibly increase the desire for musicians to become more vocal social critics.

To eliminate the possibility of disruptions during the Olympic Games, the Ministry of Culture has issued guidelines stating that acts that “undermine national unity, endanger state security, stir up ethnic hatred, violate religious policy and ethnic customs, publicize pornography and superstition will be barred,” with offenders likely being blacklisted but not arrested. Like many other socially undesirable facilities such as Beijing’s infamous Maggie’s bar, police have mostly used indirect tactics to halt activity. At present D-22 is closed due to “licensing issues” but hopes to re-open before the games. Other clubs have had problems getting visas for foreign groups to enter China. While the authorities will likely get their wish and eliminate any potential trouble spots during the games, the growth of live music in Beijing coupled with a more outspoken artistic community could be a potential source of future conflict and friction.

Eric Setzekorn is a graduate student at UC Irvine specializing in military history and is currently finishing an exchange semester with the Beijing University history department.

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