–  Music and Politics in China

A few years ago a sleazy, run down bar called D22 was one of the few places where Chinese underground bands in the capital could get a chance to try their wings. Its location  in the middle of Beijing’s northwestern district, in close proximity to several of China’s biggest and most prestigious universities, would prove perfect for attracting Chinese youth. The bar quickly became an outlet for the developing local underground music culture.

D22 was opened not by a Chinese pioneer, but by an American professor teaching at Qinghua, one of the oldest universities in China. What he saw was a serious lack in cultural venues for the city’s youthand their strong desire to make music. The management was anything but prejudiced; any kind of music seemed to get its time on stage. Cheeky poetry slams were not uncommon. Bands playing experimental music, punk, rock and hard rock all got their fair share of gigs. The result was fame and world tours for bands like Carsick Cars, the GAR, Wu, the Side Effects and Hanggai. D22 currently owns a label called Maybe Mars Records, and the profits go towards improving the local music scene.

Carsick Cars and Hanggai are bands of particular interest.The former, formed in 2005, is a Chinese indie rock band inspired by Western grunge and garage rock. They attract thousands of spectators to concerts and festivals around China. Their latest feat is a US tour, and has prompted Chinese underground music to be hailed by Western media as the “latest Chinese export”. While being largely successful, they also admittedly have an obvious political agenda. Their most famous album is called “You can listen, you can talk” and alludes to freedom of expression and its repression by the government.



Hanggai on the other hand, is a band with an unlikely concept. They blend traditional Mongolian folk music with punk rock and rock. Their songs tell of  steppe romanticism, the beauty of horses and the code of warriors, accompanied by throat singing, electric guitars and traditional instruments. Their singer is an ethnic Mongolian who decided to relearn his language in order to use it in his music. For them, singing and performing is a way to protect their cultural heritage.

Fast forward to present day central Bejing: The old run-down neighbourhoods have seen an explosion of night clubs and trendy hangouts. While running a live music venue might not be very lucrative (many bars often end up having to rely on volunteers to make ends meet), live music is being offered like never before. In contrast to the early years, new venues are being opened by a fair share of Chinese owners.

At the same time, the future of Chinese youth culture and the music scene connected to it, might be in for harder times. In light of these recent developments, a fitting question to ask might be: What does the Beijing music scene mean to the Chinese youth?

We sat down with Raquel Dou, a Chinese internet activist and music enthusiast originally from Chongqing. She lived in Beijing while she was a student there , and is currently studying in Great Britain. In her opinion, the music scene in Beijing is still in its infancy:

“Most musicians that I know are highly influenced by famous Western punk or rock bands from the sixties or seventies. You could say they are still mimicking the western way of doing music which I cannot object to. Most bands are just not very self-conscious about if their music is already done by others, or if they need to create something very innovative. It is a very good way of interacting with the rest of the world if you ask me. This is sheer appreciation of good art, and not giving a damn about sovereignty or nation.”

“I am sure it would be easy to read a political message into the music of local rock and punk musicians, and think that some are trying to express some political opinion, or that they are trying to break the repression. Yes, there is Carsick Cars who is pretty obviously targeting something. And there is Zhou Yunpeng, the blind folk guy, who sang “if you had a chance please don’t be Chinese kid”. But in my opinion, music is not a tool to serve politics. Of course there are always bands that are very politically conscious, but the majority is just expressing their emotions in music.”

She goes on by comparing the life choices of these musicians to those of mainstream Chinese society: “This is unlike many other Chinese who just give up their own life for objects like a stable career, family, high position and so on. And I would think music is a very good way to start being open-minded.”


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