The Yaogun Diaries, part 1

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".


When I first went to China back in 2006, one of my goals was to learn as much as I could about music there. Being the musical omnivore I am, that included everything from traditional folk music to academic Chinese Classical music to pop and rock – whatever I might find there. Somehow I never managed to see a Peking Opera show, but I saw dozens of rock bands, and the whole phenomenon of rock in China fascinated me.

While it's undeniable that rock music is a Western art form in its origins, it's also undeniable that it has had an impact all around the world. I think this is in part because rock is not a clearly defined genre, but a kind of cultural chameleon. It can absorb various outside traditions and remain rock. This is nothing new – it started back in the 60s when elements of European Classical music and the music of the Middle East and India started to filter into psychedelic rock. As I see it, rock was born out of the union of rhythm and blues (at the time mostly confined to predominantly black communities) with country music (primarily a white form of music), so it should be no surprise that rock is good at melding what may seem like opposites. Over the decades since its birth, rock has mated with just about every possible form of music on the planet, and its bastard offspring can be found just about everywhere you could point on a globe.

So it should come as no surprise that there is rock music in China. I've even had reports that rock is starting to make inroads in North Korea, though in a highly constrained form that mostly resembles 60s surf music – all instrumental, thus avoiding any questionable lyrical content. The government of the People's Republic of China is also known for censorship, though it is nowhere near as restrictive as North Korea, and musicians there have their own methods of dealing with it. We'll get to that later.

I went to a lot of shows at clubs, theaters, and festivals over the last two and a half years in Beijing, and you can get some descriptions and photos on my China blog by searching on the music tag. Like any thriving music scene, Beijing has artists that cover a wide variety of styles, from raucous classic punk to acoustic singer/songwriters, from experimental noise to sweet technopop. Some of them come off as derivative of their Western prototypes, some of them are wildly original. Some of them sing in English, some in Chinese, and some in other languages. All in all, there are easily a couple dozen artists there worthy of international attention, and from my own difficulties, I know how hard it can be to learn about them. There is precious little information, even in Chinese, to guide you, and a lot of it is extremely difficult to come by outside the country. So I'd like to share what I've learned, and help bring together some of what's available elsewhere on the web.

First up, there is an online directory, Rock in China, that has a lot of information, most of it in English. It's an evolving resource with user-created content like Wikipedia. I've been contributing there myself, and will continue to do so as I have time and facts. I've also contributed and updated artist bios on Last.fm for many of the bands I know. A lot of Chinese rock is available for download at VeryCD, though I'll leave it up to others to determine the moral/legal status of what's there – it's also in Chinese, though I've found that even with limited language skills, it's possible to make my way around. I can give some lessons for those who are interested – just ask.

And now, since it seems like it would be a shame to end this post without covering something specific, I'll tell you about...


This is one of very few Chinese bands which is available on CD in the US. Their first album, Cut Off!, was released by Tag Team Records, and they’ve toured in the US, including a spot at SXSW in 2007. Their first album lists their full name as Reestablishing the Rights of Statues – later items have called them Rebuilding the Rights of Statues. The Chinese version is 重塑雕像的权利 (chóngsù diāoxiàng de quánlì), which can be translated either way.

That American release (actually an EP) is a 2007 re-release of something that came out in China on Badhead Records (a division of Modern Sky) in 2005 with one added track. Both are called Cut Off! I have the Chinese version. As the story goes, Brian Eno was working in the same studio where they were recording, liked their music, and ended up doing some guest keyboards on some of the tracks.
Stylistically, they are most closely related to Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Pere Ubu and early Talking Heads, though they are distinctive enough to avoid any charges of being mere copycats. Their lyrics are almost entirely in English.

TV Show (Hang the Police)

There's also a video for this song, which you can watch online:

I first saw them live in November of 2007 at a little club called 2 Kolegas, which is a great place located inside the grounds of a drive-in movie theater, along with a number of other bars and restaurants. It was my first time going to the place, and it was not easy to find. The taxi driver had no clue (at that time I spoke very little Chinese), so it was lucky I’d looked at a map and knew the general location. It was a triple bill, starting with Subs, then Re-TROS, and finishing up with Hedgehog. I’ll talk about the other two later.
Re-TROS put on an amazing show, very intense with energy and commitment, probably including imperfections but much too enjoyable for me to care.
The lyrics, which deal with social issues bordering on politics, were pretty much indistinguishable. Lead singer 华东 (Hua Dong) is extremely emotive in a jerky David Byne kind of way.
Bassist Liu Min (刘敏) is less demonstrative, providing solid low end and backing vocals. Ma Hui (马晖) is mostly simple, but quite imaginative on the drums, with lots of unconventional patterns and unexpected accents.

2Kolegas is a great place to see a show, not such a great place to take pictures since the lighting is pretty minimal. You can read my original post about the show here.

After that night, I didn’t get a chance to see them again until June of 2009, at the release party for their full-length CD with the unwieldy title of Watch Out! Climate Has Changed, Fat Mum Rises... (including punctuation), which is out on Modern Sky in China. So far no outside release that I'm aware of.

My Great Location

This show was at Yugong Yishan, which is much bigger, with better lights and sound than 2Kolegas, though lacking the cozy dive ambiance.
This band was great before, but have since grown into something truly awesome. The new material is rather atmospheric on the CD, though the live show was every bit as intense as before.
Liu Min even handles lead vocals and melodica at times.
Hua Dong sometimes sets aside his guitar to concentrate on singing. When he does this, there are often taped guitar parts filling in. These “non-live” elements are mostly unobtrusive and do not detract at all from the impact of the show. I have also written about this show here.

In short, this band is one of the best bands in China, well able to hold their own with any band anywhere, both live and in the studio.

Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Re-TROS
Band home: http://re-tros.com/face.html
Band Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/rebuildingtherightsofstatues
Tag Team Records: http://www.tagteamrecords.com/
Modern Sky: http://www.modernsky.com/

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot for your help on Rock in China!!!

    Rock in China