Charting the rise of China’s indie rock scene

A visit to a Beijing club to watch two bands play in 2006, motivated Andrew Field, an associate professor of Chinese history at Duke Kunshan University, to begin an exploration of China’s indie-rock music scene that took him across the country charting its rise.

Field travelled from Beijing to Shanghai and beyond over the following years watching bands and interviewing indie-rockers (both musicians and fans) including many of the scene’s central figures, such as hardcore rock band SUBS and legendary Chinese rock musician Cui Jian.

Andrew Field (second from left) on the road in 2011 with members of Chinese indie-rock band SUBS

The result was his book, ‘Rocking China’, which documents how this musical genre broke out of underground clubs to reach a wider audience, pushing through against the constraints of traditional Chinese societal norms.

“Something exciting seemed to be going on with Beijing’s rock scene, and I wanted to find out more,” Field says in his book.

I spoke with him about his book and its insights into the “golden age” of Chinese indie-rock.

What inspired you to write the book? 

The book came out of a film project I launched in Beijing in 2007. That year I was living in Beijing, and I decided to film the indie rock scene. I spent a lot of time filming in rock clubs and at rock music festivals, not only in Beijing but in Shanghai and other parts of China. I also interviewed many bands and musicians, club owners, record label owners, and event organizers. I kept blogging about the scene on my website Eventually I made a film about the scene after partnering with Jud Willmont, a filmmaker based in Shanghai. Our film Down: Indie Rock in the P.R.C. (2012) was selected for several international film festivals and we screened it locally as well. A few years later, I decided to take the material I had collected for the film along with the blogs I wrote and many subsequent visits over the next fifteen years to clubs, festivals, and concerts, and follow-up interviews with people I’d met in the scene, and wrote the book. I wanted to preserve the scene in all its glory during what I think of as the “golden age” of indie rock in China.

How and why did China’s indie/rock music scene emerge?  

As I write in the book, the Chinese indie rock scene emerged in the 2000s. At that time there were already quite a few bands based in Beijing, and some new clubs emerged to promote indie rock. The most important clubs were D-22, Dos Kolegas, Yugong Yishan, and MAO Live House, all of which started up in the mid to late 2000s. At that time, there was a sizeable population of foreigners living in Beijing who supported the scene in various ways. And the Chinese fan base was growing as well. There were literally hundreds of Chinese rock bands vying for stage time. Though the scene was small compared to cities in the western world, it was a vital and vibrant scene that began to attract a lot of international media attention. To a lesser extent, indie rock music scenes were also developing in other Chinese cities like Shanghai and Wuhan, which I also document in the film and in the book.

Chinese rock band SUBS doing a sound check at a concert in Hunan province, China 

What is unique about the Chinese indie/rock music scene? 

Like so many other cultural scenes in China, the indie rock scene was the product of the sudden inflow of culture and music into China from abroad. This really began in the 1990s, with the rise of a grey market in CDs known as dakou (CDs are Compact Discs for anybody who didn’t grow up in the 1980s or ‘90s). These were partially cut CDs that were considered corporate rubbish, but in China they were the only media that offered musicians and music fans a wide variety of music from abroad.

Then came the internet and digitized music. By the 2000s, Chinese people with internet access suddenly had access to millions of songs from abroad, and they could absorb new and old musical styles. It all came rushing into China like a musical tsunami. Bands that came of age in China in the 2000s had a much wider variety of styles and influence to choose from. Bands in the 1990s were heavily influenced by a few western rock bands like Nirvana. By the 2000s, Chinese indie rock bands were claiming a much wider set of musical influences ranging from 1960s rock and roll to 1970s punk to 1980s industrial music and New Wave to 1990s grunge, etc.

Back to your question: what is unique about the indie rock scene in China? What I argue is that the Chinese scene was unique in that it absorbed multiple influences from abroad simultaneously, thereby creating a kind of post-modern pastiche by putting many different styles and influences from different eras of music into a blender and seeing what resulted. There was a tremendous amount of experimentation and that was being encouraged by the scene, especially in Beijing.

Kang Mao (left) and Wu Hao (right) of rock band SUBS on a train to Hunan province

What has been the inspiration behind the music of China’s indie/rock musicians? 

Indie rock bands in China were obviously influenced by western trends in rock music over the previous decades. While some bands adopted a style reminiscent of a particular era or even a particular band in the western world, others took a more eclectic approach and experimented with a mixture of styles. 

It’s also important to recognize that indie rock bands in China were also influenced by their own native culture and society. They weren’t just mindlessly imitating western bands, but also blending those influences together with inspirations from their own cultural heritage and social environment. Some bands even used traditional Chinese instruments, throwing them into their rock and roll mix. Of course, guitars, drums and bass were the pillars of the indie rock scene in China as they were abroad, but Chinese musicians were bringing instruments like Guzheng, Pipa, and Erhu into their music as well. This wasn’t the case with most bands, but it happened often enough to be considered a trend.

Lyrically, some bands preferred to sing in English, but most bands sang songs in Mandarin Chinese. There were some notable bands that sang songs in their own dialect such as the Shanghainese band Top Floor Circus, but they were exceptional. Whether singing in Mandarin Chinese or in their own dialect, some of these bands were drawing on the rich corpus of traditional Chinese poetry and songcraft that stretches back thousands of years. One example is the Beijing band Lonely China Day, whose songs were influenced by Song Dynasty poetry. Another poetic band that drew on all sorts of traditions and influences was PK-14 headed by the charismatic singer Yang Haisong. Yang’s lyrics were influenced by Chinese poetry but also by the poetry of the Beat Generation, and by the songs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and other troubadours from the 1960s.

Rock musician Cui Jian and band playing at a festival in Hunan province, China

Have there been obstacles to the growth of China’s indie/rock music scene?

Yes, on all levels of society. Parents were not happy that their children were getting off the “treadmill” of Chinese society to pursue their rock and roll dreams, as I document in the book. There was very little money in being an indie rocker and you couldn’t achieve the fame and influence of rock bands in the West, since the Chinese media didn’t support indie rock. Thus, there’s really no equivalent in China to the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen.” That said, local governments in China have been surprisingly supportive of the rise of rock music scenes in China. They have supported rock music festivals and concerts and seem to allow rock club scenes to flourish in many Chinese cities. Recently, Chinese indie rock has been showcased in popular online Chinese TV shows like Summer of the Bands, which catapulted many indie rock bands to national stardom and has done a lot to popularize indie rock in China.

You travelled by rail into the heartlands of China with the hardcore rock band SUBS and legendary Chinese rock musician Cui Jian. What were some of the highlights of that trip and what did you learn about China’s indie/rock music scene from it? 

I don’t want to reveal too much about this trip since I want people to read the book. But I’d say the highlight of that trip was watching SUBS and Cui Jian perform on stage in the middle of rural Hunan to an incredibly diverse audience of Chinese urbanites and villagers. As Kang Mao, the lead singer of SUBS said to the crowd, SUBS with its hard-core rock style was a “tiger’s salad” that was hard to swallow but good for the soul. Cui Jian was much loved by the audience who knew many of his songs by heart. He also claimed in an interview I recorded that music is good soul food, and that like deep breathing, it puts you in deeper touch with your soul and the feeling of being alive. Cui Jian has proven over and over that he is indeed the rock godfather of China. But SUBS also proved that China has a tolerance and an appetite for a wide variety of music.

Xiao Rong of the band Brain Failure on stage at MAO Live House in Beijing

What is the state of China’s indie/rock music scene today?  

On the one hand, in many respects, indie rock is flourishing as never before. Most big cities in China now have indie rock scenes and clubs as well as other music scenes. The tastes of young Chinese consumers continue to expand and become more sophisticated as China’s economy grows and more people are exposed to culture from abroad. On the other hand, the pandemic inevitably affected indie rock scenes as it did other live scenes in China. Many clubs shut down over the past three years, and many bands folded after having their concerts and performances constantly disrupted or canceled. But those that survived the past three years are now reviving the indie music scene all over China. The next step will be for foreign bands to once again come to China to perform, since any healthy music scene requires a global flow of musical talent.

What bands and songs would you recommend to anyone interested in finding out more about China’s indie/rock music scene? 

I would recommend checking out the playlist we assembled for the book. It was put together by DJ BO, who has supported many musical events and given talks on music on the DKU campus. You can find the playlist on Spotify or a slightly modified one on QQ Music. Here are the links:

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