Rock Music in China – An Overview

24 Nov
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By Harrison Bobbins | November 24, 2009

Today in China, there are two distinct styles of music that tend to dominate the airwaves: traditional pop music and Yaogun Yinyue (Chinese rock music).

“Yaogun” literally means rock-and-roll.  The introduction of western style rock music in China can be traced back to the early 1980s. In Beijing at that time, young adults became increasingly exposed to Western music and in turn, tried to emulate what they were hearing – and they did quite a good job. As early as 1980, the first band to ever play modern style western rock in China was formed — Wan Li Ma Wang. Their first shows were held mainly in foreign hotels in downtown Beijing to audiences of mostly foreign students. Wan Li Ma Wang was famous for playing mostly western-style classic rock.

While the genre of rock music in China was pioneered by a multitude of talented and gifted artists, only one artist has been  referred to as the “Father of Chinese Rock”— Cui Jian.  Born in Beijing, Jian showed aptitude toward music at a very young age. At the age of fourteen he began playing trumpet and by the age of twenty, he joined the esteemed Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to Jian, he was inspired to learn guitar by Western musicians such as Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Talking Heads, and the Rolling Stones.  In the mid-1980s, Jian formed the band “Seven Ply Board” (later renamed ADO). The band played music inspired by the Northwest Wind music style – a traditional folk style music originating in China’s northern Shaanxi Province. Northwest Wind style music was predominately popular between 1986 and 1989 and was influenced significantly by Cui Jian.

Jian’s style drew heavily on the traditional folk Northwest Wind music while also incorporating elements of western rock such as the fast tempo and strong bass. For many fans and listeners, his music represented a cultural movement – one that can also be discerned in Chinese literature and films produced around the same time.

In 1986, Jian’s hit song titled “Nothing to My Name,” became the first popular song written in China to use electric guitar. Jian performed the song on a television talent show, and became an overnight sensation. The song is now widely considered to be one of the most influential songs of his generation. Even to this day, some even consider “Nothing to My Name” an “unofficial” anthem for the student protestors during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

The brilliance of Jian’s work is often attributed to his unique way of incorporating the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments with electric guitar and other elements he admired in the western recordings he enjoyed.  In fact, when Jian first listened to western rock music on smuggled recordings from Hong Kong and Bangkok at 20 years old, he knew that he needed to spread this genre of music throughout China.

“We learned a lot by imitating,” said Cui Jian, “But we have our own problems, our own feelings to express, so we’ve started making our own music.”

If we explore the evolution of Chinese Rock through to today, the first part of Cui’s words is what typically bothers many young Chinese rock bands, while the later part (to a certain degree) give the excuse for those bands to think that they should not be bothered.

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