Why Aren't Chinese Rockers Political: A Primer

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poverty lines from World Bank study
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Update: I urge you to also read some excellent and lengthy comments at the end of the post.

Since the post-sars underground scene started to take off and gain international notice, there have been several articles written in the English language press asking the question Why aren't Chinese rockers political?

There's an easy answer to that, they are political. Just like other music scenes. Just like people in a society.

But today, via China Music Radar, I read the next generation of article which appears to up the bar by modifying the question to Why aren't Chinese rockers political enough? It seems to me that by adding more depth to the previous articles, they have simply increased the amount of biased writing and skewed premises. But, before I get into that you should read the article yourself, in full. You may like it, who knows?

Where can you start? The article itself it fully loaded with blanket statements and contradictory ideas. It starts by declaring that they aren't 'political' and then continues to give examples of how they are, but not enough. Look at the title. If people are pampered they won't complain about politics? That's ludicrous and untrue. Sorry folks, Ayn Rand was full of shit. What are it's premises? For a start, that Chinese rockers are all pampered. And to such a degree that they forget about societies ills. Utterly ridiculous. I'm loath to take apart all the classic fallacies as it would be ultimately pointless. What is political apathy? Someone once said, "withdrawing in disgust is not apathy."

I have to stop there, the problem is with the writers of these articles and their lack of awareness. Through a set of dodgy premises they then extrapolate out to an article full of nonsense. So I think the best way to illustrate my own point of view is to do just that - illustrate my own point of view. 

Here are some questions and statements of intent:

* We are one human race.
* We have one human culture with variations. Similarities that bind us, not differences that are irreconcilable. 
* What does 'political' mean?
* Who can comment on 'politics' and what is enough or too much?
* Can culture be apolitcal or neutral?
* How is our world defined?
* What does pampered mean? What is the true state of money and class in the world today?
* How 'political enough' are bands in our own countries?

I think it's best to start with a clear picture of the world we live in and how it has 'developed' in the post WW2 period. Click on the picture above. Those are the figures provided by the World Bank's development indicators. They were completed in 2008 and they reflect the year 2005, before a crash widened the gaps further. It's adjusted for purchasing power too. Click here for all kinds of stats.

So 80% of the world, or 5.15 billion people, live on less than $300 US dollars a month and that's the top percentile of that group. Most of my readers are based in China. That's less than 2000 RMB a month for ALL needs and that usually covers the whole family. The remaining 20% are what we think of as the 'middle classes' and the tiny super-rich. 

Look again, 3.14 billion people, or half the world's population, live on less than $2.50 a day ... or 500 RMB a month over here. Half. China's most recently touted statistic was 300 million internet users. Hey, that's only a billion without and it brings them in line with the global averages of 20% - just like the wealth distribution pictured above. 

Did you notice something? I make way above the poverty lines but ..somehow ... i'm drawing attention to the plight of others and getting all 'political' ... something does not compute in the world of mainstream discourse. 

It's important to note that this has actually been a time of unparalleled  poverty and no-peace for the vast majority of young people in the world and apathy doesn't come into it for them. Take the conflict centred around the Congo, if that was happening in Europe on that scale it'd be called World War Three.

So what is politics? Are you ready?

* We live in a society, as long as you interact with anyone except yourself, you're in one and compromises take place.
* Those interactions and compromises manifest as relationships.
* The managing of those relationships, at any level, is ... 'politics'.
* Don't confuse power and politics. Although they rarely come apart except at the abstract level.

We are all political and everything we do or say has some impact on society. No matter how big or small, or what the perception of it is. 

Who can comment on or affect 'politics'? All of us. We just do. Think about freedom of speech or thought. They just are. It's what we naturally do. When people talk about human rights what they actually mean is human un-rights or supression. 

So what is happening when anyone suggests that some people can or can't talk about politics? That's power.

Also remember, people use words for all kinds of their own meanings. The most common use of the word 'politics' is to describe the business of our leaders. The most common use of the world Political, in English, seems to be a negative slur that suggests the receiver mind their own business about things that are above them. There are many many others.

What kind of relationships do we have in society? Well, as I said before, we have a single culture with variations. Global society is ordered by the idea of nation-states. The world is fully carved up into territories with closed borders. You need a passport to leave, Your life and identity is governed by this arrangement. They claim to be a natural manifestation of the people, they are both state and nation, despite clearly being an abstract that came into being across colonialism. This is a recent part of history and not fixed in any way.

Importantly, across this one system, the spread of development and wealth mirrors that of the World Bank stats with people in the upper 20% enjoying the most freedoms. After the financial crash of 2008, even the most disinterested punter is now aware that apparent wider mobility of lower classes in developed countries is falsely propped up on debt and loans.  

Before we get back to being 'political enough', lets throw in one more thing, the environment. What the use of being a millionaire in Shanghai if all it gets you is a 150 sq metre concrete box among the smog and light industrial sprawl? And, what's it like living on 2.50 a day if you also have no land to grow things on or any clean natural water source? Hello, half the world.

So I want to ask a question. What does it mean to be 'political enough'? It doesn't make sense. It's a none concept.

These writers never ask this question of their own scenes. They see China's situation as unique and yet at the same time hold them to a standard based in their own country. The only references appear to be to bands that are 'political enough', as examples. But that's few and far between. Also, My experience is that mainstream writers in the UK and USA tend to sneer at anything 'political' in art and write it off as preachy or heavy handed. They lack a coherent set of values and they lack a coherent worldview. They see parts of the world as relative or uniquely separate as it suits them, to justify illogical and undeveloped threads. In the article, the word political means about ten different things at different times. 

So, really, what does Alice Liu think is 'political enough'? I think in this case she, and the other writers, are substituting 'political' for passionately campaigning for the overthrow of the current power.  

And here's the rub, by saying China and by saying rock she is implying a standard that exists outside of China. That rock musicians have a special place in society for overthrowing governments and that they have fulfilled that previously. Obviously that's balls. Rock has many bands and genres, most of which do not engage in social criticism or direct action. Where's the post-war authoritarian society that was toppled by the people with the help of rock music?  And what is enough? Because the article thinks that saying it is not enough. And why choose Carsick Cars and not someone actually political like The Subs? And be careful here, I myself do believe in direct action and activism but I'm not talking about if it's possible or desirable - I'm talking about the implications of the article and their relationship to reality.

But as I said, this is all obvious nonsense because ask a stupid question and you'll get a ... you know the rest. Lets conclude with a conclusion.

In the article Alice says:

On his blog, Shouwang wrote about a dawn trip by him and a friend to the square, where they milled around for a while. The police noticed them, saw them as suspicious-looking characters and placed them in the back of a police van, from where Shouwang looked miserably at the square in the rising morning light. The result was one of the most popular songs on their debut album, in which he sings: "This is a square without hope."

... and then ...

One of the things that Shouwang reacts against is Internet censorship. On Carsick Cars' second album, there is a instrumental song with the classic title of "The Firewall Killed My Cat." Without lyrics or any particular sentiment, the song may be beautiful, but it is hardly talkin' about Shouwang's generation.

Well he kind of is. In fact, he did. 

Endnote: if anyone would like to know my own personal idea of music and 'politics' they can go here, thanks. 

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Hey Andy,

I agree with you in some points, esp. about that bullshit articles being written about the "high-time political rockers" and "how amazing, there is punk in China, revolution!".

And there is one more thing these article writers are not taking into account: the culture of where Chinese rock music is produced.

Music itself is a highly sensitive medium in Chinese culture, and, as e.g. Andreas Steen has pointed out in his thesis, music itself was never used as a pure entertainment medium in China but always used as a medium of message transport, hence also the fear of politicians when "huang yin yue" entered the country and later when Cui Jian and others went on stage to sing their songs.

That the spirit of politicising music was somehow "broken" after a certain incident at the end of the 80s can clearly be seen by the lyrics of those bands that mainly came out afterwards, including the whole wave of pop punk, power metal, extreme metal, etc. that focussed more on the self / ego than on the relationship between government and society.

I don't judge, but I just add my point of view, that sometimes people writing those articles should take a little bit more time to put some sense into their writings, so that at least the whole story is correct.

What do you think?

I agree with you, and thank you for adding an intelligent comment.

These writers need to bring more perspective and to come to terms with the realities of our world first. There's quite a lot of what I think in the post :) Don't want to say much more.

Thanks for that link too.

I think the most interesting thing is the standard Alice Liu is holding these bands to. Comparing Carsick Cars and other bands to is Cui Jian? His music was revolutionary, for sure, and pointed out lots of failings of the government, but what made him so "political" in the sense that Alice Liu seems to me was the reaction he got from the government. So because the government isn't cracking down on artists that are fairly political - like you mentioned, The Subs - and banning their music for decades... means that the band's not political enough? Seems a little unfair. And really, shouldn't it be applauded that China isn't cracking down on rock, rather than being disappointed that more bands aren't creating enough of a stir to get thrown in jail?

But I think the reason I most liked reading this article is the point you made at the end: "Rock has many bands and genres, most of which do not engage in social criticism or direct action." Precisely. Rock and roll can reflect a time and place and feeling without having to foment change or incite uprisings. It can just be good music, and it's just as interesting to see the reflections of a society where people's standards and interests are changing.

Excellent points, Jemma.

This is what I'm talking about. I don't think that everyone must follow my worldview to the letter, I just wish that these writers would put in the same amount of thought as you or Max (above) did before they shoot off about such broad topics.

Thanks Andy. William Burroughs once said that a critic can only legitimately ask two questions of a work of art: 1. What is the artist trying to do? and 2. How well did he pull it off?

Most writing about Chinese music fails this pretty reasonable test. We have all decided what Chinese musicians must do in order to fill our own fantasies of Chinese art. For some of us, they must play the er'hu and smile a lot (as Shouwang once told a German critic). For others, they must be "politicized" in the same way trendy Western artists are. For still others, they must sing in certain ways, dress in certain ways, and otherwise be "Asian". One way or the other they must play up to our ideas of what constitutes Chinese art.

This is nonsense. Chinese arists should have exactly the same freedom as American or European artists to explore anything they think interesting, important or relevant. It is our job to understand what they are doing, not their job to satisfy our expectations. If they are at times a little embarrassed by the overheated political nonsense espoused by Westen artists, who are clearly more eager to get CD sales and newspaper inches with their "politics" than to overthrow the government, then we shouldn't demand that they agitate to overthrow their own government.

I would add that the only way to judge whether Shouwang is speaking to his generation is to ask young Chinese. Since they throng his shows and constantly cite his influence on their own music, I suspect that he is speaking to at least part of his generation.

By the way William Burroughs (and Jack Kerouac, for that matter) always insisted that we was not political in the least and was only interested in withdrawing from a culture that he found incomprehensible. We now know what an incredibly powerful and influential political statement that turned out to be. The same refusal by Shouwang and his supposedly "apolitical" contemporaries to participate in a system they dislike is far more political and incendiary than all the radical anarchist bullshit espoused by a thousand Western punk bands.

I only just read the article. The first few Chinese bands I saw, I was always expecting some big political statement- it just seemed like that's what the angst, which a lot of rock music has, would be focused on.

There's no reason why bands should play up to my expectations though, or why they shouldn't be focussing more on developing a style rather than ticking boxes of things to shout about.

Thought this bit was interesting:

"Our pressure has nothing to do with Cui Jian's," Haisong said to me after performing at a packed concert..."But it's different now. Three out of the four of us have regular jobs, and after you're used to it, it becomes comfortable"

The way I understand it- 'Nothing to my name' was about having no job and no prospect of getting one, so it is a totally different situation and their concerns won't be the same.

It'd be interesting to see how the visual arts scene deals with the same expectations from foreigners. I'm guessing you sell a lot more paintings down at Taikang Lu when you throw a couple of red stars and Mao jackets in there.

@ Michael

Thanks, wonderful comment. Great quote to start off and another area for us to consider about these articles: projecting identities and expected identities.

And I should say thanks in a general way too.

I have to repeat this quote from you, "It is our job to understand what they are doing, not their job to satisfy our expectations."

@ James

Yes, nice thoughts. Joyside are a good example of a band who formed around a similar idea. Bian Yuan felt that he had no place in this society nor any power to change it and reacts by dropping out and living a life of purposeful nihilism. This resulted in the album 'Drunk is Beautiful' with is, philosophically, anti the ideology of the times. The tracks are politically specific too, attacking things such as the university system.

Joyside are a 2000's band and an example of how these articles are just plain wrong.

However, my post is more about why these articles keep cropping up and what's the thinking behind them.

@Jemma: I want to add a couple of views on Cui Jian and him being or not being political. Cui Jian himself has repetively rejected being political.

Andy has mentioned above his POV of "political" and the concept of what people apply it to. Politics as itself are a product of a rules and concepts applied by a government or representative bodies to a society that is formed by historical frameworks and cultural boundaries. Political would thereby be any action having greater influence on these rules®ulations.

I would not say that Cui Jian wants or not wants to be political, but that by his mere actions (due to whatever motivation), he has become a person of political importance, especially as Chinese culture has given music as medium of message transport a different value in society as in Europe. Hence other political bodies are more worried about the impact of Cui Jian. People attributed that to him.

And honestly speaking, the metaphors and actions of Cui Jian, e.g. performing on Tian An Men with a red strip of cloth over his head, expressing maybe blindness upon the "red world" (my interpretation) is not necessarily the statement of a punk singing that he loves his world drunk (Joyside: Drunk is beautiful).

Still, comparing Carsick Cars and Cui Jian is comparing apples with oranges, as Cui Jian, from the very beginning, was able to perform his music in front of a vast different audience and as such was able to use his actions in different ways than Carsick Cars can do in D-22.

@SwissJames: Andreas Steen has written a whole chapter interpreting Cui Jian's music and meanings, incl. Nothing to my name. Sorry for not having finished the complete translation yet.

Rock on!!!

In a previous reply to one of Andy’s posts I said something along the lines of the local music scene here having huge potential and being refreshing and inclusive and downright fun. It is to me a reflection of modern China (or at least modern Shanghai). Is music really the thing that spurs change in society or does music reflect the current state? Punk/post-punk, whatever - It was angry music from angry people who felt displaced and disillusioned; to suggest that a generation of kids here with aspirations and desires who genuinely feel that they have a brilliant future should be singing protest songs is a tad silly but sure to sell copy. Seems to be a common theme of hers however: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KF19Ad01.html

Like any other country and music scene the views, opinions and ultimately music will be widely varied based on the fact we are individuals and our personal experiences vary. I love what I see/hear here, I grin like an idiot at some shows and get way too carried away for a man of my age purely because the energy and buzz that is generated is so overwhelmingly positive. This to me is a reflection of the society I am lucky enough to be a part of and why the article was complete and utter rubbish; we go for the music, as someone said it is not our role to demand and expect, we are there to be entertained.

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