‘We Come from the Underground’: Grounding Chinese Punk in Beijing and Wuhan
The history of the Chinese punk scene in the scientific literature or in retrospective testimonies is traditionally dominated by a Beijing-centric approach, which stresses the importance of Beijing punk bands in the 1990s for the formation of this youth subculture. However, at the same time another punk scene was emerging in Wuhan, and no convincing argument has been provided to explain how, at the same time, in two Chinese cities, a punk movement appeared. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews and collection of data, this article aims to explain how in the mid-1990s young Chinese succeeded into territorialising a foreign subculture in two different Chinese cities.
My new article, “‘We come from the underground’: grounding Chinese punk in Beijing and Wuhan” has been recently published in Popular Music. In the article I try to explain how punk has been territorialized both in Beijing and Wuhan at approximately the same time, in the mid-1990s. In this blog post I want to let people hear the songs I made reference to throughout the article, and show some of the photos I used.
First, the title, “We Come from the Underground” – or “我们来自地下”, is the title of a song by the Beijing nu-metal band Twisted Machine 扭曲的机器, whose members studied at the Beijing Midi School of Music in the 1990s.
The introduction begins by the description of a concert in October 2012 of Shochu Legion 烧酒军团 at the Old What Bar. The Beijing street-punk band sings “Kill the Government” 杀政府 a few meters away from Zhongnanhai, the center of China’s political power.
Before analyzing more precisely the birth of Chinese punk in the 1990s, I start by giving an overview of Chinese rock and roll’s beginning (for more information on Chinese rock, I recommend the always useful book by Andrew F. Jones, Like a Knife. Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music), with the creation of local rock bands as Wan Li Ma Wang and Bu Dao Weng 不倒翁, but also expats’ rock bands, as the Dalu Yuedui 大陆乐队 or the Peking All Star, who performed in international hostels, less controlled by the Party-State. Cui Jian 崔健 popularized Chinese rock and roll in 1986 to the general public, when he performed “Nothing to My Name” 一无所有 on national television during the charity concert “Let the World Be Filled With Love” 让世界充满爱 at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium:
After the repression of the Tiananmen student movement, rock and roll was confined to the underground, after the participation of major rock singers to the social movement – as exemplified by this record of Cui Jian performing at Tiananmen Square for the students in spring 1989. Rock bands continued to perform, in international hostels and bars opened by member of the “rock circle”, as the CD Café, managed by Liu Yuan, Cui Jian’s trumpet player.
To be very (very) short, in the 1990s Chinese youth were influenced by pirated CDs and tapes from Hong Kong and Taiwan and, after 1992, by dakou 打口 CDs and tapes, foreign records sent by cargo to China in order to be recycled – sold on the Chinese blackmarket at relatively low price – see Jada Lee’s short documentary:
I try to understand why punk appeared in the mid-1990s, at the same time, in two different Chinese cities, Beijing and Wuhan. I briefly review the traditional arguments given to understand the birth of a punk scene in the scientific literature: the influence of one charismatic individual (Johnny Rotten or Malcolm MacLaren in the English context), the economic variable and the frustration of youth, or another argument put forward by Nick Crossley in Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion, the importance of a dense network between the bands and the existence of a critical mass of individuals interested in the same genre of music. While I found that Beijing and Wuhan reached a critical mass of punks (you can see my awesome graphics of punk networks in Beijing and Wuhan from 1997 to 2000 in the article), it didn’t help me understand how a punk scene emerged in these particular places. I thus focused on the fundamental question of space: where did the punk performed, hung-out, rehearse, etc. In the Beijing case, I found that early punk and grunge bands as UnderBaby 地下婴儿, 69 or Catcher In The Rye 麦田守望者 mobilized the resources created by the rock scene of the 1980s, performing at CD Café or the NianHua Bar, sharing the stage with rock bands, as Cui Jian, Dou Wei 窦唯 or Cobra 眼镜蛇 (the first all-female rock band), as these videos taken by David O’Dell show:
Bars and live venues explicitly dedicated to the nascent punk scene began to form in the late 1990s, as the Scream Club 嚎叫俱乐部 where a new generation of punk bands performed and hung-out, as the Wuliao Jundui 无聊军队 (composed of the bands 69, Anarchy Boys 无政府主义男孩, Reflector 反光镜 and Brain Failure 脑浊). Songs about the Scream Club show the importance of the venue, as “Scream” 嚎叫 by Reflector:
The situation in Wuhan was different. If Beijing had a strong rock subculture, with (relatively) plenty of resources, Wuhan had no already existing rock scene. If several Beijing punks were coming from middle-class and military (yeah that’s a thing) families, Wuhan punks were predominantly working-class. But they did find, through various connections – mostly from the local mafia or heishehui 黑社会 – places to perform and to rehearse, as Wu Wei, the singer of the Wuhan punk band SMZB 生命之饼 remembers. They also tried to perform in universities across Wuchang – even if the university administration often pulled out the plug. You can watch Wang Shuibo documentary on Wuhan punks, Nerver Release my Fist 绝不松开我的拳头 for more info:
Punks in Beijing and Wuhan not only created and mobilized spatial resources to perform, they also created a music scene and a complex punk infrastructure with bars, live venues, underground labels, zines etc. They imposed a new style and a collective identity which was shocking for the time. Anarchy Boys released a song, “Mistake” 错误, that made fun of a article published the official magazine Legality Vision 法制博览, which denounced Anarchy Boys as “hippies”, publishing photos of the band walking on Tiananmen Square, trying to manufacture a moral panic about Chinese youth decadence.