The Beastly Archive

Yan Jun

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

From the Acoustic Guitar to Noise Music

I should start out by discussing those British lads, The Beatles.

Some people consider Cui Jian to be China’s John Lennon, but we need to keep in mind that China in the 1980s was very different from England in the 1960s.

The Beatles faced a divided society, full of vested interests and the difficulties of urbanization, as well as a ripening and corrupted political state . . . The band emerged in a world of private and state-owned media, where there were free performances and entertainment venues already in existence. The empty seats in these traditional venues seemed almost naturally to have been reserved for the young people who were beginning to put rock and roll at the center of their lives.

Cui Jian became a god among men with the release of his debut album, even though only a small number of people initially heard his music. Let us, for a brief moment, perceive things through the refracted light that comes from the tears of this small group of fanatics, who believe that rock and roll was actually born in China.

Rock and roll was not yet born. Even today, it still seems like the stunted body of a homunculus (the wizard in Faust). In one of the few reports that actually seems to understand Cui Jian’s place in China, we can read the following analysis: Cui Jian is part of the inner world of a generation of young people in an era of revolution. What The Beatles created was the image of a carefree life, and this proved to be an enticing ideology for a whole generation in China—a generation full of restive passions.

Blood and Iron, or Night Sweats—A Remembrance of a Decade in Rock

Right now, my computer speakers are playing the broken dance beat “Underworld,” while to the right of them, the stereo is playing the band, Trojan Horse, and I can hear their singer’s Goth-like humming. The music of both bands blends together. The abrasive sounds and the ear-bleeding timbre mean that my night has officially begun.

I must end this senseless nostalgia before daybreak. Chinese rock music is like my neighbor who died ten years ago in a car accident. I must stop yearning for the Sanlitun district, stop yearning for a more private life, as if even my own memory is something beyond me. I need to somehow fix my impatience and intolerance for things, the kind of impatience that an audience at a hardcore-rock show would experience, while perhaps first of all, I should give my twenty-first-century readers an explanation of the following:

My dear people, you should know how many days and nights I've wasted, how many youthful yearnings I have not satisfied, how much I have even neglected my own health and poured out tears, just in order for me to be able to say, “not bad,” and then to finally place my head on the pillow and fall into a deep sleep, and abandon my bitter search through my record collection; the way I flip past a few rare collectibles, staying busy listening to Underworld and Trojan Horse, but also choosing to listen to something more suitable when I am at work . . . Chinese rock bands are certainly not my next of kin, and I am definitely not their lawyer, so why does this music get me so excited that it has become the sole reason for my insomnia?

No, Tree Village is Not Utopia

In May 1999, when I first went to Tree Village, it wasn’t the same as it is now. Another way of putting it is that Tree Village at that time was already being called, “Old Tree Village.” I went there to see Micro rehearse. They had a practice space that was about six square meters, in which the drummer, Edamame, also lived. On the opposite side of town I met Xiazhu, who comes from the same town as I do and, because he likes to wear earrings, people in Jianghu Province call him Mr. Earrings. Together we headed towards Tree Village, and on the road we met Cao Cao of Trojan Horse and Zhou Yunshan of Ruins. At Hou Ying, we met Xie Qiang from Trojan Horse. There were rumors that Modern Sky Records were giving Trojan Horse a stipend of one thousand Yuan a month for their cost of living . . .  

I should say that Hou Ying is Hou Ying, and Tree Village is Tree Village, but that Hou Ying is also known as Tree Village’s Hou Ying. It is the southern part of Hou Ying, though, that is actually Tree Village. If you come from Tsinghua University and are facing west, walk along the polluted river on the left, and pass the piano factory on the right, and you’ll be on the right path. If you walk north for just twenty minutes and then cross the street, you will find yourself in Tree Village.

If you then walk north for another twenty minutes, you will pass the Tree Village elementary school and the rock and roll grocery store, that is, if you are not run over by the No. 371 bus or any of the other buses plying their routes along the road. You will then arrive at the Juyuan East station, and if you walk west from there, you will come to the Juyuan West station. If it doesn’t feel like a terrible hassle, you can walk north for another fifteen minutes, and arrive at a crossroads, where you will find yourself surrounded by restaurants, grocery stores, supermarkets, small residential communities, fancy black cars, loiterers, sewage waste, and then, if you look closely, you can see the big signs that display the words north east wang. You will have come to another important rock and roll village.

What should now concern you is that about five hundred feet away is a police station. If the police catch you without a temporary residency permit, you will probably end up in the Changping detention center and be fined before they send you back to where you came from. Of course, if you have a residency permit, or happen to be from Beijing, then please continue walking north, through the alleyway, and cross the street to the other side. Then walk through Dongbeiwang elementary school, past the fishing pond, so that you arrive at Gou Beitou’s public toilets. Turn and walk east until you get to the end of the road. This space is where Tongue have had their band practices since August 1998. It is also where the musician Wu Tun and the documentary filmmaker Sun Zhiqiang used to live, before it became a community of rock musicians. After Tongue and Wednesday’s Travels began using the space for rehearsals, Fragments of Sound and Night Duke both followed suit, and became part of the space’s rock and roll community.

If you aren’t feeling too dizzy, we will now head back to the Juyuan bus station, and then take the road to the east to have a wander. All roads lead to the Tree Village, and this is one of them. We will walk to the Technological Development Zone’s roundabout, and then head east again, go under the overpass bridge, and see the Midi music school’s campus in the distance. If we take a car we can reach the campus in ten minutes. Since 1998-99, Miss Zuzhou lived to the south of there, and in the east there is Dragon Village, where the band members of Autumn Bugs reside. Before they lived there, Xie Tianxiao of Cold-Blooded did, along with the eternally frustrated folk singer Yin Wu. If we move on from there, then the road takes us north, past the Yellow Earth store, onto a road scattered with weeds, just next to the railroad tracks. We should park the car at the main entrance of South Hualong courtyard. In front of us will be a place called Huoying, and while it isn’t quite on the map yet, it is well known by many prominent people in the music community as the place where new rock bands gather. Since Xiazhu and Tongue’s members moved to Huoying in 2000 or 2001, about fifty noisemakers and musicians have followed them. The quietness and serenity of the area was officially over.

Other Than Drinking Tea, the Chinese People Do Little Else to Get High

An interview with Dou Wei

Y (Yan Jun):   I have given a title to today’s interview. It is called “Other than drinking tea, Chinese people do little else to get high.”

Let me start off by talking about my personal experience. Ever since high school, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to get rid of the so-called shackles of “Traditional Chinese Culture” surrounding me, while I immersed myself in all things Western, including beginning to listen to rock and roll, reading modernist literature, and so on and so forth.

When I was young I didn’t think that traditional Chinese culture had anything to do with me; I suppose I didn’t even understand what it was. Looking back at that time I think I really just wanted to escape the environment in which I found myself.

It was only in recent years that I’ve suddenly realized that I am indeed a Chinese person, that I have that DNA in me, that I’m related to this place, to its ancient culture, all the way from then to the here and now, and I’m indeed related to all of that.

These past two years I've been reading up on some things, and when contemplating life, I’ve begun to incorporate the viewpoint that I am indeed a Chinese person. And your music, it just so happens that it makes me understand my country even better.

So that is the topic’s origin, and yet the title for the conversation actually comes from a Jack Kerouac novel that I read.

OK, let me start by asking my questions now.

To Kill Two Birds with One Stone—do you see any problems with this recording? What are its flaws?

D (Dou Wei): . . . Well, I guess I will have to listen to it again, because right now I don’t really know what to say. I’ve listened to it too many times. It’s nothing extraordinary; it’s just the result of practicing and playing music on tape. I have been listening to it a little bit recently, even when I’m at home painting, I’ll listen to it. There are all kinds of sentiments in it that one can listen to and admire, for example it references the latest SARS trouble, while it’s also a bit nostalgic.

Y:  Are you the leader of the band Not For Certain?

D:  I think the group determined that, yes.

Y:  Did Not For Certain ever play again?

D:  No, not since they played in Shenzhen [Christmas of 2011].

Y:  How come?

D:  Shenzhen was the happy ending for us. On and off stage. After the Shenzhen show, just as with my experience with Rain Sounds, everything became saturated to a certain extent.

[If we had continued], it would have been too repetitive, and the fun of it would have been lost.

Y:  OK, so then in 2002, you, Wang Xiaofang, and Wenbin established Good Night King Wen, right?

D:  That was after Shenzhen, it was a way for me to be a troublemaker.

Y:  The Goodnight King Wen double album hadn’t been released yet, right?

D:  I had not found a label for it yet.

Y:  OK, I want to talk to you about a few words this afternoon.

The first one is “dream” and the second is “fantasy.”

The word “dream,” whether it is the album Nightmare or in your records with your previous band, Dreaming, occurs frequently, as does the word “nightmare.” Fantasy has a deeper meaning for you, I think; it’s more deeply immersed in a certain realm. I take it that when you reference fantasy, you are referring to the state you were in before and after you released the album Hearing Voices.

But we can say that “fantasy” is something that is often seductive; have you been in this state, of being seduced by fantasy?

I’m looking for another word that can be used to describe your situation . . . Do you know what I am talking about?

D:  Have you ever heard Rain Sounds before? There is a song on there, “Virtual Language · Why Words.” There isn’t really, however, a relationship between the lyrics of the album and the concept of fantasy. The idea of fantasy isn’t really the concept behind “Virtual Language · Why Words.” Do you understand what I mean?

Y:  You were in the group fm3. Was this before or after you were in the band Not For Certain?

D:  After.

Y:  What part did you play in the band?

D:  I was only involved in their Flowers in the Mirror album. I was on the turntables, Zhang Jian also worked the turntables, but he also sometimes played noises from his laptop. Flowers in the Mirror was the soundtrack of things of the summer of 2001. Good Night King Wen was released in 2002, and there was no live performance of it, only a recording.

Y:  And now there won’t ever be one?

D:  Right.

Y:  So, now what?

D:  Now? Right now, nothing is for certain [laughter].

Y:  Were you satisfied with Good Night King Wen?

D:  We were able to form a band, which is already something. The album itself was perhaps 95 percent successful.

Y:  To go from dreaming to fantasy, and then to leave rock and roll behind—to go to a space where there are no rules—must surely have been the result of something changing in your life. So what has changed?

D:  As a listener, could you not hear it? One needs to use language to express oneself and for me this is very difficult. Long-winded statements can make language unclear. Sometimes the expressions one uses fail to convey meaning. Sometimes we talk just to talk. Such things have happened to me during my schooling.

Sometimes I beat myself up, and criticize the path I have taken. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Ever since I started school, by the way, I haven't been very impressed by my language teachers, who always seemed to simply be teaching me precisely that . . . language.

Y:  If you want to talk about learning, there are a lot of Chinese folks who lack education. When talking about a piece of music, we can say that there are things in a composition that are rather fragmented and that there isn’t a system to it at all. A sound, a single timbre, a performance technique: where do these things come from? What is their source?

D:  I don’t know, but we are all hearing the source when we listen to music. In the last month we have listened to gothic music, experimental sound, electronic music, and hip-hop . . . We have listened to it all. After listening to all that music, I still do not know the history of any given sound and its context, while I have also wasted a lot of time, very often thinking that I have invented something new, before realizing that it had already been done.

Freedom and Music

To talk about freedom, one needs to talk about politics and sex, since political taboos control our thoughts, and sexual taboos control our bodies.

But we also need to talk about the so-called ultimate freedom; the freedom discussed by religion, philosophy, literature, and art. This kind of freedom is different from the political kind that I reference above. It can be taken out of the context of the community that it is in and manifest itself at the level of the individual.

The spirit of the splendid scenery of the flesh of the earth is as common as “gold dancing in heaven, commanding me to sing.”

Thus we are now going to talk about music.

Music is an art form with many genres, such as avant-garde music; but we will consider things starting from rock music, because this way it is impossible to ignore the fact that music is as political as it is sexual.

Two characteristics of rock music are freedom of expression and the feeling of being liberated. These elements of rock music not only threaten our habits and societal taboos, but also engage in direct confrontations with those constraints.

Sometimes, rock musicians wail about anger and creation, and also sing about freedom, but in their heart of hearts they rejoice. That said, anger is a commodity that has only recently become popular, and like for the rock music that has also recently become so popular, being entertained by it is a pretty simple thing.

Entertaining someone, of course, is not the main purpose and mission of true rock music. For without imagination, or a sense of humor, or any spirit of liberty, the entertainment industry quickly becomes a sort of conspiracy. 

Moral comfort, competitive athleticism, flashy things, and beautiful voices weaving fairy tales: the so-called Kingdom of Entertainment can deploy this mixture of elements, but it reduces the authenticity of music.

Rock music has to have an attitude and be innovative. However, too much conceptual innovation comes across as not being direct enough, and if the attitude of rock musicians is too obvious, it can appear to be naïve.

Equally, the meting out of freedom can cause idolatry.

The freedom brought by avant-garde music is the most potent.

Our future shall be strange. During the last twenty years of the twentieth century, China has created the vanguard of art: avant-garde art, experimental literature, and underground music. The greatest difficulty with these forms is not that they are “incomprehensible” or “understandable” but rather that these forms are themselves attacked and prohibited, and this leads to their abandonment.

Rock is propaganda against the prohibition. While underground rock has freed itself from the mainstream, the high-art critics think that avant-garde music was abandoned by rock music, which is not at all the case.

Difference threatens the establishment. So does freedom. It creates more independent lifestyles.

Any innovation will loosen the system, and the system is, of course, constituted by the people.

No one prohibits you from using a TB-303 or a TR-808 machine to make music, although they were not originally designed and developed for a composer per se; and nobody shall forbid you from loosening the guitar strings if you want to play guitar in that way.

Sooner or later, no one will even forbid you from wearing your hair however you like, or being shirtless on stage at an evening party. Will you actually be free then?

About “Freedom in Music”

When I write of “freedom in music,” I see China’s burgeoning adolescents. I see them already being destroyed by repression.

They have the ability to think, they love freedom, and sometimes—with a little courage—they tell the truth. With this capacity for truth-telling, there comes responsibility, a responsibility to their society, and with this the youth become bitter. They feel self-hatred about their self-destruction, and they cast (is this the right word?) their anger into complete nothingness.

Of course, there will be rock music at their funerals.

In such disillusionment, one becomes twisted in anger, and one’s soul is infected by the devil.

This has nothing to do with freedom or music.

I do not agree with anyone who thinks that someone who doesn’t listen to rock music is an idiot, and I don’t believe in dressing cynically.

Bo (the music magazine) was accused of hypocrisy, accused of wallowing in its own despair, as if they could get true satisfaction from such despair.

It can be disclosed that some people have said to me:
“The kids these days are so depressed. People listen to this music, all of it is dark and unhealthy, and yet you are so positive about it.”
“Did you know that it makes people want to commit suicide?”

What makes children want to commit suicide?
Someone once said to me: “Music is music, and when you write about something sociological or cultural these things don’t even touch upon music.”

My answer to that is: I write to invite my readers to discover freedom.

The band Akino wants a certain critic to form his own band, to stop gesticulating, to finally prove that he has grown up and gained his freedom.

So, why don’t you become a god among men, he is asked.

So that he would not have to dictate the weather, he says.

translated from the Chinese by Mark Ge