ba ling hou: best identified by their ambivalence
July 26, 2009 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Beijing's underground: "Five years ago, none of my students at Tsinghua or Beida had any interest in what we would call countercultural stuff," says Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Beida's -- that is, Peking University's -- Guanghua School of Management who owns D-22 and the Maybe Mars label. Today Mr. Pettis estimates that a quarter of his students have been to rock clubs and maybe 5% to 10% "are really knowledgeable and sophisticated."
posted by kliuless (27 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Wang Xinjiu, a 19-year-old from Liaoning province who is a student at Bejing's China University of Mining and Technology, embodies the changing social tide. "The people in my university, I don't hate them; they are good boys, they are good girls. But they don't know how to think (outside the box)," he says. In pursuit of university, all they learned to do in high school was "study, study, study." For him, rock and roll -- which he fell in love with at the age of 14 after seeing the early Chinese punk band The Flowers on television -- offered an outlet.

Out of one box, into another. Why do formulaic, 30-year-old Western musical styles (punk, hip-hop) still symbolize rebellion to some people? Hey China: Come up with something new that will blow us away, and make China a fount of originality (or at least novel syntheses) like Vienna in the 18th & 19th Centuries, Memphis in 1952, or Detroit in 1962 (or, hell, the Bronx in 1978). Don't add to the world's garbage heap of guitar songs and electronica.
posted by Faze at 8:45 AM on July 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

China doesn't exist for your entertainment or to enrich your personal cultural experience. If adopting the trappings of commercial American conforma-bellion subcultures helps create nonuniformity in China then let them go on with their bad selves. There's no reason these kids have to conform to your tastes or notions of authenticity.

Besides, isn't repurposing, remaking, and remixing American culture exactly what has been going on around the entire world for much of the last 100 years? Why should China somehow be different just because you want them to perform like a little Renaissance monkey for you?
posted by majick at 8:52 AM on July 26, 2009 [19 favorites]

So cutting edge Beijing counterculture is about expressing your brand loyalty through music indistinguishable from 15-year-old post punk?

It's like cool had its kneecaps broken at Tiananmen and never recovered.
posted by sbenthall at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2009

Why do formulaic, 30-year-old Western musical styles (punk, hip-hop) still symbolize rebellion to some people? Hey China: Come up with something new . . .


There's no reason these kids have to conform to your tastes or notions of authenticity.

Only problem is that the tastemakers we are currently discussing are either American or American-educated (looking at you, D-22). Don't mistake them for "China," for crying out loud.

Whatever counterculture may emerge as China emerges as the dominant world power it is bound to be (if it has not already become) won't be recognized by the non-Chinese world so easily. Before you go off on how "the Chinese" are imitating the pseudo-rebellious elements of Western rock culture, or before you celebrate it as some sort of awakening, be aware that these are the pseudo-rebellious elements of contemporary China's privileged classes you're reading about.

Out of a billion people, they amount to a tiny fragment of a tiny fragment.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:02 AM on July 26, 2009

As compared to "pop," "rock" is not just a style of music (which can be copied from the West, or whatever). It's a different model of musical production. Rock music means writing and promoting your own music, to a large extent. This was the important change in the complexion of American pop music in the '50s and '60s, not just some increase in the centrality of guitars.

Rock reaches audiences with a little more independence, and its practitioners are more independent themselves, as they are less the property of their management and distribution channels. (Of course this is a matter of degree; I know that. Nonetheless it is real.)

Rock does not signify counterculture just because American counterculture was rock-ish once. Rather it is inherently countercultural, relative to some other forms of pop music.
posted by grobstein at 9:15 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]
posted by sleslie at 9:20 AM on July 26, 2009

Michael Pettis, a finance professor at ... Peking University's Guanghua School of Management who owns [a club] and [a record label].

Okay, they've got the Sam Phillips--let me know when they get the Elvis.
posted by box at 9:22 AM on July 26, 2009

Waiting for the Chinese grime/dubstep/jump-up or glitch explosions...
posted by meehawl at 9:28 AM on July 26, 2009

I saw Carsick Cars at D-22 about four years ago and they were splendid. Got the sense that, at least in 2005, the Beijindie scene hadn't totally implanted; the bands were all locals, but the audience seemed to be made up of Chinese people in bands and American rock fans living in Beijing.

Here's my blog of it
, which has a link to a Paste story on Beijindie and YouTube of Carsick Cars performing "Zhong Nan Hai" at D-22.
posted by escabeche at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2009

Like Americans know enough about Chinese culture to identify counter-cultures.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:41 AM on July 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

Besides, isn't repurposing, remaking, and remixing American culture exactly what has been going on around the entire world for much of the last 100 years?

And America, of course, was simply remixing European folk and Latin African rhythms to come up with the musical culture that it spread elsewhere.

I think Michael Pettis might be struggling with the idea of a counterculture though (hardly surprising for an entrepeneur working in the Finance faculty, perhaps?) Because there's been a nascent counterculture of sorts in China for much of the last twenty years or so. You can see it represented in the novels of Wang Shuo and in films like Unknown Pleasures, Walking on the Wild Side and Xiao Wu. The people in those stories are grappling with a desire to expose themselves to the cultural product of the capitalist west, in part as an act of rebellion, in part due to their desire to consume, and in part because they see Western stuff as cooler than the stuff that's approved by party censors.

And the people producing those stories are producing new, distinctively Chinese stories that acknowledge but aren't determined by what's happening in the rest of the world.

All of that's far more interesting and far more radical than whatever non-approved pop music the kids happen to be consuming. If that's the criteria, then the late Teresa Teng counts as counter-cultural too.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:42 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you want native, Second-hand Rose combine rock-n-roll with traditional Chinese music, a kind of folk music comedy/story-telling from their native north-east called 二人转 (last clip there has them live at D-22 this year) and it's all fronted by big lump Liang Long in drag.
posted by Abiezer at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Like Americans know enough about Chinese culture to identify counter-cultures.

That's a good point. Where hearing about this supposedly stale cultural appropriation from someone who's really into it and owns a club for that kind of music. Obviously he's going to be excited.

Japan has, or had a pretty conforming culture but obviously it's spawned lots of subcultures. But I don't know if we'll see as much in china due to it's tight control of the press and media and authoritarian government. No one is going to be actively trying to stamp out new cultural movements in japan, but is that really the case in China?
posted by delmoi at 10:30 AM on July 26, 2009

Does everyone have a solid definition of a counter-culture as opposed to a subculture? I've always thought of a subculture having different values and/or tastes than the mainstream culture, while I think of a counter-culture as a subculture which is in active opposition to the mainstream culture, denying its legitimacy or right to exist (whether effectively or not). So to my understanding, the goth and anime fan scenes would be subcultures, while punk rock and hardline would be counter-cultures.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2009

Regardless of the authentic/inauthentic debate, the growth of a contemporary rock music scene in Beijing it pretty interesting. All these "waiting for the next elvis", "make something really original!" comments are so impatient!

China spent decades trying to destroy and eliminate its own culture and history, while the 1st world was EXPLODING with cultural developments (which is not to say that all these developments were inherently good or anything, but for the last century or so each decade has been dramatically different than the previous in terms of clothing, fashion, music, communication, entertainment, etc etc). Now, all of a sudden, 2 billion people are quickly gaining access to the tools required for the production and dissemination of their ideas, and simultaneously gaining access to 60-odd years of the rest of the world's cultural explosion. It's totally insane. And of course a lot of what is produced will sound, to westerners, like lame rip-offs (like this chinese skinhead band). But that's fine. D-22 is like a frog in an ecosystem. You may think it's ugly or annoying, but it's a sign that the creative/cultural environment is healthy and growing despite still living under a horribly repressive regime.
posted by molecicco at 11:41 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Motherfuck! I lived two blocks from this place for four months and didn't even know it existed.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:16 PM on July 26, 2009

Hmm, on second thought, it may not have existed when I lived in Wudaokou, if that business week article is to be belived.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:43 PM on July 26, 2009

For those who care deeply about such things, Cynthia Wong wrote a fine PhD dissertation (Columbia Univ.) on the Beijing rock scene, finished in 2005, based on fieldwork in the late 90s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, it's mostly behind the paywall at ProQuest, but a sample (and abstract) are available here. She describes the club scenes, the interactions between locals and expats, etc. -- focusing on metal/hard rock because the punk scene (subject of her last chapter) was just emerging then.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:20 PM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

In 1998 I went to a Chinese department store because I needed a new pair of speakers. I didn't have a lot of music to choose from to bring with me, so I brought a copy of Slayer's Reign in Blood just for giggles.

The kid behind the counter was about my age, knew who Slayer was, and recognized the song. We may have been from different cultures, but we were into the same disaffecting music for the same personal reasons. Don't discount this because it looks like something you think you recognize. You can't know what those kids are thinking until you spend some time talking to them.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:40 PM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Motherfuck! ...
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:16 PM on July 26 [+] [!]

Epony- never mind.
posted by zoinks at 3:06 PM on July 26, 2009

I was in Beijing in the late 1990s and there was already a skater scene. That's pretty counter cultural.
posted by wuwei at 4:47 PM on July 26, 2009

Man I read the first comment to this post and some of the subsequent ones and I was going to get all fired up and angry about how some people think they can just dismiss everything out of hand. But then I thought it would be better just to link to Tony Reno's excellent Dragonradio podcast and you all can do some listening instead of mouthing off.

(Tony lives in Hong Kong and has been putting out the Dragonradio show for a couple of years now - he only showcases Asian music and he avoids showcasing any music sung in English. Sometimes he finds some very cool stuff.)
posted by awfurby at 6:37 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

On the one hand this is pretty cool (owning a rock club in Beijing, as a foreigner, is nothing to sniff at).

On the other hand, I can't contain my snark-beast and must conclude that, indeed Professor Pettis, college kids tend to have more disposable income than non-college kids and like to indulge in music, drinking, and fucking, just like us Americans.

posted by bardic at 12:59 AM on July 27, 2009

For what it's worth, my wife spent much of the early 90's shacked up with an artist in an illegal (and since broken up by the Government) artists'/squatter colony in North Beijing. Her ex-was and continues to be to this day obsessed with the band Suicidal Tendencies.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:47 AM on July 27, 2009

^interesting! I find punks and alternative lifestyle types from repressive countries far more interesting than their western counterparts. A friend of mine from University was a punk in Poland in the late 80s... that is totally hardcore, considering the shit you could get into for being that different in that place and time. Now, I'd wager that, to the naysayers chagrin, even this artist/squatter's colony was populated mostly by the children of China's nouveau-riche, but that doesn't make these people completely immune to the repressive state they live under. I would love to get more information about people doing that kind of thing in China... especially if it's happening outside of Beijing/Shanghai.
posted by molecicco at 8:05 AM on July 27, 2009

Would that be the Yuanmingyuan, Pollomacho? Used to hang about with some characters from there back in 90s myself.
Was thinking of some of the genuine counter-cultural types, especially musos, I've met over the years here and many really were blazing their own trial by their own lights. What was that lad called that used to busk half the year in underpasses in Beijing then spend the rest off collecting folk-songs all across the north west? As a young stude in the mid-90s I was adopted by a wannabe rock band I happened to share a dormitory with briefly. Watching what happened to the various members of that gang over the years has been instructive too - one went on to be a big wheel at a major indie label; my best friend of the bunch became a junkie, went on the hippy trial to Yunnan and died a year or two back, the others various things in between those extremes.
posted by Abiezer at 8:20 AM on July 27, 2009

That would be the place indeed, Abiezer! I wonder if my wife and you have friends in common? I know several folks have ended up over at 798. Some of their friends her ex (who also now works in 798) now disdains as "sell-outs" who sell their pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more). My wife laments that she didn't buy more pieces for pennies when she had the chance!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:37 AM on July 27, 2009

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