Singer Kang Mao of Beijing punk band the <br><a href="">SUBS</a>. Photo by <a href="" target=_blank>Andrew Field</a>.
Singer Kang Mao of Beijing punk band the
SUBS. Photo by Andrew Field.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: China's Primal Scream

Jul 26, 2007

Andy, how did you come to focus on the Chinese music scene?

I think that my overall project, which began when I decided to write a dissertation on the influence of jazz-age nightlife on China in the early 20th century, is about how globalizing cultures of dance and music affect China. During the 1920s and '30s, Chinese people in Shanghai and other big cities took to ballroom dancing and jazz music, though it had to be played differently—watered down one might say—to the way it was played in the West.

Today when you visit China, you find that people are ballroom dancing on the streets and it seems so natural, such a part of Chinese culture now that you don't realize that it was a big struggle for them to learn how to dance partner style. This is really the subject of my first book: How China learned to dance between two world wars and a great revolution.

My second book, which I'm working on with my colleague James Farrer, a sociologist of China, is about how the Chinese passion for international style dancing and music continued through the Mao years despite suppression and reemerged in the 1980s and '90s through a vigorous dance club and bar scene. I'm a historian by training, so we can each tap into our strengths and create a coherent story about Shanghai and its cultures of internationalized nightlife through the entire 20th century. I draw on my research on the 1920s-50s, James on his studies of dance clubs in 1980-90s Shanghai, and we both draw on a wealth of personal data from years of observing the club and bar scene in China as participant observers. But more recently while living in China this past month I've become fascinated by the—for want of a better word—independent live music scene.

What does the live music scene in China say about the country's relationship with the world? Will the world see a China cool, corresponding to Japan's gross national cool?

China has a dynamic relationship with the world, not just absorbing other cultures but also feeding into them—and not just with factory-made products either. We can already see the results in the world of film: The Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese's film The Departed was based on a film made in Hong Kong. It is only a matter of time before other facets of Chinese culture become popularized in the West.

Already there are many more people studying Chinese in Europe and America and Australia than ever before. One of the American students I currently teach here in Beijing has been studying Chinese since elementary school and is already quite functional. There are millions of Chinese living abroad and actively relating to the societies they live in, not just sequestered in a Chinatown. So the opportunities for cultural mixing are there.

In terms of music, China's independent music scene is diversifying rapidly. Most people associate China with Cantopop or Taiwanpop which tends to focus on singing idols who don't write their own songs, but here in Mainland China live bands are becoming ever more ubiquitous. I've been told there are over 600 bands actively playing in China, which doesn't seem much compared to America or Europe or Australia but if you graphed the growth of independent music bands over the past two decades, I think you'd see an exponential rise that will only keep growing. And these bands are creating their own music, albeit music that is sometimes heavily influenced by certain genres and subgenres in the West. Yet there is also an unmistakable influence of more traditional Chinese folk music on some of the bands, suggesting that the music is being glocalized to use a popular term in academia.

Since moving over here in June I have personally seen over 50 bands playing live in festival concerts or in small clubs. They are incredibly diverse, ranging from punk bands such as No Name, Joyside, Scoff, Hedgehog, and the SUBS—all popular bands in Beijing—to heavy metal in all its diverse subgenres, e.g. the Shanghai band 45 or the Beijing band Chun Qiu, to techno-pop a.k.a. the New Pants, to experimental, to folk. Many bands defy a distinct genre and are experimenting with a mix of influences. Banana Monkey, a Shanghai band that I saw perform twice in the past three weeks, does a cool mixture of grunge, metal, pop, and hip-hop and puts on a great act. There is tremendous energy and vitality in this scene, as you will see if you read my blog.

Are Chinese feeling freer to express themselves in art generally? James argued that sexual rights are linked to political rights. Would you link artistic expression with free expression and speech in China?

Today there is much more room for free expression in the arts than anytime since Mao's Rectification talks at Yan'an in 1942—as long as it does not cross certain boundaries. Most artists get away with subtle digs at the current regime, not outright protest but expressions of dissatisfaction that are easy to see if you read between the lines. This is true for the visual arts as well as music. Many bands sing in English, and if you read their lyrics, you can see that they are expressing a collective anxiety about China's past, present, and future.

But I think it goes way beyond China.

What these artists and musicians are expressing here is universal, which is why I think there is a market for their art in the West. One common theme is the march of post-modernity, which is affecting all of us all over the world, though as William Gibson says, not all at the same time. People living in any big city, especially Shanghai or Beijing, have seen these cities transform completely over the past decade. Everywhere old buildings are being knocked down, new ones growing in their place. At the same time all sorts of influences from abroad—Hollywood films in the form of pirated DVDs, music downloaded off the internet, American TV shows, European fashion designers, foreign restaurants, clubs, cultural events, concerts—are pouring into the country changing the way people look at life. In the past few months, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and the band Sonic Youth played in Shanghai.

Chinese are taking the musical idioms developed in the West to critique society or to express a primal scream about the nature of humanity and are applying them to Chinese society.

The parallels with the early 20th century when Shanghai was the gateway between China and the world are obvious, but the pace of change is much more rapid now than ever before. I think that the artists of China are capturing how they feel about the changes, a mixture of elation and anxiety, bewilderment and surprise, and above all, a deep uneasiness about where the world is going. You can see this if you go to the art district in Beijing known as 798, where over 80 galleries showcase the latest trends in Chinese visual arts.

This to me helps explain why punk and heavy metal bands are so popular now. Chinese are taking the musical idioms developed in the West to critique society or to express a primal scream about the nature of humanity and are applying them to Chinese society. While for various reasons their influence is limited here, it's obvious when these bands play that both Chinese and foreigners in the audience get what they are doing. They don't have to get it cerebrally, just viscerally, and you can see that when they writhe and dance to the music or sing along to the songs.

What has been your experience with your blog so far?

I actually don't know who reads my blog exactly, aside from friends and family and the occasional comment by an anonymous reader. I do know from statistics that are available to me through my platform that the subscribership has jumped in the past three weeks from around 300 to over 1200, and I expect it to keep climbing. The other day a Chinese woman posted a comment about my blog on Wei Hui's book Shanghai Baby, which I'd posted a couple months ago. It was obvious she'd taken some time to write her comment and that she was laying out her genuine feelings and insights, while challenging some of my own opinions. I was so thrilled that I turned her comment into a blog.

I'd really like to encourage more people to comment on my blogs or to send me stuff that they have written, which if it's of good quality I'm happy to post. I'm hoping that this will develop into a dialogue about China, where it's been and where it's going.

Do you have many Chinese readers?

There are two things that limit my audience here in China. One is that I write in English. The other is that this site, for unexplained reasons, is blocked in China. There is no reason for it to be blocked here since it is by and large a celebration of China, though I do throw in a critique here and there. My guess is that many sites that shouldn't be blocked here are because the system is like a sawed-off shotgun. Maybe there are one or two sites on my platform Squarespace that are controversial here, and that is enough to get the whole platform blocked. To be honest, I really don't know how that works. So most of my audience I think is abroad, though I do have a site that I hope is reaching more people here locally, where I post my blogs as well. But I'd be really happy if they unblocked my shanghaijournal site.

What inspired you to start a blog?

I think what originally inspired me to create a blogsite was that for a long while I was actively participating in a lot of online or email discussions in various forums including H-ASIA and MCLC and Asia Times Online, and I felt that I had a lot of things to say that didn't quite fit the academic format of books and articles.

My guess is that many sites that shouldn't be blocked here are because the system is like a sawed-off shotgun.

At the same time, I've been an avid photographer and more recently a filmmaker in China and I wanted to publicize some of my photo and film collection so that people could benefit from it. Most of these photos and short films are didactic in nature, describing a certain historical or contemporary site, an event such as a performance, or lunch at a restaurant. To be honest I haven't put together films lately for my blog because I am already spending a lot of time on the blogging itself and the filming I'm doing now is more serious and oriented towards a long-term project.

A third reason I built my blogsite is that I feel that the standard media focuses way too much on the more sensational aspects of China, giving people in the West a slanted view—take the current shoddy products campaign in the western media, which has been hyped ad nauseum. I felt that I could take some of my academic knowledge and apply it to people, places, and things that I encounter in China through daily life or through my projects. Not that I wanted this to be an academic website—in fact, I try to stay away from the four-syllable words that we academics tend to string together into long and convoluted sentences just to show how clever we are. I prefer short declarative sentences and try to be as accurate as I can in describing things, places, and people, adding my own reflections and insights now and then.

You have used many mediums in your work, including movies and blogs. What's next for you?

I have another project based around the assassination of a Japanese officer in Shanghai in 1935, which is a fascinating case study in local and international politics during the vital period prior to the outbreak of a full-scale war between China and Japan. I've already done archival research on this case in Shanghai and Tokyo and have a pretty good theory of what happened and why it's important to tell this story. Sino-Japanese relations is one of the most vital issues in this part of the world, as anybody following the news would know.

As Walter Benjamin once wrote (I'm loosely paraphrasing here), history is constantly changing because it is constellated with our understanding of the present age. My historical research is conducted with an eye on illuminating the present. More and more I'm becoming interested in capturing certain aspects of contemporary China as they grow and change—history in the making so to speak. I consider myself an inheritor of the Benjaminian way of documenting past and present, though I don't possess his aphoristic skills. One thing I have that he didn't is film.

My latest film project, which began last month, is to document the country's live indie music scene. Over the next few months I want to get to know the bands, the club owners, the promoters, the record producers, and the audience. This weekend I plan to attend a concert in Hunan featuring veteran rocker Cui Jian and a Beijing-based punk band called the SUBS. I don't know yet where this project will lead, but I've invested a lot of money in a new HD camcorder, and a lot of time in filming and documenting the scene, so I'm hoping I'll be able to recoup my investment in time and money some way or other.

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