Heavy Metal Rock Music and Chinese Elements: Tang Dynasty

Members in Tang Dynasty

In the class, we learned about the embryonic stage of Chinese rock through the example of Cui Jian (崔健). So, after Cui Jian, how dose Chinese rock develop? A large number of young generations influenced by him, and following on the upsurge of rock and roll, different genres of rock bands are just like the seeds in the spring field, vigorously sprouting from the underground and gradually appearing in the sight of the public during 1990s. Meanwhile, many bands or individuals began to officially record and release their first album in the 1990s (Boyi 21). One of the bands, Tang Dynasty (唐朝乐队), the first heavy metal rock band in PRC, is the most typical, successful and influential heavy metal rock band on Chinese rock history. team members include Singer and rhythm guitarist Ding Wu (丁武), bassist Zhang Ju(张炬), guitarist Liu Yi Jun (刘义军), and etc..

 In the following part, Firstly, I am going to choose two specific songs from Tang Dynasty band—“A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty” (梦回唐朝) andThe Moon Hangs High” (月梦) for analyzing. I will try to prove that This band successfully absorb the essence of Chinese classical culture, including poems and traditional instrument, so that the creation of rock lyrics not only has the profound cultural elements, but also has the vitality of modern fashion how Chinese rock music. On the next step, I will discuss the successful reason behinds Tang Dynasty on social aspects.


Representative works

A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty
The Moon Hangs High

After the first time rock music introduced in China, Chinese rock artists never stop exploring for a better combination with local traditions. I will try to mainly analyze the Chinese elements and emotion feeling in Tang Dynasty songs from different dimensions.

Chinese red tassels (screenshot form “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty”)

The first dimension is the visual sight of this band—the decoration of instruments and name. If we pay attention to the mv of “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty”, we can find their guitar, bass, and drum are decorated by the Classic Chinese elements such as Chinese knot and classical tassels. Then both the name of this song and the name of the band show a strong admiration for the tang dynasty. Why they have this kind of admiration? Because the tang dynasty is an unprecedented period of prosperity in Chinese history. The self-naming of “Tang Dynasty” band not only pursues the shock effect of novelty, but also appears on the public’s psychology of nostalgia, which closely relates to the dream of making the nation great again.

he Second dimension is the lyrics. The lyrics of “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty” intentionally pursue the classic style and a lot of classical images, such as “菊花” (chrysanthemum), “古剑”(ancient sword), “庭院” (courtyard), “明月”(bright moon) and so on, filled with the atmosphere of classical romanticism. Most of the classical images in these rock lyrics come from Tang and Song poems (唐诗宋词), even one sentence directly cited from Du Fu’s poem(安得广厦千万间). Similar in The Moon Hangs High”, the lyrics repeatedly portray the moonlight, which is a universal literary creation in Chinese poems to highlight the loneliness. The Chinese ancient poem elements and techniques are fully used in the Tang Dynasty’s lyrics.

The third dimension is the music forms. The structure of the song combines both the advantages of heavy metal and the Chinese pentatonic scale. To be specific, just the same as standard metal music, in “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty” camel bell ringing at first, then turning into a high guitar solo, the lead singer begins to sing. On the next step, the song turns into the chorus and slows rhythm. Finally, the whole song turns chorus again, rise again to climax. This structure is pervasive in west heavy metal music. But with the Chinese pentatonic scale, In particular, the beginning of the solo is a typical way to show a very simple and slow melody line with a single instrument, and no other instruments to foil and accompaniment. utilizes banjo, bells, wind chimes and other small percussion instruments (wooden fish). In the music production, the continuous displacement of the guitar sound is used to simulate the dreamlike effect, just like lyrics saying “going back to the golden age of Tang”. At first, does not use acoustic instruments, are all Chinese Musical Instruments, introduces the audience to walk into a gate with dust of history, the grand scene unfolding of the millennium, with a strong big gongs, music abruptly from the delicate and elegant style into distortion electric guitar solo, this contrast suddenly brings a shock to audience. It is the first time that Heavy Metal’s rapid clamor perfectly harmony with introversive Chinese culture.

Reasons for success

As I first reason is that people in PRC began to accept more entertainments for overseas. In the 1990s, with the deepening of social and economic restructuring, modernization turned into a new stage. In this stage, people’s material living standard improves a lot than the 1980s. The public are willing to experience the sense of achievement and superiority brought by material wealth in material consumption. On the other hand, facing the tide of economic competition in the market, people experienced more work pressure, survival pressure, and tension in minds. In this situation, entertainment activities offer a way for people to relax, such as TV dramas and entertainment programs, and become the outlet to vent daily tension and stress. Rock music is the exact one of entertainment for people in PRC.

many bands or individuals begain to offically rocord and release their first album in the 1990s . At the same time, all kinds of open and formal rock live performances not only reflect the improvement of music professional skills, but also lay a foundation for the development of the full open and popular rock music in mainland China.

一夫· 博伊,《宣泄仪式:中国摇滚音乐的人类学研究》
the logo of Rock Records

Another successful reason is that record companies from Taiwan and Hong Kong bring a relative complete commercial mode to rock Music in PRC. The music industry on the mainland was gradually moving toward commercialization and starting to learn from Hong Kong and Taiwan again at the 1990s (Xiaoyan 41). Along with the continuous development of social economy, many music record companies from Taiwan and Hong Kong Discover huge potential benefits, such as the publisher of the Tang Dynasty—Rock Records Company (滚石唱片公司) form Taiwan. (Jeroen 614) Before 1990s, no one knows what was going on in the recording industry, but everyone was looking forward to the ideal income from music, to buy equipment and to make a better life for themselves. As Rock Records company came to Beijing, no doubt to the whole mainland, this company brought a set of mature music industrialization manufacturing rules, but also to provide an unprecedented professional music road from many bands, including Tang Dynasty. With the help from records company, the Tang dynasty began the production of the band’s first album, which was marked as an important step in the development of Chinese rock music commercialization. Tang Dynasty’s guitarist Liu Yijun said: “the tang dynasty took shape with the release of its debut album…… Rock Records signed us and offer a specific 10-year plan for us”. Anyways, the mode of commercialization boosts the popularity of rock music in Chinese Society.

At that time, Chinese society was “in a transitional period of national knowledge reconstruction. In the general confusion and hesitation, some people started to ‘look outward’, while others chose to ‘look back’.” Many rock bands spared no effort to advertise the so-called “post-modern”, “post-colonial” and other foreign style.

Wu Qiong, Aesthetic Study of The 30 year’s Transition in Chinese RockMusic

Different from other bands in the same period, “Tang Dynasty” takes the opposite approach, focuses on using the essence of Chinese classical culture to create its own characteristics. When we look at the lyrics of “Tang Dynasty” music, we can easily find that they have a spirit of reflecting on life and tracing Chinese history. The numerous art forms in the lyrics of “Tang Dynasty” create a hotblooded and heroic atmosphere, and these surprisingly present the spirit chivalrous men in ancient China. The mood of Nostalgia on history eventually blend with rock music, demonstrate a silent resistance to the present status of China in the world. This style just like heavy rain on the desert, and easily ignites the emotion of audiences who have aesthetic fatigue on other ordinary music.

Relations to class

Although traditional Chinese culture was deeply invaded by western culture and severely undermined during Cultural Revolution, the wind of “Chinese style” brought by Tang Dynasty, just like Jay Chou’s success in 2000s, not only evokes the retro emotion and the pride of ethnic feelings among Chinese young people, but also provides a meaningful answer for correctly inheriting traditional Chinese civilization by modern ways. “Chinese style” is designed to guide young people to pay more attention to Chinese traditional culture and long history, and lights the way to cultivate unique creativity based on Chinese culture.

Combining with the case study of the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, it is clear to find that the modern Chinese in PRC have nostalgia for ancient China. During the opening ceremony, many themes are directly relating to the golden era in Chinese history, such as Silk Road and Zheng He’s Expedition. But, in order to express the memory and longing for the golden era of Tang, the Dang Dynasty band indirectly takes advantage strong rhythm of heavy metal to present their emotion. This emotion reveals the dream of making China great again among most Chinese. 

In the Tang Dynasty, similar examples of dynamic inheritance also should be noticed. Ding Wu, the lead singer of the tang dynasty band, studied the singing of Beijing opera in his childhood. In “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty”, we can find a period of singing is based on Beijing opera singing style “Hua Qiang”(花腔), which sounds like a kind of sonorous and passionate singing style. For most young generations in China, everyone knows tradition operas, but few of them have a real enthusiasm to study them. However, the combination of modern elements and Chinese classic culture, depending on audiences’ needs, should be considered as an effective way to advocate.


Although the first debut of the Tang Dynasty has been around 30 years ago, many elements they used seems out of date, they still leave many inspirations for people in the rock industry. Meanwhile, by reinterpreting the ancient culture and the long history, the Tang Dynasty successfully attracts the young audiences in china to perceive Chinese classical beauty in western Heavy metal rock style.


Fu, Boyi. Cathartic Ritual: The Anthropological Study on Chinese Rock Music. 2008.  Chinese Art Academy, Ph.D. dissertation. 

Jeroen, Kloet. The China Quarterly The China Quarterly No. 183, Culture in the Contemporary PRC, pp. 609-626. Cambridge University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20192511

Wu, Qiong. Aesthetic Study of The 30 year’s Transition in Chinese RockMusic. 2010. Jinan University, Master dissertation.