The Rise and Fall of Rock in China

In the past 25 years, popular music in mainland China has gone through an immense transformation. In the 1970s, the Cultural Revolution severely limited the popular music the Chinese government made available for consumption. However, Deng Xiaoping’s interest in opening China economically to the rest of the world in the 1980s also led to the sharing of ideas and cultures across borders.[i] The end of the Cultural Revolution, which loosened the restrictions on popular music in China at the same time of China’s economic opening led to Western music styles having a large influence on China’s burgeoning popular music scene. One genre of music that began to take roots in the late 1980s, particularly in Beijing, was rock and roll music, or yaogun yinyue. Rock first became popular with the student movement in Beijing, but by the early 1990s, artists like Cui Jian had become famous nationwide. The increasing popularity of rock and roll in China in the early 1990s was inhibited by political, commercial and social pressures, which have forced the genre to exist as an underground, urban phenomenon in the 21st century.


Cui Jian in Tiananmen Square

The rise of rock and roll in the late 1980 was largely associated with the student movements taking place at the same time. Cui Jian, considered by many to be the godfather of Chinese rock, even performed for the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Despite, Cui Jian’s claim that the “rock is a men’s to make people ‘feel real freedom,’ not institute political reform,”[ii] after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, PRC central authorities banned rock music performances. Even the CCP recognized the economic power popular artists like Cui Jian had though, and allowed him to embark on a huge nationwide tour to raise money for the 1990 Asian Games[iii] Though this ban did not last, it represented the beginning of yaogun yinyue’s long battle with the PRC for legitimacy.

After Cui Jian’s rise to prominence “a generation of Chinese rock emerged in the early 1990s that attracted a relatively large audience in mainland China.”[iv] This generation of yaogun yinyue, though drawing on Western music for inspiration, often used Chinese melodies and instruments or band names like Tang Dynasty that indicated China’s ancient glory. Early Chinese featured electric instruments and strong use of guitar, but created a hybrid and experimental sound as well. It often incorporated elements of folk songs and used traditional Chinese instruments as well and the song’s lyrics were primarily in Mandarin Chinese. Especially in the mid 1990s, song subjects to move away from political activism toward the identity crisis of Chinese youth and personal relationships. This growing pool of yaogun yinyue bands faced many obstacles in continuing their popularity however.

Throughout the 1990s, the socialist market economy in China was growing quickly and rock music’s appeal seemed to be in steady decline. [v] The rebellious spirit that had launched the movement in the 1980s was considered by many to be out of touch with the individualism and consumerism that dominated Chinese culture in the mid to late 90s. The government no longer outright banned rock music, but the state-run media began to support so-called tong su music, a kind of pop music originating in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tong su music and rock music are “produced, distributed and performed in fundamentally divergent ways”[vi] because the government controls and supports tong su music throughout every step of the music industry. The state run media houses help tong su singers choose their image, write the songs, produce the albums and videos and market the final product, but ignores the rock music scene.[vii] This isolation from traditional mass media has forced rock musicians to rely on small venues that attract a small, but relatively stable fan base.[viii]

Though rock seemed to be losing it spotlight on the Chinese music stage in the 90s, new bands continued to form, and they diversified into different genres within rock, such as punk, metal, and hardcore. As China entered the 21st century, its rock music was mainly isolated to underground scenes in urban centers, though many cities other than Beijing were developing healthy underground rock scenes, in particular Shanghai, Chengdu and Kunming.[ix] Rock festivals, like the Midi Music Festival, have sprouted in China since the turn of the 21st century and have even taken place outside of rock’s epicenter, Beijing, in cities like Shanghai and Kunming.[x] However booking venues for these large rock concerts and keeping them consistent is sometimes problematic because of the Chinese government.[xi]


Midi Music Festival 2007


Though the rock scene slowly spread across China, nationally the majority continued to prefer the tuneful Mandopop music “of a less aggressive, more accessible tong su (common or popular) character.”[xii] Chinese rock music is much harder, and abrasive than its Mandopop counterparts that have simple, easy listening melodies and easily sung along lyrics. Both rock music and Mandopop are often disseminated in China through piracy, which is more than 50 percent, and estimated to be even higher in alternative music like rock.[xiii] This makes comparing the popularity of Mandopop and rock through CD sales very problematic, though the numbers also suggest that Mandopop is immensely more popular with the Chinese public. In addition to piracy, rock music in China has also spread online in the 21st century, which has helped gain the attention in China and abroad.

Popular music is music that circulates the market in great quantity and with rapid turnover,[xiv] but underground music, operates outside of mainstream culture and has no access to nationalized media outlets. Rock began to develop and leave its underground scene in China in the late 1980s because of the student movement that was at the same time calling for political reforms and democracy in the Chinese government.[xv] Students used rock songs like Cui Jian’s “I Have Nothing” as a “focal point for their own affective investments, and incorporated the insights into their condition gained from the experience of listening to rock into their rhetoric (and in the case of Tiananmen, their political activity).”[xvi] The student movement’s discontent with the status quo e translated well into the authentic expression of emotion and individualism in the face of oppression that many associate with the early rock songs of the Chinese rock movement. Cui Jian’s lyrics “my strength won’t be hypocrisy anymore, my tenderness won’t be repented anymore, my freedom belongs to heaven and earth, my courage belongs to me” show the individualistic ideas of one’s courage belonging to oneself, and the disdain for the hypocrisy and control that rock music and the student movement saw in Chinese society. The nationwide success of the Beijing student movement[xvii] also helped promote the popularity of the new rock movement in China.

Because of disastrous consequences of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government began to work to discourage the genre. The number of rock bands in Beijing increased exponentially in 1990 in response to Cui Jian’s popularity and the harsh defeat of the student movement.[xviii] Though the ban on rock performances did not last, the government used other methods to discourage the development of rock as a legitimate force in China. Cui Jian’s huge concert in 1990, which was sanctioned by the state to help raise money for the Asian Games, was one of the first instance in which rock completely made it into the mainstream. The post Tiananmen amnesia that was encouraged by the state was not totally accepted, as can be seen in the continued popularity of rock music through the very early 90s. Cui Jian continued releasing anti-establishment albums like the 1992 Balls Under the Red Flag and Tang Dynasty’s first major release of which an estimated 1.3 million pirated copies were sold also appeared in 1992.[xix]

However, Deng Xiaoping’s new emphasis of economic prosperity was a harsh blow to the burgeoning rock scene. As a government unsanctioned music form, rock artists were not able to make much money off of their music and could barely support themselves in the newly capitalist centric China. In Deng Xiaoping’s new China, “radical democrats who were political activists in their youth have recast themselves as capitalist entrepreneurs, who tout economic individualism as a harbinger of social reform.”[xx] However, this new capitalistic system made the artists who made commercially nonviable rock music extremely poor. The state forces rock musicians to be by definition amateur musicians because they cannot register with the state as official entrepreneurs.[xxi] In The Wasted Orient, a documentary about the 2007 tour of the Chinese punk band Joyside, one member said “to play rock and roll in China means you are dirt poor, you will never make money.”[xxii]

Once capitalism became the main goal of China and the widespread student movement had died out, rock began to be pushed back underground. One rock artist, Gao Qi said “Pre 1989 we were idealistic. Post 1989 we are realistic. Since 1989 a lot has changed. Some people are still writing songs about the government, but I don’t see the point. Now I write about how we can live, what our purpose is.”[xxiii] This individual identity search that rock began to focus on in the late 90s and 21st century was less appealing to the mainstream culture of China and applied more to the youth subculture that adopted the underground rock movement. In 2007, the punk band Joyside left its native Beijing to tour many other cities in China. Though they performed for many young people who enjoyed their music, even if it was their first rock show, they said “rock and roll in China is a nightmare because there is no interest.”[xxiv] Joyside also implies that rock music is for the disenchanted youth of China, saying that one of their shows had a surprising turnout because “their city is too beautiful for them to care about rock and roll.” [xxv]The small shows that are the majority of rock concerts in China show that outside the small youth culture, rock does not draw the attention of many Chinese listeners.

The lifestyle associated with the rock movement is also considered foreign to mainstream culture. In China, especially in the 21st century, the yaogun yinyue life is considered reckless and a symbol of the parts of Western society that go against many values held in mainstream China. “Michael H. Bond asserts that Chinese generally do not object to westernization as long as it includes aspects practical for modern living and does not detract from central Chinese values of ‘familism, achievement, and moderation’”[xxvi] However many feel that the lifestyle goes against those three values. The bassist in Joyside spoke about the disappointment his parents felt about his life as a rock musician. He said they really did not understand what he did, but just knew that he didn’t make any money and drank every day.  [xxvii]Additionally, much of the rock made in the 21st century era is less sinicized than Cui Jian or Tang Dynasty’s music in the early 90s. Many recent bands incorporate few aspects of Chinese music, and some bands like Joyside even sing their lyrics in English. This gives the current underground rock scene a sense of desire for the West that the majority culture in China does not express.

《MOGO音乐》Joyside乐队现场 MV 《Dong Dong Dong》-在线播放-优酷网,视频高清在线观看

Throughout its history, rock music in China has also been required to compete with the very popular Mandopop industry and today “its identity very much continues to be shaped in opposition to [Mandopop].”[xxviii] In Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow, Moskowitz elucidates the reasons for Mandopop’s immense success in the Sinosphere. Many of the reasons for Mandopop’s success are the exact causes of yaogun yinyue’s decline into the underground after the 1990s. Mandopop has become successful because of its commercialization that allows the music industry to be very financially successful, unlike rock. The state run media houses support Mandopop, especially in the 21st century, more than rock music and therefore Mandopop music has access to national media outlets to advertise its music. In fact, because of the loss of CD sales because of pirating, the Mandopop industry has shifted to “advertising, concerts, KTV and movies for its primary revenue.”[xxix] None of these money-making options are open to musicians, which reduces their national presence in comparison to Mandopop.


Mandopop Star Jay Chou advertising for Pepsi


Rock artists, like Joyside in The Wasted Orient, feel disenchanted with the growing consumerism that has replaced desire for individual freedoms in China. In Meng Jinghui’s play Rhinoceros in Love the issue of consumerism in China was also broached, particularly in regards to its affects on love. The play displays the rising consumerism as ridiculous and many rock artists in China would agree with this portrayal of Chinese society. Guang Shan in Joyside said that the feeling of safety associated with a well-paying job and a routine life inhibit a person’s natural being. By being wild Joyside is trying to find the raw side of life and create real rock and roll. [xxx] This wildness rock bands display in not unlike Malu being driven mad by the consumer, routine culture he is faced with in the play. Mandopop singers often sing of love, but do not feel that feel that love is incompatible with consumerism, as is portrayed in Rhinoceros in Love.

The emotional content of Mandopop songs and the wenrou male featured in the industry is more appealing to the majority of Chinese culture than the subjects of yaogun yinyue. In China urbanization and the breakdown of community ties have left many people in China reporting feelings of loneliness and isolation.[xxxi] Mandopop has a melancholy nature that many of these morose listeners identify with because it allows them to express emotions that are difficult to articulate in Chinese society. Rock music in China has a much more masculine discourse; most of its musicians are men and it lyrics can even be degrading towards women.[xxxii] The musicians often tout this self-defined masculinist identity as more authentically Chinese, but it alienates much of their potential audience in China. The majority, even in young urban areas, appreciate the more feminine wenrou identity in Mandopop. Moskovitz finds that many young people prefer the commercial, cosmopolitan world that Mandopop creates and consider the Beijing rock movement uncouth.[xxxiii]

The social aspect of Mandopop reaches the needs of the majority Chinese music listener much more than the individual listening experience of rock music. The majority of music listening in China is a group experience. Music is usually enjoyed with friends and often in the form of karaoke, or KTV. However, listening to rock music is often thought of as an individual experience. Especially with subgenres like punk and metal, it is hard to sing along which makes the popular and profitable KTV impossible. The majority of preferred domestic and foreign music is ‘easy-listening’ that is appropriate in the home and with friends.[xxxiv] Moskovitz writes about the social experience of Mandopop, which allows friends to experience the music together, and bridge emotions that are usually frowned upon in Chinese society. Though rock music also allows individual expression, it stresses the individual separating from the constraints of Chinese society and the social hypocrisy. Mandopop does not express this discontent with the status quo, but instead merely meets society’s needs to create a group dynamic around music.

Rock music in China, or yaogun yineyue experienced a surge in popularity associated with the student movement in the late 1980s, but this swell was tempered by political, social and commercial factors that drove the genre back underground. In Deng Xiaoping’s new economy, commercialism was emphasized and because of rock’s unapproved status in China, it is unable to become a commercially viable industry. With government pressures and the popularization of Mandopop, the “’new era’ rock music has largely been relegated to the subcultural margins.”[xxxv]Despite being pushed underground, yaogun yinyue has remained resilient. The underground scene has continued to exist and even spread into new subgenres and new urban areas. The guitarist in Joyside expressed that though the rock scene in China is underdeveloped right now, he has hope for the future. He believes that the scene was started by young people and it will continue to get better, despite the political, social and commercial barriers it faces.


Guitarist at MRT Rock Festival


[i] Rupke and Blank 2009

[ii] Jones 124

[iii] Jones 2

[iv] de Kloet 611

[v] de Kloet 612

[vi] Jones 3

[vii] Rock in China

[viii] de Kloet 616

[ix] Rock in China

[x] Rock in China

[xi] Rock in China

[xii] Huang 191

[xiii] de Kloet 615

[xiv] Jones 18

[xv] Class Documentary

[xvi] Jones 123

[xvii] Class Documentary

[xviii] Jones 94

[xix] Rock in China

[xx] Huang 198

[xxi] Jones 98

[xxii] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxiii] Rock in China

[xxiv] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxv] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxvi] Rupke and Blank 134

[xxvii] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxviii] Moskovitz 24

[xxix] Moskovitz 7

[xxx] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxxi] Moskovitz 53

[xxxii] Fritz The Wasted Orient

[xxxiii] Moskovitz 27

[xxxiv] Rupke and Blank 140

[xxxv] Jones 4








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Wasted Orient. Dir. Frisk, Kevin. Perf. Joyside. Documentary., 2006.

“History of Rock in China.” Rock in China. November 24 2012.Web. <>.

Huang, Hao. “Voices from Chinese Rock, Past and Present Tense: Social Commentary and Construction of Identity in Yaogun Yinyue, from Tiananmen to the Present.” Popular Music and Society 26.2 (2003): 183. Print.

Jones, Andrew F. Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1992. Print.

Moskowitz, Marc L., and Inc ebrary. Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow Chinese Pop Music and its Cultural Connotations. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2010. Print.

Rupke, Heidi, and Grant Blank. “”Country Roads” to Globalization: Sociological Models to Understanding American Music in China.” The Journal of Popular Culture 42.1 (2009): 126. Print.