Beijing, noise and the city (an essay)

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Beijing, noise and the city (an essay)

Yan Jun

At midnight on 21 May 2005, the Hang Zhou-based sound artist Li Jonahing calmly closed his bloodshot eyes and told all the people around him, ‘Listen, the blue train is running around Beijing.’

After eight hours of sonic boom, most of the au-dience and the artists of Beijing New Sound had left. The remaining dozen, who had just come out of the 798 South Gate space, gathered in front of the Eat Art restaurant, as if still soaked in the dispersed music. The owner of Hangzhou’s 2pi Records and a pioneer of Chinese noise music, Li had realised that his sense of hearing was acting abnormally. He raised his head and looked into the distance, once again trying to draw our attention to the sound environment of Beijing: the train, always the train. They are run-ning day and night on the plains, the rumbling metallic sound diffused into buildings, plants, air and the dust within. As they were bouncing around, the lower ones could hardly make it to the city while the higher ones blur and morph themselves into the sound of ocean waves and wind as heard by the ancient Chinese. They surrounded us. And the thousands of running vehicles are now filling the grids divided by the roads with an eternal white noise.

Maybe we should count the aeroplanes, too. They gracefully fly over the lands in the subur-ban areas of every direction, turn around, take off and land down. Their giant vibrating bodies are painting the sky with thick rumblings and thin clatterings. There are about one thousand airplanes taking off and landing at Beijing airport every day. If the excessive number of planes has torn the blue sky of Amsterdam apart, then the grey sky of suburban Beijing has formed a perfect mix with them.

I tried to sit pondering beside a lotus pond in Beijing’s northern suburb back in July. The moonlight shone on the surface of the fishing pond. You could hear the sounds of insects and frogs. Once in a while, a fish would jump out of the water, briefly tap on the surface and dive back into the endless silence. The huge city’s identity can only be explored by planes and trains. They are everywhere, like a grand outdoor theatre on the North China Plain, where everything breathes and plays the sound of breathing as an instrument. The moon shone down. Even the flying and running iron and steel were merely passersby. Sounds connected with each other provided a backdrop, though still passersby. The fishes jumped out, got hooked and eaten, yet another one jumped out again. They were all passersby.

The traffic has turned Beijing into both a point of departure and an end target. Intrigued by the myth of – to use the description of Kofi Annan, Secretary-General to the United Nations, in an address to Tsinghua University in 2004 – ‘de-velopment at breakneck speed’, people come and go with dreams and money. As passengers who don’t belong anywhere, they are already fused with noise. When people are flying, they can’t hear the cabin noise above 70 decibels (dB); when they are travelling by train, they can’t hear the sound of the deceleration of trains or, when the train is taking a turn, the sound of air as they quickly pass through the cracks. The screaming of subway is also inaudible to them. As for the warm and memory-laden bus, its shak-ing, shivering, convulsions, its wayward scream and piteous humming are also neglected in the consciousness that is close and strange to each other simultaneously. The list could continue: residential areas that look like space stations, the ghostly Zhongguancuni at night, the bleak and overruling grey air... In such circumstances, few people would believe it when they occasion-ally see the beautiful sun glow.

But people are getting used to the grand scale of Beijing. It seems that life equals movement here: from Tongxian to Haidian, from the airport to the densely built communities nearby and the chaotic physical model of Tiananmen Square. These mortal bodies are loaded with an over-sized space and loads of information, so much that noise has ceased to be a problem but becoming a part of the bodies. It is memory, or even a sense of security. Anything is toler-able and can be accepted as part of our selves, during the process, the only thing that explicitly exists is the purpose. When there is a friction between the body and air, the sheer volume of the loss of energy, the accompanying message, the encountered stimulation and reaction make it no longer real. In the blasting sound, people are running wild towards a better tomorrow, and according to one Chinese legend, tomorrow is hanging on a pole and swinging before our eyes, it makes you jump up and jump up again, then it makes you scream, hail and curse in excitement, it makes you imitate the wolf or the Tibetan mas-tiff, jumping up again with the inhuman scream... This time you jump 30 miles, from the newly built community in Tongxian to the Construction Committee building surrounded by the green of West Third Ring Road. You hold tight to the low frequencies of the motor and its tunes, pro-gressing another centimetre tomorrow pushed by another sound wave. Every night, the 90dB noise of the vehicles on the North Fourth Ring Road enriches the city. Heavy trucks loaded with metal and cement en-ters the city and, joining the smaller calls, travel persistently. Cement always reaches the nodes of roads before anything else; they form one af-ter another resonant bodies, which split the high frequencies apart. They then diffuse in all direc-tions into the air, reaching a resident’s window at a volume of 40-50dB, sometimes 70dB if it gets closer. A developing country screaming forward, a shining white and sharp night.

And people are not aware of these.

Life is temporary. Beijing is temporary. Anything can be demolished and falsified; anything can be abandoned and rebuilt. Anything but those selected few sample landscapes that are reserved for group photos of smiling officials and journalists. When photographs are being taken, sounds are dispensable. So you’ll en-counter roadworks and decorations everyday. In order to make life fast enough for our imagina-tion about life, we need to stick a lot more chest hair on, build a lot more ‘No.1 towers in the world’, and consume a lot more wooden flooring and buckets of paint. But all the decorations are temporary, because the body refuses to be stabilised. Desire is burning inside, seeking to satisfy all the imagination. Decoration-loving big shots tear down the underdog’s temporary res-taurant, the underdogs tear down the younger kid’s temporary bookshelf – no one has any idea about any sense of security. They simply embrace and caress noise, sharing the fantastic view of sunset and sunrise with it. It’s like 20 years ago, when big and smaller cities were filled with women all with their hair crammed into curlers; they put a lot of time and efforts into decorating themselves ugly following the generally accepted criteria of beauty. They were not aware of this, either. Once silenced, people will decelerate, reflect and then question. Long-term attention will blow any object up, especially the barking of almost one hundred Pekingese dogs every morning. The atmosphere of life so dominates many of the communities here, that everybody would have to have a share of children’s crying and puppies’ singing. Singing out loud – this is the secret key to the sense of security. People are walking through the darkness of small alleyways, singing. Then they grow up, buy 3,000 pirated DVDs, find more than ten sex partners, play fast dance music in their hire-purchase cars. They play it loud when driving through an ocean of information that is destined to be an eternal stranger to them. Sound is the tool of dispersing unsettledness, sound is temporary, unsettled-ness is eternal. Attention is mobilised by people in the name of vitality, travelling from one tem-porary node to another. No attention will be paid to the tragic, fundamental temporality any more.

Adults do not fear silence, but children do. Energetic Fuwa dolls [good luck mascots for the Beijing Olympics], the childish atmosphere of Pingan Avenue, garbage trucks playing the theme song of Ji Gong’s The Mad Monk, the sim-ulated Olympic complex... An uncertainty makes people younger, who naively believe that desire can be filled with desire. Investment,invention, invention, sentimentality: overeating has made Beijing’s children hyperactive. The only viable solution seems to be rejecting noise with noise. Punk is the local specialty of this city – where public violence thrives, personal violence thrives as well. Children can do whatever they want, whether it’s crying out loud in the restaurant, or playing gu zheng music at full blast music in the park. Punk has decided to take advantage of this privilege, in the name of Nezhaiii, they launch a tug-of-war with those old men and ladies camouflaged as kids. They tear their clothes in rags. Anything can survive in Beijing, as long as they’re wayward, prosperous, and as uncertain as life itself. The contradicting city has its own breed of rebels. The short, sharp screams of punk, mixed with those sounds derived from the planning, investing and media hyping of the new affluent, has maximised the unsettledness, exposed the fear and pampered the rage, like the dramatic crying during a collective zoning out laughing moment.

In the words of sound artist Dajuin Yao: ‘The siren of Taipei MRT is attacking passengers with noise in the way of driving animals.’ But would everybody be adapted if they were not driven as animals? Those who are in charge of sounding devices reach conclusion about others accord-ing to their own needs, they either treat them-selves as animals or treat others as animals, af-ter a period of time, and they have more or less become unfamiliar with the pleasure of being a human. And this happens not just in Taipei.

One day during the Spring Festival of 2006, an excited visitor pushed open the door to a tea house and entered, sending New Year’s greet-ings to his friends there: ‘Finally firecrackers are allowed this year! There’s still hope for tradi-tional culture!’ Maybe.

The concrete forest makes possible the reflec-tion of every single bag from the firecrackers, sometimes generating a dozen clear echoes, but mostly it’s just a chaotic mess. The firecrackers explode high in the sky, their noise ricocheted off buildings in all directions, then ricocheted and mixed again. Happiness is doubled, ener-gising Beijing like a good ginseng. The city will then have a nosebleed, followed by gasping and exhaustion. The hard and glossy facades, the limited variety of fireworks, the oversensitive car alarms and the spoiled excitement after the disappearance of oppression – Spring Festival is not as delightful as we have imagined. In fact, it’s only fair to call it pathetic.

Maybe there’s indeed hope for traditional cul-ture, take noise as the point of departure, you can at least learn more about yourself.

If I were to use one word to describe the sonic environment of Beijing, it would be ‘full’. Try to record in any seemingly quiet outdoor space and you’ll come back home to see a lot of low frequencies showing up in your audio-editing software. The sounds below 2,000 hertz (Hz) are produced by vehicles and building sites. After endless reflections, decay and morphing, they are turned into chaotic fragments, which can still be identified as white noise. Sounds below 400Hz come from various motors, vehicles, air-conditioning units and construction sites. They are emitted together with higher frequen-cies, which have been blocked out by buildings, trees and distance, leaving the low frequencies to mess with each other, like the dust-laden mist of Beijing. The lower they are, the more distant and blurry. The power of diffusion has pumped air into the most unperceivable and murky parts of all the sounds; they, or shall we say, it, has permeated into our lives, bodies, and the deep abyss of consciousness. Sound waves quietly im-pose themselves any time, anywhere; Beijing is already overloaded on the way to the Olympics, without being aware of it. People are still singing loudly, calling each other loudly, teasing kids loudly, driving heavy vehicles loudly, offering free TVs and closed-circuit TV loudly.

It’s a classic style of developing countries to confirm themselves by pumping up the volume. You can call it either vitality or cheap self-contentment. The neglect of the fullness of the sonic environment is another characteristic of developing countries. You can call it either the concentration of the runners-up or the indif-ference as a result of the excessive nutrition after famine. To put it simply, I don’t believe that we have had the tradition of information, desire and changes overload. Chinese people are suffering from indigestion. Beijing has swallowed the surging, day-and-night environmental noise as well as various dialects and busy working life with its invincible compatibility. What’s more, it has embraced a hybrid culture of spontaneous anarchism. Is this the evidence of Beijing’s openness or its malnutrition? Nobody knows what will the future be like. And tradition is not used to speaking out loud, so where is its space for discourse? Or has it already started quietly?

What else attitude could we have besides an appreciation of contradiction, so that we could keep down the whining noise? Is there a better way to keep us from pressing horns during the traffic jam, besides listening to vehicles whizzing around Jianguomen? When Li Jian-hong was enjoying the sound of blue train, others were also tranquilised by the sight of his serenity. It was as if Beijing had finally become suitable for human living.

Translated by Lawrence Li



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