Chinese Metal Scene Spring 2001

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Chinese Metal Scene Spring 2001


Dr. Brad Warren's postings from China in Spring 2001

Dear Deena,

I've taken your research request quite seriously, so you better grab a coffee or something - this could take a while...

First of all, re what are Chinese kids into- the short answer is 'Canto-Pop' (Cantonese Pop music); its innocuous, feel-good stuff of the Spice-Girls variety, sung in Cantonese. Anything similar that comes out of Hong Kong (usually sung in Mandarin) is also big news, with one of the biggest stars of the moment being a young guy named Nicholas Tse - he's kind of Hong Kong's answer to the Backstreet Boys, a young crooner who's loved as much for his face as his musical prowess - he appears on Pepsi ads, toothpaste ads, etc. etc.

Western Teeny-pop and female soloists (Spice Girls / Whitney Houston / Mariah Carey and so on) are also popular, and fairly widely available . . . or at least they were widely available, until about a week ago. One of the conditions of China's entry to the WTO is that it stem its internal trade in pirated goods. Here, on the ground, that's a really big problem. Black market CDs are the only kind there are, unless you travel some distance to a large, western-style department store. (By the way, here is Guangzhou, about two hours inland from Hong Kong). At such stores, prices are roughly equivalent to what one would expect to pay in the States. US imports sell for about 100RMB - which works out to between US$ 11-16, depending on the exchange rate. Such stores don't make their money from the general populace - I suspect their income comes from businessmen and tourists, mostly. The pirate stores are much bigger business, and I'm not talking clandestine, back alley stuff, either. Within fifteen minutes walk from my home, there's at least six pirate-music stores, and at least as many similar street vendors as well. These shops look just like any store-frontage in YourTown, America, with music blaring from speakers in the doorway, huge posters of latest releases, etc. etc. The difference is, they only sell pirates, for between 8 and 15RMB!! Sometimes the quality of these products is a bit shabby, but mostly it's pretty good. Most of the quality drop occurs in cover art, lyrics reproduction, etc. (although I bought Slash's new album shortly after I arrived, and was disappointed to find that every song had been sliced off unceremoniously at 3:42). Anyway, about a week ago, the CD street vendors vanished, and every pirate store in the city was shut up tight, steel shutters pulled down, the whole works. As a result of the impending WTO agreement, the government closed them down. I've become friends with the owner of one of these stores, and she's both furious and afraid. There's a significant proportion of the population who, unless they're allowed to reopen their stores, will be destitute, and will have a huge debt to cover in terms of their existing stocks as well. The Chinese are all paying lip service to how wonderful WTO is, but the reality for many of them will be quite different.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, what are the Chinese kids into? Canto-pop is just the short answer. Hard Rock and Metal (I tend to treat these terms as different points on the same continuum) also have a limited following but, as with Metal in Australia, it's very underground. The general consensus seems to be that Metal CDs can be found if you look hard enough (I can vouch for this), as can those who want to buy them, but there's no (even semi-) cohesive scene anywhere in Guangzhou. I'm told, by several sources, that the place to go for that is Beijing. In addition to Chinese stuff, I've bought everything here from Joe Satriani to Cannibal Corpse, from Bon Jovi to Napalm Death û all pirated. I've also been hoarding a video format called VCD û it's apparently not as high-quality as DVD, and it'll play through Quicktime. It's not available in Australia. I've picked up VCD versions of Operation: LiveCrime, Metallica's Binge and Purge, a box set of all three of Pantera's Vulgar Videos, Pink Floyd's The Wall just to name a few. They're all pirates, and they sell for between 10 and 20 RMB each.

With regard to Metal CDs produced by local artists, they're all sung in Mandarin. In and of itself, this is very interesting, because Mandarin is a tonal language, with four fixed tones. That is to say, the same syllable, pronounced with any of four different tonal inflections, can mean four different things. Making a mistake with the tones means, quite literally, that you could risk calling your mother a horse (no kidding)! This raises some interesting questions with regard to Metal (in fact, all Western) vocal styles. How do you sing in a western style in Mandarin û i.e.. if a tune demands a rising note, but Mandarin pronunciation requires a falling one? I've been annoying anyone who'll listen with questions of this kind for weeks, and there truly seems to be no consensus. Answers vary from: Of course they still sing the tones; otherwise it would make no sense (this seems unlikely, because the results would be truly cacophonous), to Backup singers are used to sing using the correct tones for pronunciation (equally cacophonous, and much Canto-pop isn't so multi-layered anyhow), to Singers sing the correct pronunciation tones when they can, and leave the rest to be worked out from context (this strikes me as by far the most likely but, as I said, I can't find consensus on the matter). Problems of this kind, while prevalent in Canto-pop, are manifold in Metal, especially at the heavier end of the spectrum. About the heaviest Chinese-Metal I've been able to find was released early this year by a band called Yaksa, who sound very passably like Pantera (My wife actually thought she was listening to Pantera, until she realized the vocals weren't in English). Then there's a band called Overload, who employ a little more harmony, but not much (self-titled album, 1996). Moving gradually back towards pop, there's a band called Tang Dynasty whose vocals occasionally soar like Halford or Dickinson (or at least try to: if the latter two are eagles, Tang Dynasty's singer is a wounded duck). Then, down at the Bon-Jovi-ish end of the rock continuum, there's a well known and quite popular artist by the name of Cui Jian. Stylistic crossovers also exist; I stumbled across a kinda-rock/kinda skate-punk band called The Fly, who sound like a try-hard, Mandarin version of Green Day (more or less, but that's the closest comparison I can think of û they're not as heavy as Offspring, and their style of Punk is closer to the Sex Pistols than to Bad Religion).

Okay, on to "Chinese melodies and instruments in Chinese Metal". The answer is: only at the softer end of the spectrum. I've found some specific examples:

1./ Artist: Wang Yong

Album: Samsara

Genre: Hard Rock (at best it's actually quite pop-like in places)

Title: 1. The Religious Ceremony. 2. Celebration. 3. The Peaceland.

The track features a Gu zheng (a 21- or 25-stringed plucked instrument reminiscent of azither), a Mu Ji Ta (wooden guitar), a Chinese drum, a Xiao (a vertical bamboo flute) and an Er hu (a two-stringed bow-like instrument).

2./ Artist: Wang Yong

Album: Samsara

Genre: still Hard Rock

Title: The Seance (calling back the spirit of the dead).

The track features a Shi Er Xian (a twelve-stringed plucked instrument), a San Xian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), and a Mu Qin (xylophone).

3./ Artist: Cui Jian

Album: The Best of Cui Jian

Genre: Hard Rock (Bon-Jovi-ish)

Title: Owning Nothing.

The track features a Suo Na horn (a woodwind instrument), and a Di Zi (bamboo flute).

There are lots of other examples, but these are probably the best (i.e.. those in which the Chinese instruments feature most prominently).

Since you've read my Ph.D., you're aware I revel in lyrical analysis: Chinese Rock / Metal is fascinating! The Yaksa album I mentioned earlier first caught my eye when I read a review for it in an ex-pat magazine: apparently the name of the album is very risqué: it's called, simply, Freedom. The review goes on to say that Yaksa's CD is the first Chinese rock album to use the word freedom so openly (That's Guangzhou, February, 2001, p.8). Still, maybe Yaksa aren't quite as free as they'd like to think. Although they sing in Mandarin, the style doesn't make the lyrics particularly accessible. Further, the are printed inside the album in English, but not in Chinese. I can't help wondering why

Another example: Cui Jian has a song called Spring Festival, on an album called The Power of the Powerless. Spring Festival is Chinese New Year, an event popularly held to be a time of rebirth and renewal. But check this out:

It happens once a year, though it seems always fresh

We all know in our hearts that the things that should have changed have stayed the same

The one who can best play the fool is deemed to have the most foresight

The one who gets most excited knows this best

Once every year, the laughter is in fact a way to air grievances

It's not so straightforward, and not so intense either

Just like a mealy-mouthed adornment or a nonchalant feeling

It's the glamour of culture and Oriental blood

The cycle is not too long, only about three hundred days

The permanent solution is never to make long-term plans

Adhere to firm fortifications because fear lies ahead

The only thing left is to save as much money as you can

To congratulate you on your wealth is my best blessing

May you be well for eight hundred years

Listen to some gentle songs and you will linger romantically forever

This is wisdom for survival and this is boundless blessing

Boundless blessing

The spring has come and it's never fresh

I have amassed strength from the season, but not yet experienced love

The standard of happiness has lowered and distracting thoughts start to emerge

Forget the existence of your soul; life is so colorful

Once every year, you sit in front of the television

Are you appreciating modern art, or rather wasting your precious time

Little by little, you begin to understand and accept new concepts:

Stability, unity and making a fortune; no one can push the limit

No one can push the limit

You need not be so serious; it's that you're still not satisfied

Compared with long ago, it is already quite comfortable

Earning money honestly is the brightest future

Handle well your public relationships, `cause they're a safe route for retreat

A year consists of 365 days and that's the rule of nature

Everything is undergoing reincarnation; thus stability is most important

We all know clearly that we only live for 70 to 80 years

The old will never get young, but the young will get old

The young will get old

Once every year, the laughter is in fact a way to air grievances

It's not so straightforward, and not so intense either

Just like a mealy-mouthed adornment or a nonchalant feeling

It's the glamour of culture and Oriental blood

Oh Ye

All year round

Oh Yo

Congratulating you on your wealth

I guess that's about it. Except to say that all of (mainland) China is in a kind of frenzied, copycat, catch-up-with-the-west mode. This is as true of its music as of anything else. With that in mind, have a look at:,9754,101662,00.html It made me smile.

Anyway, some time ago, you asked me about 'other demographic factors' vis-a-vis Heavy Metal in China. Apart from the fact that all forms of pop/rock culture seem to be exclusively domains of the young, the only factor of any real import is geography. Beijing and Hong Kong are certainly China's Metal-hubs. This is probably a direct reflection of the fact that these cities are the most 'open' to the West - they are also the hubs for just about anything vaguely from abroad (and particularly from the U.S.).

Further to the report I sent you, I have no clear idea what's going on with regard to China joining WTO, but **MOST** of the pirate-CD stores are back to business as usual. Most of the small-scale street vendors have disappeared, though. Interestingly, the only store in my vicinity that hasn't reopened its doors is also the only one where I've been able to find the likes of Sepultura, Napalm Death, Carcass, etc. etc. (ie. the Heavier end of Metal - Metallica, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi are standard fare). Obviously, I don't have enough information to draw a causal link, but I can't help wondering if something offended the Chinese officials' delicate political sensibilities?? I'll keep asking questions until I get

a/ answers
b/ arrested
c/ both



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