Monday, May 31, 2010

CB Editorial: "Pan Gu": Punishing Punk-rock

Contributor: Ying Jiang

Some years ago I heard the song "nu cai" ("The Slavish"), an early hit of the Chinese Jiangxi-based underground punk rock band "Pan Gu" (Apparently there's a wiki article more sentimental in tone in simplified Chinese.) (Pan Gu's the name of the Chinese mythical creator of heaven and earth). I was struck then by the intense anger that came through as the vocalist essentially sang (or hollered) like a man that had everything taken away from him, half in tears, half turning into a beast, shouting himself hoarse. That directness in anger and offensiveness in lyrics is rare even in Chinese rock music, which is in general depressing.

(I asked Cui Jian why that is so during a reception for a little culture-exchange concert inStanford, and he flatly denied that Chinese rock is depressing, saying "if you are familiar with foreign rock music, it's much darker and more violent. Those who speak dirty words out loud are the cleanest in their souls. Those who speak properly have the dirtiest souls." The audience agreed with him and I then gave up arguing. The fact is Chinese rock is based on a society cruel in real life, and is performed by people with a hopeless, cuttingly sardonic outlook and plunges listeners into suicidal moods. Father of rock music, leader of a brand new cult of cultural sensitivity, and can't differentiate depression from noise? Give me a break! Well I'm side-tracking.)

For some reason I wanted to listen to "nu cai" again. Couldn't find it on youtube; googled "Pan Gu" and learnt that not only is it "underground", despised by general Chinese rock muscians (due to its shoddily produced music, almost non-existent instrumental talent, and punk being in general less popular), but has also been hated/loved by the Chinese people since 2004, where they openly declared support for Taiwan independence in a concert, an act of immense political significance. Since then exiled and living in Sweden, its political message has been overtly anti-CCP. The western sojourn seems to be endowing the musicians an ability of adopting attitudes on some issues that have come to exemplify the West's attitude towards China's human rights issues, eg freeing Tibet, boy-cotting of the Olympics etc.

What are some of the responses to the rebellious band? Some whole-heartedly support the nihilism, some call them traitors, some call them talentless sops who use politics as an attention grabber, and some just find some of the songs plain funny. As much as I appreciate humor as an attitude more desirable than anger or depression, I can't deny that more sombre consequences for the Chinese society are in order as rebellious instances like Pan Gu get more common. The band probably has little political impact (as compared to eg a journalist who has more information that matters); its coarse musicianship prevents serious expansion of fan base. However it seems (to me) just a matter of time before a group of significant intellect, capability, power and size gather and start to pose real challenges. What will happen then? Has the "system" thought about it?