China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



December 23, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright December 23, 2008 Chris Heselton. Used by permission.


Rock is revolution! Rock is rebellion! Rock is democracy! Well, at least Axl Rose seems to think so with his new album Chinese Democracy. A rock legend singing to democracy in China seems almost poetically fitting. When people tend to think of China and rock music, it almost always comes back to democracy, more specifically, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Rock was the theme genre of the liberal, underground democratic movement. Ever since Cui Jian (崔健) played “I Have Nothing” (一无所有)—sometimes translated as “Nothing to My Name”—at the protest, rock music has been associated with democracy in China, and this song its theme song.

Few think of Chinese rock as a popular mainstream conformist genre, but they would be mistaken to believe that rock is impervious to pop music trends and the lure of a larger audience (and profit). Since the turn of the century, Chinese rock has made a roaring comeback – surging this time not into a political movement but into the mainstream of Chinese language music. This rock music is different from the rock of the 80s and 90s. Mainstream popular music has now fused with rock to form a musical genre fitted to the popular music taste of young Chinese listeners. Whereas rock in the 80s dealt with depressing themes of individualism, social alienation, and disassociation (though plenty of young people who listened to Cui Jian then also consumed their share of gentle and sometimes upbeat Canton Pop on the side), now bands are looking to the same themes that have always figured in modern pop, regardless of the country – love, loss, nostalgia, upbeat felicitation.

What’s to account for this change? Some have argued it is government repression of more underground rock music in the recording industry, but I think that is probably giving the government too much credit. Many non-mainstream rock bands do get recorded – just this year one of the elites of Chinese rock, Tang Dynasty (唐朝), came out with its new CD, The Knight of Romance (浪漫骑士, 2008); however, many of these albums from non-mainstream groups never achieve the popularity that turn them into musical figures of national adoration. Even Cui Jian, the father of Chinese Rock, had his latest CD Show You Color (给你一点颜色, 2005) bomb. To put it simply, the majority of Chinese youth generally find it hard it to relate to the lyrics and melodies of some of the more hardcore rock.