The Underground Guide to Chinese Counterculture

Why you should care

Because political discord inspires the best kind of music.

By day, the narrow alleys of Beijing are filled with the clamor of tourists seeking communist kitsch, Tibetan totems and trendy teahouses. At night, as shops shutter and the moon rises, a different kind of sound roars to life — the clinking of piss-poor Tsingtao beers, the twang of wild guitar synths and the aimless angst of punk rock anthems. Across the street from the ancient Lama Temple, the School Bar’s tattered doors swing open to greet a cadre of China’s head-banging, rebellious youths. School is now in session.

Miles away from the rooftop bars and glitzy nightclubs of Beijing’s posh Sanlitun neighborhood, the city’s hippest hangouts — tucked-away places like School, Yugong Yishan, the Dusk Dawn Club and Jianghu Bar — are taking root underground and within dense, residential labyrinths called hutongs. Many of these hutong haunts are holes-in-the-wall, graffitied venues filled with cigarette smoke. It’s a chaotic, haphazard aesthetic, not unlike 1920s American speakeasies — only here, it’s not alcohol that’s forbidden; it’s free speech and counterculture in a still-communist China. “Sometimes in life we find ourselves in really complicated environments that force us into feeling helpless,” says Li Jian, the lead singer for Big Wave, whose trippy tunes sound like a Chinese Arctic Monkeys. 

Today’s punk rock rebels are driven by a different kind of discord.

Around the world, punk rock has become the music of anarchy and defiance. In some places, government crackdowns come with the territory. Russia has the feminist, freewheeling Pussy Riot; Malaysia has its tattooed Muslim skinheads. In China, “the Man” to rebel against is a government hell-bent on censoring the media, jailing political dissidents and stamping out any semblance of public protest. That’s why, to some, it might come as a surprise that the country’s gritty music mecca is not that far from the gated Forbidden City, the site of centuries-long imperial rule and the quelled Tiananmen Square protests.


But in a fast-changing China, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s not just about rampant hooliganism or railing against authoritarian rule, says 23-year-old Frank Wang, as he adjusts his black-rimmed glasses and disheveled hair. It’s also about young people keeping a creative legacy of counterculture alive, when, just four decades ago, during the Cultural Revolution, artists and intellectuals were killed in cold blood or sent to the countryside for hard labor. Unlike the Tiananmen Square students who rioted for democracy, today’s punk rock rebels are driven by a different kind of discord — resisting the decadent, consumer-driven society that School Bar owner Liu Fei says is slowly becoming mainstream in modern China. “We just want to express the deepest feelings in our hearts, the whole range of emotions,” says Big Wave’s Li. “Of course, at this point that may not always be possible.” 

The enthusiasts may not be enough to keep this scene alive.

In fact, punks like Li have learned that even screaming into a mic won’t get everyone to listen. Punk rock accounts for a slim slice (by some estimates, as little as $1.5 million) of what Statista estimates to be China’s $917 million music industry. The scene already suffers from piracy, censorship and stiff competition from K-pop tunes, says Zhang Xiaobo, who works at Modern Sky Records, one of the few indie music labels in China. Plus, as with most counterculture movements, the struggle for recognition and social acceptance is a hard-fought battle in a conservative society like China’s.

To be sure, punk rock isn’t uncharted territory in China: It dates back to at least 1989, when the godfather of Chinese punk rock Cui Jian played his part in the Tiananmen Square protests by spreading the sounds of rebellion. Since then, though, small punk rock mainstays have shut down due to rising rents and tighter restrictions on live-music houses (aka “censorship” of subversive songs, says Zhang), including D-22, XP and, more recently, Mao Livehouse, where Li rocked out months ago. The enthusiasts may not be enough to keep this scene alive.

But that hasn’t deterred punks like Wang, a nerdy Ph.D. student who goes by “Ce Suo” (厕所), or “toilet,” in Mandarin. On a Friday night, while thrashing around a grimy sweatbox venue to the deranged melodies of Hedgehog, he moshes with his fellow misfits and pumps his fists in the air. He’s not interested in the Kurt Cobain type. His hero is Ai Weiwei, the outspoken artist who was detained for four years in China for his political art and activism. No matter what happens, this rowdy punk’s retreat will be anything but quiet.


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