The Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Rock, Punk and Indie Music
Chinese Rock Music – Your Complete Guide to 18 Chinese Rock/Punk/Indie Bands
Listening to music is credited as a good way to practice listening skills in a foreign language and learn a bit more about the culture.
But finding music – especially if you’re a beginner in Chinese that hasn’t yet mastered the art of navigating the Chinese interwebs – is a struggle and it’s something that teachers aren’t necessarily helpful with.
When I was a kid studying French I remember trying to find French music.
The only two people my teacher could recommend when I asked were Vanessa Paradis and Carla Bruni (the latter – the wife of former president Nicolas Sarkozy – particularly makes the eyes of many a Frenchman roll).
It wasn’t really my thing. There’s a French language Youtuber whose advice basically amounts to something like this: if you wouldn’t be interested in reading or listening to something if it was in your own language, there’s no point forcing yourself to like it for the sake of learning.
It’s a mistake a lot of people make, struggling through articles on things like sports just because they’re in a target language even though you can’t tell a football from a tennis racket.
One, you’re more likely to give up. Two, you’re wasting precious brain space learning words you don’t even use in your native language.
Before you add the Chinese name for Manchester United to your already over-the-top and frankly useless 10,000 word Memrise vocab list, ask yourself…
When was the last time you actually talked about Manchester United in a conversation?
In Mandarin-language musical terms, this can mean forcing yourself to listen to pop artists like Jay Chou and Hebe Tian even if their music isn’t your jam.
There is of course a certain logic to listening to well-produced pop because the lyrics are generally well-enunciated and are useful for karaoke. But the focus ought to be finding music you actually like.
If you like Hebe, great, but if you don’t, trying to find non-pop music can be difficult. Music is particularly good too because you can listen on the go, as opposed to watching movies or reading.
Equally one could be forgiven for thinking all Chinese-language music is slow love ballads about how the person you love doesn’t love you back or videos of really annoying songs about apples, but it’s not.
#1 – Brain Failure 脑浊
#2 – Carsick Cars 晕车的车
#5 – Cui Jian 崔健
#6 – Hedgehog 刺猬
#7 – Mayday 五月天
#9 – Mountain People 山人
#10 – Mr Chelonian 海龟先生
#11 – No Party For Cao Dong 草东没有派对
#12 – New Pants 新裤子
#13 – P.K. 14
#14 – SMZB 生命之饼
#15 – Tang Dynasty 唐朝
#16 – Yehaiyahan/ChaCha
#17 – Zhao Lei 赵雷
#18 – Zuxiao Zuzhou 左小祖咒Plenty to choose from, right?!
An Introduction to Alternative Chinese Music
China has a huge alternative music scene, particularly in Beijing, with all the sticking it to the man and long hair that that entails.
Except for a select few bands that have become massive hits like Hedgehog, punk rockers in China aren’t likely to hit it big time, not in the least because many have to resort to non-official means of distributing their music due to albums needing to get passed by music censors.
These censors can even be a problem for some of the bigger bands. The original Chinese punks SZMB, for example, have only had two of their eight albums approved.
Rock really took off after the event-that-never-happened and into the early nineties. It was then basically banned from TV and performances were heavily restricted.
There’s been a few reasons cited for this but it mostly boils down to the fact that, like in every country, musicians were capable of whipping up fans into a frenzy at concerts and a few had the audacity to state opinions while they were on stage. Some people don’t appreciate this sort of behaviour.
A lot of musicians have lamented the impact this has had on their success and ability to make money, although some have since been rehabilitated.
Last year however, iQiyi launched a show called The Big Band, a reality TV show aiming to bring indie and rock bands to the masses.
As notable proponents of the counterculture, erm, Xinhua gushed at the time:
“Rock music is thumping on more Chinese eardrums than ever before and becoming more ‘word on the street’ than ‘underground culture’ as it moves into the mainstream.”
Make of that what one will.
A lot of indie bands ended up competing on the show and even if they had mixed feelings about it, it did help them finally cash in a bit, get a few more Weibo followers and some even walked away with sponsorship deals from big brands.
Considering a lot of these bands were formed in the nineties and were only just beginning to get profitable, you can’t really blame them.
Two things about bands in China stand out. Firstly, they are less bound by the traditions of certain genres than abroad so they mix things up a lot more. Miserable Faith, for example started out quite metally before morphing towards a sort of indie rock with folksy elements in the late noughties.
Secondly, the lineups change a lot more. Some bands have had as many as ten different lead vocalists throughout the years.
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Although a lot of the bands mentioned here started as many as two decades ago, China’s underground music scene remains active in all the major cities.
The place to be for sub-culture in China is Beijing, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find excellent little dingy livehouses elsewhere. Be warned, concerts can get ten-year-old-chugging-Harbin-level weird.
In terms of other genres, jazz finds its home in Shanghai, where there are plenty of open mic nights and the water at the venues only costs 50 kuai a bottle.
Guangzhou also has an active house and techno scene.
Today, the label with the coolest beans in China is Maybe Mars, which distributes a lot of the artists in this list.
Modern Sky and Genjing Records are also pretty sweet so their catalogues are also a good place to start for finding new music, but the latter only produces vinyls so you’ll have to find copies of the albums elsewhere (unless you have a record player, of course).
This article is a bit of an alphabetically-ordered, whistle-stop tour of things on offer and it does miss out some truly great musicians in order to cast as wide a net as possible, for which I apologise profusely.
Some of these bands have a tendency to sing in English, which is really not helpful for your language skills so consider it more of a cultural education.
Don’t worry, it annoys some of their Chinese fans just as much as it does yourself.
In terms of finding this music online, your best bet is Bandcamp, although you’ll also find most on Spotify and some on its Chinese equivalents. A few also tour globally so there’s a chance of seeing them live too.
The nice thing about Chinese punk and rock is it’s alive and well, unlike in places like the UK where the last rough sounding, garage rock breed of musician died out around the time The Libertines self-imploded (the fact they reunited does not change that).
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Chinese Rock Music #1 – Brain Failure 脑浊
These guys originally formed in the nineties while they were still at (a very elite) high school in Beijing and have the notable distinction of being the first punk band in China to self-release a demo.
Brain Failure is probably the most accessible punk band on the list if you’re not hugely into that British-style seventies sort of punk but still like a bit of The Clash every now and then.
The bassist from the Dropkick Murphys Ken Casey fell in love with them in the mid-2000s and helped them develop quite a bit so you can hear that influence.
It’s in English, but if you want the ultimate every-expat-can-relate-to song that could probably do more for China’s soft power than the entire budget of China Daily if it went viral, check out Coming Down to Beijing.
Chinese Rock Music #2 – Carsick Cars 晕车的车
The lineup of Carsick Cars has changed somewhat since they started in 2005, with only one of the original members still playing under their banner.
They toured with the Sonic Youth in China in the late noughties.
Their songs have a certain anthemic quality to them which is probably why they are so often performed by other local bands.
The song Zhong Nan Hai – a type of cigarettes and the headquarters of the Communist Party next to the Forbidden City in Beijing – is one of China’s best known indie tracks.
Chinese Rock Music #3 – Chocolate Tiger 猛虎巧克力
Based in Taiwan, actress and indie artist Enno Cheung currently fronts Chocolate Tiger, which is a bit heavier than her usual acoustic solo offerings.
Chinese Rock Music #4 – Criminal Thoughts 犯罪想法
The entire eight-year discography of Criminal Thoughts is 35 minutes long, which off the bat makes them kind of amazing.
Their songs have titles as delightful as “F*ck You” and “Fcuk Your Flag”.
It’s very unlikely these guys are ever going to pass the censors and achieve widespread popularity in China due to their Sex Pistols-esque anger at society.
For language learners what they’re shouting is pretty unintelligible – even when they’re singing refrains in English – but reading their lyrics is surprisingly not a major headache.
Chinese Rock Music #5 – Cui Jian 崔健
The father of Chinese Rock is Cui Jian, a classically trained trumpet player from a musical family who tends to get compared to the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
He got popular during the thing-that-happened-but-actually-didn’t in the late eighties among students and then spent several months in hiding before returning to go on a tour and raise money for the Asian games for the government.
The tour was ironically cancelled after five shows. It’s a funny old world.
He’s also credited with helping launch outdoor music festivals in China and starred in what was arguably China’s first indie film, Beijing Bastards, in 1993.
He laid out his philosophy in Time magazine in the late nineties:
“Some Chinese are slaves to Western culture, others look East. I say f*ck all of them and be yourself. That’s what I like about rock ‘n’ roll. You can talk straight.”
Chinese Rock Music #6 – Hedgehog 刺猬
Probably the biggest indie band in China, complete with a tall bass player and a female drummer, this trio got together in 2005 and count Nirvana and The Ramones among their biggest influences.
Though they’ve been around for a while, they were perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries from The Big Band last year, with their Weibo following shooting up and new sponsorship deals that allowed them to make some more money.
Zhao Zijian even bagged a few boxes of shower gel and a marketing deal with Safeguard after saying he didn’t like showering.
Chinese Rock Music #7 – Mayday 五月天
Rock-style pop might be the best term for these guys and adding them to the list was a bit debatable.
They’re a bit Oasis-esque but have a certain Mumford & Sons twang to them as well. They’re also huge.
Their debut album sold over 300,000 copies and they once sold out ten shows in one month in the same city (Hong Kong).
Part of their success (other than their aesthetic qualities) is perhaps that unlike many Taiwanese celebrities they steer clear of politics which allows them continued access to the Mainland market, although some Facebook comments last year did get them in trouble with a wumao army.
They were also once taken to court after a man objected to one of their songs being nineteen seconds of silence, which he said was fraud. He lost.
Chinese Rock Music #8 – Miserable Faith 痛苦的信仰
Miserable Faith are the epitome of Chinese musical versatility.
Sometimes they sound like Suburbs-era Arcade Fire, others times like Joy Division.
Miserable Faith have lately become more mellow.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Italian communist song Bella Ciao sounded like in Chinese, they have a cover of it too.
Chinese Rock Music #9 – Mountain People 山人
A little different from what else is on this list, Mountain People are another nineties band that is majorly influenced by folk music in Yunnan.
I like to imagine this is what the Hebei Pangzai (a guy from Hebei that people on Twitter call a god and a king because of the amount of alcohol he can drink) was played to help him get to sleep as a child.
Chinese Rock Music #10 – Mr Chelonian 海龟先生
In English, this band sometimes called Mr Chelonian, sometimes Mr Turtle and sometimes Mr Sea Turtle.
Their name has led to many people assuming they’re overseas returnees but actually they originally formed in Guangxi before ending up in Beijing following a few years in Chengdu.
They’re a little Arctic Monkeys-esque but claim they only listen to Michael Jackson, which you probably wouldn’t guess from their music.
Chinese Rock Music #11 – No Party For Cao Dong 草东没有派对
Of all the people on this list, these ones are the ones to watch out for in the future.
Their first EP in 2015 sold out in a single day and the following album won multiple awards – all without being signed to a label.
Their highly anticipated new album was meant to be released around March 2020 but has been put off until the end of the apocalypse.
Chinese Rock Music #12 – New Pants 新裤子
New Pants ended up being the winner of The Big Band.
Singer Peng Lei (who once adorably described his daughter as “a crying eggplant”) also dabbles in films, producing and animation.
New Pants says their influences include New Order, Joy Division, The Cure.
In 2019 when they announced a show in the capital for the fist time in eight years, tickets sold out in ten minutes.
Chinese Rock Music #13 – P.K. 14
Another band claiming to be a godfather of a genre or elder statesmen or what have you, P.K. 14 began in Nanjing before heading to Beijing.
Their vocalist Yang Haisong has also developed into a very sought after producer, having worked with some of the other bands on this list.
Chinese Rock Music #14 – SMZB 生命之饼
The original punks started in Wuhan in the late nineties.
Political, angry, loud and catchy, frontman Wu Wei can sometimes be found in his bar Wuhan Prison (he also has a record label of the same name).
Starting out quite Clash-like, more recently they’ve started sounding very Celtic Punk, playing music more in the vein of The Pogues or Dropkick Murphys.
Check out the album The Chinese Are Coming and particularly the song of the same name.
It’s in English but oddly reminiscent of that one guy at the bar who starts ranting about China after a few too many.
Chinese Rock Music #15 – Tang Dynasty 唐朝
Kaiser Kuo, of SupChina and Sinica Podcast fame (as well as inventor of the dude system for learning tones), was a founding member of Tang Dynasty, although he left shortly after they formed.
Their debut album – possibly the first Chinese heavy metal album in history – officially sold over two million copies.
They’ve had a lot of line-up changes over the years, not in the least when the bassist Zhang Ju died in a car accident in 1995.
Chinese Rock Music #16 – Yehaiyahan/ChaCha
“Eastern Bjork” Yehaiyahan first started singing in rock bands while at school in rural Guizhou before moving to Shanghai and becoming known for her trippy tunes.
She initially went by the name ChaCha before changing it back to her birth name.
If you’ve ever wondered about how rural parents feel about their kids moving to the big city to become rock stars, she says it destroyed her relationship with her parents for years, adding in one interview:
“I think because they were thinking I’m not a decent girl because I’m working in this nasty area, in the club”.
They did eventually come round.
Chinese Rock Music #17 – Zhao Lei 赵雷
Eighties child Zhao Lei got started in the Beijing music scene as a teenager before becoming heavily influence by music he heard on trips to Tibet and Yunnan.
In 2010, he was disqualified from a music competition in Hunan for cheating, but has since won multiple awards for his songs.
His songs have a certain direct, straightforward quality to them and many of them refer to Western China, including “Never Go to Lijiang” and “Chengdu”.
Chinese Rock Music #18 – Zuxiao Zuzhou 左小祖咒
He’s called the Chinese Leonard Cohen but he sounds more like Lou Reed.
Zuxiao Zuzhou is one of the stronger adherents to the punk ethos and that’s got him in trouble a few times.
He’s a good friend of the government’s least favourite artist, Ai Weiwei, having contributed a lot to the soundtrack of his documentaries and producing his rock album.
There we have it, your complete guide to Chinese rock, punk and alternative music!
Want to discover more great Chinese songs? Check out our rundown of the 12 best Chinese of all time!
Chinese Rock/Alt Music – FAQ’s
专辑 zhuān jí
Using apps and websites like YouKu and QQ Music are useful for Chinese music.
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There are nowhere near enough articles like this online, love it LTL
We cover it all Danny 🎶
Eye opening article, had no idea about these
Glad to hear it Aimee!