From our western perspective, it would seem that rockers are rarer than cheese sandwiches in China. In fact, it’s a struggle to name anything of global cultural significance, whether that be a band, an author, or any of the alternative outlets that make up the arts. There is a world of rich artistry among the 1.4 billion people who live there, and it’s not making a dent in the west. So, what, exactly, does a Chinese indie band sound like?
They sound absurd. Why? Because absurdity is the perfect way to swerve censors but still prove subversive. For instance, take the following poem that Daniil Kharms once slid under Soviet censors: “There was a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either. He didn’t have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any intestines at all. There was nothing! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about. We’d better not talk about him any more.”
What does it mean? Is it a statement on how easily the Soviets could simply erase people from the system? Is it a comment on how individualism was stripped in the great machine? Or is it just a silly poem designed to stretch a government inspector’s literature degree to its absolute limits? Regardless of its meaning or its purpose, it stands to be subversive by proxy of its absurdity. Simply put, whether they could cook up a reason to condemn it or not, the government didn’t want it, and as a result of that blunt fact, it proved to be a mark of defiance.
In Kharms’ case, they didn’t need to cook up a reason. When they asked him whether he was being subversive, he simply told them, ‘Yes’. Eventually, he would die of starvation in prison. His story is a dark one—his joyous absurdity lives on, and the Soviet Union is no longer. Wherever you find that the cultural grip of the state is the tightest, you’ll find the weirdest art because absurdity is inscrutable. It makes fun of the status quo by keeping them out of the joke. But it also has a keen point.
Absurdity is hard for a government to crack down on. You might be able to ban phrases, words, topics and ideologies, but how do you ban something about a redheaded man who didn’t have a head? To put that in official print would highlight the inherent oppressive ridiculousness of the government system itself. Thus, weirdness becomes a liberal vanguard. It stands outside the bourgeoisie and makes fun of it without announcing itself as a joke. And importantly, this avant-garde route changes the system in time.
The theory for this comes from the origin of the phrase avant-garde itself. Now, it might seem like a term as clearly defined as a cloud in Manchester, but that hasn’t always been the case. It has little to do with creativity and more to do with the art of war. You see, in a military sense, the Vanguard was the leading part of an advancing group of soldiers. However, you didn’t just send the bulk of your army blindly into the unknown, you would send out a few foolhardy scouts in the dead of night to seek out new territories and spy on enemy positions. These brave souls advancing where nobody had gone before were known as the avant-garde.
This French term for a reconnaissance group who gambled into the as yet undetermined fits the bill for defining the expression as it links artists breaking the norms and pushing boundaries as a result, but in actual fact, the usage has an even more direct tie than that. Given the dangers of being a member of the avant-garde, only the soldiers most committed to social reform would volunteer, and often these fellows had a bold, eccentric edge too.
Thus, it only became natural that the trailblazers of social change on the battlefield would soon become linked to art. The impact comes from evidence that these wild avant-garde soldiers would return to civility and set up clubs—they couldn’t just come home from such adrenalised escapades and discuss their manic times with half a mild. Thus, the resultant avant-garde clubs had social change and acerbic art at their heart. They became underground establishments accommodating all things weird, and as they grew, they shifted societies centre towards the edge.
That same pattern has unfurled in many oppressive countries. China is likely to be no different. The strange underground clubs there are growing, much like they did in the Soviet Union when punk was smuggled over, controlled underground clubs sprung up, until the flashpoint of the Tbilisi, Georgia SSR uprising rendered them controlled no more. Youth culture has huge power—it might not seem that way when compared to the might of a military, but if enough youngsters stand their ground, you can’t just imprison the engine of your future workforce.
When the cultural revolution ended, western influences began to infiltrate China. Censors had to accept that with growing change, channels would open for the likes of The Beatles to flood in. In actual fact, some of the first records came via clipped government cassettes of bands like The Birthday Party and The Velvet Underground for batches in the US. They intended the clipped tapes for recycling purposes only, but savvy youngsters were able to restore them, and suddenly they were listening to Nick Cave howling like a madman before the maelstrom of toppled their heads off of their shoulders like a mob with an old statue.
The first bands to copy these might have been sanitised by censors, but the door was now ajar. There was a hunger for rock ‘n’ roll, and with that came a secret pang for the real McCoy. After all, imagine having heard one blast of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and knowing there was a world of it out there. It might seem like a reckless pursuit to risk punishment to dabble in a bit of forbidden art, but that notion comes from a place of western privilege on this front. Imagine if you knew someone selling a secret unreleased Beatles album down by the tracks, and all you had to do was go down there, meet them undetected, and hand over a reasonable fee, would you?
Thus, as more of these prized tapes from variated genres of rock in the west made their way over, even the sanitised bands gradually became more aligned with indie. In increments, the censors allowed this. The scene grew more artistic, and the underground dug a little deeper. Soon, Chinese bands would craft their own identity. They wanted to be like their heroes, to create something new. Therefore, they borrowed factors from traditional culture and made music that they could truly call their own.
All the while, the clutch of Chinese politics proved unceasing. After all, they essentially have a separate internet. Censorship is still very much in operation. Risks were still being taken. Clubs were still being shut down. This meant that although rock fandom was becoming more ardent, its pool was stagnating. When that happens, weird things happen. The engine of development was not from rapid growth but from existing folks within the scene growing more radical. How long can you listen to the same band, play the same set, in the same club, before someone says, ‘Let’s freshen this up by wearing a giant rabbit head’.
And, in some weird way, a rabbit head is harder to manage. It’s curious. It gets people interested. It is vitally outside of the norm, and as a result, it causes the norm to grow like an invasive species. Thus, while China might be becoming more authoritarian, bands are growing. The government then has to incorporate this problem into the mainstream and make it manageable. But if you look at how that has panned out in other regions, it isn’t long before the unmanageable rabbit heads start popping up from underground.
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