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30 Years of Heavy Metal

Metal is one of China’s most popular genres today, but as recently as the ’90s, most musicians here had never even heard of it

01·28·2011

30 Years of Heavy Metal

Metal is one of China’s most popular genres today, but as recently as the ’90s, most musicians here had never even heard of it

01·28·2011

“Here I am, drinking a frappucino in a Starbucks in Chaoyang,” remarked Kaiser Kuo (郭怡广), one of the godfathers of Chinese metal. “That’s so not metal.”

Maybe not. But Kaiser, even wearing his Baidu corporate ID card around his neck, sticks out among the businesspeople who dot this haven of Western culture in Beijing’s business district. With his intimidating stature and long hair he looks, a friend of mine once remarked, “more like an Apache warrior” than an American-born Chinese who’s been in China on and off since the ’80s. He looks like a guy who might start a metal band.

There aren’t really 30 years of metal history in China, Kaiser tells me. In fact, there aren’t even a full 30 years of rock music. “Nothing to My Name” (《一无所有》yì wú suǒ yǒu) by Cui Jian (崔健), considered by many to be China’s first real rock song, wasn’t released until 1986. Lyrically and musically, the song mixed Western rock with traditional Chinese conventions, and quickly became an anthem among young Chinese. But at the time, there was little else in the way of Chinese rock, and only an odd smattering of imported Western rock. There was a thirst for more, but no one had really figured out how to quench it.

The beginning of Chinese metal was, fittingly, rather multicultural. Kaiser came to Beijing in 1988, and quickly started jamming with a classmate from Arkansas he met at the Beijing Language Institute, Sean Andrews. After seeing a terrible performance by a Japanese band, the boys were convinced they could do better, and got linked into a local music store by another friend of theirs, a Russian named Dmitri.

There, the three jammed, and drew crowds of curious onlookers. The store owner was impressed, and introduced Kaiser to the underground world of Beijing rock. There was Lao Yaogun (老摇滚, “Old Rock ‘n Roll”), a tour guide with a miraculously encyclopedic collection of Western rock he maintained by meticulously taping copies of every CD his tourist clients brought to China. Lao Yaogun was the godfather of Beijing’s nascent rock scene, and a guide to the youth who were looking for something harder than the music gracing Chinese pop charts at the time.

And those kids definitely needed a guide. Even in Beijing, rock fans were at the mercy of the seemingly-random selections of music imported from the West and sold illicitly on pirated tapes. Sometimes, you might find a gem, a glittering heavy metal gem wrapped in the ripped plastic that indicated it was an illegal import. More often, you’d find nothing. But “Old Rock n’ Roll” had a whole library of rock and because of that he knew almost everyone in the city who listened to it.

The music store owner also introduced Kaiser to Ding Wu (丁武), a long-haired, trenchcoat-wearing rocker with a brass house key for an earring, a taste for hard music, and incredible musical chops as a vocalist and as a guitarist.

Ding Wu and Kaiser hit it off immediately and soon the two started writing songs together. Metal gear was hard to come by in China, so Kaiser went back to the States to load up on gear, and when he got back to Beijing they started practicing at an old commune dormitory outside the city. Tang Dynasty was born.

The name was, Kaiser told me, a very intentional choice. If you ask historians why the (historical) Tang Dynasty is widely considered the height of Chinese civilization, they will tell you that it is partially because China was openly trading with other cultures. It was, as Kaiser put it, a time when China was “confidently cosmopolitan;” undeniably Chinese but open to adopting new technologies and ideas from other places. This was the philosophy behind the band, which quickly became known for its mixture of Western metal techniques with Chinese traditional and folk music conventions.

At first, Tang Dynasty consisted of Kaiser and his friend Drew, who were both foreigners, and Ding Wu and Zhang Ju (张炬), who were both Chinese. They wrote songs together, and on the morning of June 3rd, 1989, they set out from Beijing on their first-ever tour. Not everything went according to plan. Presumably not knowing how to market a metal act to a country where metal didn’t exist, one promoter in the Northeast had billed the band as “Michael Jackson’s backing band.” The crowd, seeing a band that was clearly mostly Chinese people, cried foul, rioted, and burned down the ticket booth.

Because of student activities in Beijing, the tour ended abruptly, and Kaiser and Drew returned to the US. “But Tang Dynasty went on,” Kaiser said. And when the rest of the band got back to Beijing that fall, they found a new guitarist.

Liu Yijun (刘义军), known to friends as Lao Wu (老五) because he was the fifth child in his family, was “a blazing fast kid from Hebei” who had “a real cowboy attitude about guitar. He was all technique; he slept with his guitar,” Kaiser said. Tang Dynasty got signed and released their first album in 1992, “梦回唐朝” (Mèng Huí Tángcháo, “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty”). It took China by storm. In fairly short order, the album—China’s first heavy metal album—sold over two million legitimate copies (and untold numbers of bootlegged copies).

Metal bands sprung up across China. Subgenres began to form, and an extremely dedicated core of fans emerged. New bands began to appear. Chinese metal was born.

Even though the music was new, Kaiser claims the fundamentals of metal were present in China long before electric guitars were invented. Like martial arts, it’s about showcasing technique. Moreover, it’s aggressive. Warriorlike. Chinese metal fans in the early days were nearly all also into wuxia (武侠, martial arts) novels, Kaiser said, and Tang Dynasty’s image and sound were meant to evoke the romantic warrior-poets who star in those novels. From the long hair to the sword tassels hanging from their guitars to the name of the band, painted on banners like those that used to fly above Chinese armies, Tang Dynasty was a wuxia novel, albeit an abstracted and modernized one. It’s no wonder they attracted so many head-bangers.

When he first heard metal, Lao Mao (老猫), the gravelly lead singer of Chinese metal band AK-47, told me, “I was extremely interested. I listened and listened and listened until I realized I wanted to make music myself.”

Kou Zhengyu (寇征宇), a guitarist for two metal bands—Spring & Autumn (春秋 chūnqiū) and Suffocated (窒息 zhìxī), also fell in love with metal in the early ’90s. “When I was in middle school, I heard some rock music, and was surprised there were people who made music like this. I’d never heard anything like it before.” Getting his hands on Western music wasn’t easy, though. “My English isn’t great, so when I went to buy pirated import tapes of foreign bands, I would just look at the pictures on the cover and buy the ones I liked,” he laughed. “But I liked the metal ones… In the winter of ’92, I heard Tang Dynasty’s album and realized Chinese people could make this kind of music, too. So I started learning to play the guitar.”

Today, the domestic offerings for Chinese fans are much more diverse than they were in the early ’90s, but the culture remains the same. Chinese metal fans tend to link arms before they headbang, Kaiser said, whether they know each other or not. Anyone who comes to a show is, by the sheer fact of their presence there, a friend.

The cliques and harsh genre separations that have evolved in the West don’t really exist here. Neither do the violent incidents and fan-on-fan brawls that have plagued metal shows outside China. Perhaps it’s in part because in China, genres like metal and punk are still defined more by what they aren’t than what they are. To the average Chinese, there’s really only one genre of rock: feizhuliu (非主流, outside the mainstream). Regardless of how many copies Tang Dynasty has sold, anyone who makes metal is still an outsider in a music scene that’s dominated by saccharine pop and flashy dancing.

“You can’t make any money being a metal band in China,” Kou Zhengyu told me, “but we don’t really care. We knew from the beginning we weren’t going to make any money. We’re doing this because we love it.”

“We don’t do this to make money, we do it to make music,” echoes Li Yang, singer of the punk/metal band Demerit. “We do it because we feel sick if we don’t make music.”

After all, what really keeps a metal band running in China isn’t money or fame, it’s the energy that comes with performing a live show to a club packed full of music lovers who are just like you. “Just come to the shows,” said Lao Mao. “Meet some friends and have a good time. Isn’t that the real point anyway?”