Revisiting the Rock Mythology – On Wutiaoren, Li Zhi, and Song Dongye

Hong Kong, 9-10 November, 2023 – At Chu Hai College I presented a paper on Chinese folk for Nostalgia of Diaspora Music: Conference on the Development of Cantonese Pop Music in the Southeast Asia. See here a report of the conference.

My abstract reads:

In October 2023, I met a close friend of mine in Berlin. She was my research assistant during my fieldtrips in Beijing, in 1997, to study Chinese rock culture. “Assistant” is quite an understatement, as we did the fieldwork practically together. At our recent gathering, she wondered: didn’t all these rebellious men (who clearly outnumbered women in the rock culture of that time, and still do) we interviewed merely strike a pose, devoid of any real politics?  After all, nothing much has changed, she said, especially when it comes to practices and ideas around freedom. Yet, an hour later, she celebrated the movie Barbie as a truly important and urgent feminist intervention from Hollywood. Some symbolism holds clearly more power, for her, than others. I disagreed. I would rather posit that both forms of popular culture can be political, but such politics is never straightforward, always ambivalent.

This anecdote inspires me for this chapter, in which I aim to revisit a concept I used in my 2010 book China with a Cut. There, I discussed the rock mythology, a discourse that sets rock apart as a music genre, and frames it as rebellious and oppositional. In that book I tried to challenge the mythology. In this chapter I would like to  revisit the mythology, by probing into the politics of folk music, in particular one band and two singer-songwriters: Wutiaoren, Li Zhi, and Song Dongye.  More than a decade later, I gravitate to a more positive evaluation of this rock mythology, well-nigh a defence for our old rockers in front of my former RA. In three analytical snippets, I hope to show how Wutiaoren, Li Zhi and Song Dongye engage, respectively, in a politics of locality, of mischievousness, and of transgression, albeit with all their ambiguities, ambivalence, and contradictions. Taken together, they show that rock still matters in China. Maybe even more so now. 

See here one of my favourite clips of wutiaoren (五条人)