Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate

Young female workers perform an anti-Confucian Maoist ballet for a crowd of onlookers.

Young female workers perform an anti-Confucian Maoist ballet for a crowd of onlookers.

           The westerner’s perception of modern China is often tied to images of red propaganda and Mao Zedong’s imposing, smiling face. Why is this? The Cultural Revolution came to an official close decades ago, yet still presents the most readily-accessible imagery of Chinese Communism. The period from 1966-1976 represented the peak of Mao-fever in the country, when the Chairman’s cult of personality and political influence were both at their strongest. It’s also the period in which the policies and direction of the Chinese Communist Party reached their lowest depths of misguided error. After the resounding failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao ushered in the Cultural Revolution partially as a way to reassert his dominance and ideologies within the party. Its stated goal was to purge Chinese society of lingering traditional and capitalist components in the pursuit of true Communism. Temples were torn down, books were banned, and art or media in any form that was deemed to stand in opposition to the Maoist wave was grounds for execution. The latter phenomenon here is the most important for our own purposes. The stranglehold that was placed on the Chinese creative community – at this crucial moment of its intended tip into modernity – effectively paralyzed the country’s artistic development. Ten years passed in which all plays produced, books written, and music performed were for the express purpose of praising Mao Zedong and the Party. Naturally, when the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end, artists found themselves chillingly face-to-face with the freedom to create. But the rest of the world had already passed them up. Eager to leave behind the fresh sting of failure, China rushed to develop comparable pop culture content, largely to no avail. Early attempts to fill this vacuum were, for the most part, rather mediocre. The instrumental tracks were filled with discordant sounds, obvious products of the preceding decade’s Patriotic and Revolutionary Songs. The drum lines sounded like they were taken from then-current American Pepsi commercials. Of course, to a nation that had been not only deprived of, but kept blind to, the international pop culture explosion of the 70’s and 80’s, these songs were worth their weight in gold. Due to the enormous national audience, overnight hits were not only common, but planned out in alignment with national TV events, etc. This allowed China’s pop music growth to remain stagnant, while its Eastern neighbors began taking steps to improve the international appeal of their music and expand their influence overseas. By the time terms like “J-Pop” and “K-Pop” (Japanese and Korean Pop, respectively) started becoming household words among diverse American youth, China had already lost too much ground, relegating the less popular “C-Pop” to the MP3 players and iPods of an almost exclusively ethnic Chinese audience. It’s clear to see that the Cultural Revolution, despite having ended decades ago, continues to have a lasting impact on the social, financial, and cultural climates of China’s music industry.

            To understand the aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution, we have to understand the characteristics of the period itself, and in order to do that, we need to look to China’s condition just before Mao brought the era into existence. In 1965, one year before Mao would announce the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - the period’s formal name - China was in a state of disrepair. Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign that had promised to double agricultural production and catapult China into a renaissance of industrialized modernity, had instead proved to be a catastrophe. Its primary tenets had included the mass mobilization of the country’s population into rural communes, and the assignment to many of these communes of single commodity production goals – for the most part, steel. Uneducated farmers struggled to produce steel on an outrageous scale, yielding mostly useless, low quality product and substandard pig iron. Meanwhile, with the population’s focus being forcefully directed to the failed manufacture of unnecessary steel, agricultural output fell lower and lower, resulting in the Great Chinese Famine. This period of famine can be viewed as one of the most devastating losses of life in history, during which an estimated 18 million to 45 million people died of starvation, as a direct result of Mao’s policy. This led to two important things: 1) Mao Zedong was forced to take major responsibility, reducing his status within the party and causing him to resign from his position as State Chairman, and 2) the Party, the people of China, and Mao himself became desperate to embrace whatever was “next.”

            With the country in shambles, the stage was set perfectly for a strongman leader to muscle his way in on promises of revolution. Or in Mao Zedong’s case, to muscle his way back in. On May 16, 1966 during an “expanded session” of the Politburo in Beijing, Mao, armed with a rhetoric of class struggle and eliminating secret bourgeoisie insurrections (whom he labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and warned had “sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture”), began to destabilize the Party itself. He created a black-and-white dynamic of Communism vs. the bourgeoisie, in which Communism was defined by “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想). This power play effectively damned anything in opposition to Mao’s policies, on the grounds of being an attack against the proletariat and against Communism itself. Those who spoke out against Mao or were accused of doing so were removed from their positions. Once the party itself lacked the strength to stand against Mao’s influence, the citizens of China were powerless against it, and became swept up in the movement.

            Immediately following, these ideals began to be implemented on every level of society. Mass propaganda campaigns were carried out, urging people to band together in the spirit of China to eliminate the bourgeoisie plague on the country. Students and youth across the mainland were galvanized into paramilitary “Red Guards”, whose mission was to protect the ideology of Mao and to seek out and punish those who were labeled counter-revolutionaries. They harassed and abused much of the elderly and intellectual community, snatching up everyday working class people and presenting them to the central government for torture or execution. This was all in an attempt to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Almost instantaneously, China turned its back on its 3,500 years of history. All religious practice was outlawed. Libraries full of ancient texts were burned to the ground. Red Guards from Beijing Normal University ransacked the tomb of Confucius himself, China’s most dearly-held and influential thinker. The violence of the Red Guards became even more serious in August 1966 when a central directive was issued to stop police intervention in Red Guard activities. The national police chief said it was “no big deal” if Red Guards were beating “bad people” to death, and the Red Guards took this to heart, effectively constituting an ever-present eye of Mao with the legal and quantifiable strength to kill in the name of his policies.

Red Guards punish a man perceived as being in opposition to Maoist ideology. 

Red Guards punish a man perceived as being in opposition to Maoist ideology. 

            The Red Guards were, one could argue, a way of blurring the line between government and society. It wasn’t just a matter of monitoring one’s speech in front of state officials – anything said or rumoured to have been said at any time could work its way by word of mouth to someone who would take action on it, allowing the gaze of the Party to permeate every level of society. It’s crucial to note the effect this had on the creative community at the time: that no artists of any medium could produce work without fear of retribution on the part of the state or its agents.

            The poster child for this phenomenon is playwright Wu Han, who wrote the 1961 opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. The opera centered on the story of Ming dynasty minister Hai Rui, an honest man who is imprisoned for criticizing the emperor. Although the play initially received praise from Mao, when critics began to interpret it as an allegory for Defense Minister Peng Dehuai’s criticism of - and subsequent imprisonment at the hands of - the Chairman, Mao Zedong saw an opportunity to use the play to eliminate his chief rival within the party, Liu Shaoqi. By attacking and removing Wu Han from his position, he aimed to remove his superior, Peng Zhen in Beijing, from his position. Peng Zhen was one of Liu Shaoqi’s closest supporters, so after denouncing Peng, it was not a great leap to reach Liu. Wu Han, innocent, died in prison in 1969.

            This landmark precedent occurred before the Cultural Revolution, and set the tone for perceived artistic critiques against the Party. During the years of the revolution itself, the creative climate only became darker. A paralyzing blow was dealt in 1966 by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong and leading member of Mao’s trusted “Gang of Four”, a political faction within the Party on whose shoulders much of the blame for the period’s chaos falls. It was Jiang Qing who put forth the Theory of the Dictatorship of the Black Line in Literature and Arts, a report which stated:


“…since the founding of our People's Republic, the ideas in [Chairman Mao’s] works have basically not been carried out by literary and art circles. Instead, we have been under the dictatorship of a black anti-Party and anti-socialist line that is diametrically opposed to Chairman Mao's thought. This black line is a combination of bourgeois ideas on literature and art, modern revisionist ideas on literature and art and the so-called literature and art of the 1930s… As a result of the influence or domination of this bourgeois and modern revisionist counter-current in literature and art, there have been few good or basically good works in the last decade or so (although there have been some) which truly praise worker, peasant and soldier heroes and which serve the workers, peasants and soldiers; many are mediocre, while some are anti-Party and anti-socialist poisonous weeds. In accordance with the instructions of the Central Committee of the Party, we must resolutely carry on a great socialist revolution on the cultural front and completely eliminate this black line.”


            Jiang Qing’s report broadened the punishable territory of art from that which was anti-Communist to that which was not deliberately pro-Communist. All pre-existing operas were banned from being performed, and Jiang Qing took it upon herself to introduce the “revolutionary operas” shortly after in 1967. The revolutionary opera was based on Peking opera, but modified in form, and centered without fail on themes of Communist victory and Mao Zedong’s strength as a leader. Eight “Model Dramas”, six operas and two ballet pieces, were rolled out as the official theatrical repertoire of the entire country, the most famous of which being The Legend of the Red Lantern. The opera tells the story of Communist undercover agents working at a railway station and fighting off the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Each other opera followed a similar formula. Rather than drawing the line here, at the complete eradication of China’s theatrical tradition, Jiang Qing made efforts to imbue all other spheres of culture with these same dramas. They were broadcast on the radio, made into films, and assigned as required study to students and factory workers, whose political fervor was judged on how passionately they sang the lyrics. The songs boomed loudly from public loudspeakers, and their complete scripts were printed in different publications and newspapers.

            While these revolutionary operas constituted the bulk of consumable Chinese art at the time, there were a few independent pieces of music which stood alone, though they didn’t differ greatly in theme from the model dramas. Paralleling the rise of the revolutionary opera, the Cultural Revolution’s musical identity came about after pre-existing popular music was banned. Instead, a select handful of songs extolling the virtues of Communism and of Mao Zedong became the national musical landscape. Songs like Ode to the Motherland, Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman, and Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China became the only commonly heard music. One song praising Mao, The East Is Red, rose to such popularity it became the de facto national anthem of the period:


The east is red, the sun is rising.
From China comes Mao Zedong.
He strives for the people's happiness,
Hurrah, he is the people's great saviour!

Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide
to building a new China
Hurrah, lead us forward!

The Communist Party is like the sun,
Wherever it shines, it is bright
Wherever the Communist Party is
Hurrah, the people are liberated!


            This dearth of valid artistic expression crippled the country’s ability to produce what the rest of the world would call “regular” or “real” music. On one level, it formed a solid ten-year period in which China was not experiencing musical growth. Meanwhile, the western world was transitioning at comparatively lightning speed through the stages of pop, soul, disco, rock, and more. Even some of China’s eastern neighbors were beginning to catch on, with Japanese groups venturing out and trying their own takes on the same genres. On a deeper level, the Cultural Revolution set the next generation of artists up for continued failure. The Chinese sound wasn’t just “not evolving”; the generation of artists that would have been capable of putting China on the map was rotting away into musical decrepitude. A decade passed with the entire population of China in musical limbo. The only feeling music was thought to be capable of generating was that of patriotic Communist fervor. They weren’t hearing the sounds, seeing the sights, or experiencing the energy of music that the rest of the world was. Talk to any musician and they’ll be able to tell you the story of their musical journey. What they heard as a child around the house, how they reacted to it, the eventual genres they found themselves seeking out as listeners, the kinds of people and things those genres put them into contact with, and the culmination of these experiences into one human product as they picked up a microphone/instrument/turntable and moved from the realm of “listener” to “creator.” China was not afforded these opportunities; how can you expect someone to go from an adolescence of reciting The Legend of the Red Lantern to picking up a six-string guitar and shredding on stage?

            After a decade of isolation from not just the evolving music of the world, but from the pre-existing music of their own country, China’s entrance into the pop music game was understandably weak. In the Reform and Opening-Up (改革开放) period that followed the dismay of the Cultural Revolution, alongside economic reforms, China began producing its first pop culture products. TV shows, movies, and music began to spill out rapidly. While there were some notable successes (rock legend Cui Jian produced his song “Nothing to My Name” during this period, which is lauded for giving a voice to the dispossessed youth of the time and is regarded as one of the most important songs in modern Chinese history), for the most part, there’s a reason nobody talks about 80’s Chinese hits. Musicians’ attempts to reconcile the knowledge they’d carried over from the days of Communist music largely resulted in discordant tracks where traditional Chinese instruments clashed with simplistic guitars and horns. Furthermore, music producers living in China lacked the technical skills their foreign counterparts had developed long ago, imbuing Chinese-produced music with a categorically “inferior” sound quality. If you compare the first mainland Chinese pop song - Li Guyi’s 1980 “Township Love”, which was initially met with much criticism and banned on the grounds of being “bourgeois” – with a 1980 American counterpart, for instance, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, the difference is immediately clear. Queen’s track sounds crystal clear, with each individual instrument making a name for itself and taking up its own sonic space, and Freddy Mercury’s vocals riding perfectly on top, each one of his breathy inflections audible and unmistakeable. Western producers had also long understood “doubling” and “adlibs”, and in the song you can hear Freddy come in at times on a separate vocal track underneath the lyrics for a backup “yeaaahh!”  In contrast, Li Guyi’s track quality sounds much more dated. The high frequencies and low frequencies blend into one another, with her voice swimming amidst them, struggling to separate itself from the instruments. There’s only one layer of vocals, closer to a live performance, but without the nuanced touch of a master behind the mixing boards.

            Uniquely though, mainland China was a large enough, and specialized enough, audience to completely self-sustain and support its own comparatively mediocre music. Very little of the rest of the Chinese-speaking world was consuming any mainland music – Hong Kong and Taiwan both had more refined and more established pop music output (having escaped the reach of Mao’s policy a decade earlier), and on the contrary were responsible for many of the popular hits in mainland China. Mainland China, it seemed, made music for mainland China. In this spirit, songs that were directly aimed at a Chinese audience were often sure to become hits. Songs like “My Chinese Heart” were specifically designed to appeal only to Chinese listeners, and relied on a kind of “throwback” to the patriotic sentimentality of the Cultural Revolution, thus continuing the recycling of stagnant Chinese sounds.

            China’s focus was too self-centered to tap into the international currents that were driving modern music. Japan and Korea, meanwhile, were laying the foundations for their own explosion onto the global stage. Japan would later go on to use its first globally-recognized pop product, anime, as a way of launching its music into the hands of overseas fans. By linking J-Pop and J-Rock to anime subculture, Japan was able to access an immense base of listeners worldwide. Korean music, during the initial phases of mainland pop culture, was still in its ballad era. But the consumable appeal of 1980’s Korean artists as individuals made waves across Asia, and would later lead record execs to double down on their investment, eventually giving rise to the modern K-Pop phenomenon. Modern K-Pop follows a strict formula, and is largely based on the appeal of “boy bands” and “girl groups”, a formula that American record execs had thought to be extinct after the end of groups like The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Destiny’s Child, and the Spice Girls. K-Pop today is also heavily reliant on sex appeal and a complete visual product, with looks and dancing ability, as well as music videos, playing a large part in the success, or failure, of a group. Both Japan and Korea’s formulas, it should be noted, are unavailable to Chinese artists. China possesses no international pop product like anime off of which to build a widespread musical following, and the sexuality present in many Korean videos would immediately be labeled “morally harmful” by China’s Ministry of Culture (though that doesn’t mean that Chinese youth are not currently devouring every piece of K-Pop they can get their hands on). Today, China’s international listenership is light-years behind that of Korea and Japan. Korean artist Psy’s irreverent 2012 “Gangnam Style” took the world by storm. An anthem to nothingness, the song is catchy, comes with a fun dance, and has a music video that features baby blue tuxedos, explosions, and the singer screaming at a girl’s buttocks. Gangnam is a wealthy district of Seoul, evidence of the singer’s understanding that consumerist themes are the driving force behind much of today’s music. The music video, at this time of writing, has 2,541,600,331 views on YouTube, more than any other video ever uploaded to the premiere international video-sharing site. In 2015, in line with China’s habit of “imitation over innovation”, a Chinese music video called “Xiao Ping Guo” (Little Apple) emerged. “Xiao Ping Guo” by the Chopstick Brothers attempted to piggyback off the viral success of “Gangnam Style” and copy the same formula: catchy melody and beat, nonsensical music video, accompanying dance, and an ugly-but-loveable male lead backed by a beautiful woman. In China the song became a huge success, peaking at number one on the CCTV Global Chinese Music Chart. Despite this, at this time of writing, the song has only 6,734,786 views on YouTube, dwarfed by “Gangnam Style”, and indicative of the international audience’s disinterest in Chinese music. Because YouTube is a censored website in mainland China, Chinese viewers would have watched the video on Youku, China’s number one video-sharing site, rendering the amount of YouTube views as a quick way to gauge the song’s non-Chinese listenership. The video’s current view count on Youku is approximately 311,188,000.

            China’s first pop efforts were defined by early attempts to merge what post-Cultural Revolution musical knowledge existed in the country with the foreign imagery of pop culture, and tailoring it to the evolving attitudes of the new China. In this respect, China’s first interaction with hip hop culture was not too different. The true origin of hip hop in China can be traced to the year 1987, with the Chinese release of the 1984 American film Breakin’, released in China as Piliwu (霹雳舞 “Thunderbolt Dance”). At the time, only ten or so Hollywood films would be officially released each year, so any one of them would be expected to draw in a lot of viewers. By the late 80’s, Chinese youth were beginning to fully embrace the spirit of the new era, and the culture gap between generations began to become more and more clear.

            Rock and disco became popular, with the definition of each term not yet fully fleshed out, and the words (yaogun/摇滚/rock, and disike/迪斯科/disco) being used to refer to any high-energy music with a powerful beat. Dancing, too, captured the attention of young people, who were eager to embrace the new music associated with youthful rebellion as a way to express oneself as well as interact with the opposite sex. Before Piliwu, the little material on breakdancing or hip hop to be found in the country came in the form of video cassettes or word-of-mouth in Guangzhou via Hong Kong. But after the film’s release, the dance immediately became a national craze, one that was immediately accessible to its audience, and required no prerequisite knowledge of English or technology like rapping or DJing did. Even today, dance remains the most widely practiced element of hip hop culture in China. Sociologist Zhi Zhao translates the account of Mr. Sun, who founded the first Chinese dance studio to offer formal “street dance” (jiewu) classes, upon first seeing the film:


“For our generation, regardless of whether or not they danced, this film got us excited. Today, many people will reminisce about this film; I watched that movie in theatres no less than ten times. There were a lot of people like me. We thought that some of these moves were not humanly possible, but they did it. There was popping, strange movements, we couldn't understand it ... this type of attitude and movement, we were completely absorbed into it.”


           In the years that followed, breakdancing became a true “street” culture, and it was common to find practitioners in parks across Beijing spinning and sliding on slick boards for crowds on fascinated spectators. Out of the four elements of Hip Hop (DJing, breakdancing, rapping, and graffiti) breakdancing was easily the most accessible for the Chinese audience, requiring no expensive equipment, knowledge of English, or disregard for the law. Mr. Sun also speaks on breakdancing as the most immediately accessible element of Hip Hop culture, explaining that "with rapping, there's a translation problem...Chinese people are still Chinese people, so it's hard to say that all Chinese people will like rap or learn rap. I like rap, I like graffiti, DJing, but I feel that hip hop dance is what is most suitable to Chinese people. Chinese hip hop culture will be primarily dance-based."

            It was breakdancing, not rap music, that set the tone for the Chinese reception of hip hop. Rap music was seen by many as a little strange, with foreigners bobbing their heads and shouting incomprehensible lyrics over beats. In the early days, people would breakdance to rock and roll, rap music, or pop almost interchangeably. The older generation naturally disapproved of it, and there was a popular saying that “bad people are those who smoke, drink, and dance piliwu.” The gap between generations in this time began to grow, the uniform Maoism of the previous decade giving way to the natural difference in ideology between youth and their elders. One breakdance enthusiast from Xinjiang named Chen Qiushi explained his feelings:


“Whatever your pastime, none can be considered low grade. So long as you put your heart and soul into something, it shows you’re a genuine person. What’s the point if you only listen to what other people say? They tell you to do this, you do this; they tell you to do that, you do that. In the past, loyalty dances [to Chairman Mao] were not a pastime; they were controlled. Ballet relies on skill, the traditional skills of standard dancing have a kind of beauty. These also have a kind of accepted artistic value. But dances as a pastime depend on a person’s feelings and the free development of emotions. So things that are pastimes will always reflect your values in life. You can’t do without them. Losing them means you lose your own self-worth. The key is that this era is the ‘me era’ (ziwo shidai). People like breakdancing, and like these pastimes. That’s the way it is. No one resists this wave.”


            Chen’s candid speech encapsulates the essence of the era. The old ways were falling away, and the question on everyone’s mind was how to bring in the new. Sadly, for hip hop, it was not built to last. Breakdancing’s breakneck rise to popularity stalled out after a couple of years. With no accomplished dancers to teach the style or studios to practice in, the method of watching Breakin’ and copying the moves could only last so long, and with no established breakdance community, the phenomenon was unsustainable. The breakdancing fad began to turn stale, hopelessly coinciding with the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the subsequent crackdown on foreign culture. By 1990, breakdancing had all but disappeared into the wind. Mr. Sun remembers the period:


 “It got to the point where if you danced piliwu, you would be laughed at. By 1990, there was no one left who danced piliwu, even those who danced were ashamed to tell others...When it was popular, everyone followed it. China has this tendency: either it's completely popular, or it's nonexistent, maybe because of Chinese peoples' collectivist tendencies.”


            Breakdancing, and with it, hip hop, had essentially ended in China. Die hard fans might still be caught hitting a one-handed freeze or bumping Run DMC in their headphones, but as a cultural movement, the force of hip hop had reached a sudden halt. It wouldn’t be until later, when piliwu was rebranded under the all encompassing term jiewu (street dance), that breaking would find its way back into Chinese youth culture, and this time in a much more specialized capacity in studios and competition arenas across the country. China would continue to develop its relationship with hip hop, eventually yielding an entire generation of Chinese breakdancers, rappers, graffiti artists, and DJ’s who were knowledgeable in their own right in the roots of hip hop culture. But it was a development that would occur later, and would not come without its own new set of obstacles and challenges.

            China is a nation that shot from a period of third-world darkness into the sunlit splendor of the 21st century almost overnight. But as a result, contemporary international currents vie for position with older ways of thinking that haven’t quite yet had time to dissipate. There’s an expression, “Just as the waves of the Yangtze River behind drive on those ahead, so does each new generation replace the old one.” In China, the waves set into motion by the Cultural Revolution have not yet dwindled away, and continue to push and sway each aspect of contemporary Chinese life. Music is no exception. The attitudes and policies of the Cultural Revolution were, in the words of the Party, “the most severe setback” for China since the founding of the People’s Republic. The tight restrictions on the country’s musical output killed any chance at developing meaningful modern music during the period, and set China up for an underwhelming entrance to the pop culture game when the widespread reform of the 1980’s rolled around. Forced to play catch-up and build new foundations, China was left in the wake behind more powerful pop culture entities like the United States, Japan, and Korea in each subsequent stage of music evolution. While these countries were each taking further steps into unknown territory in order to demarcate their own musical identities, China was left no choice but to copy them and rush its own learning process, sometimes skipping over important elements. Early attempts at Chinese hip hop were fad-like, based on the novelty of the image, and lacked underlying substance. But China also has another expression, “one generation plants the trees, another gets the shade.” Although the China of today is in many ways still hindered by its past identity, it’s also continuously building towards new heights. Every day new minds are being exposed to new music, and a new wave of rappers, DJ’s, breakdancers, and graffiti writers is waking up. In this way, the hard-sowed seeds of the generations before them will become trees of experience, in whose cool shade the hip hop revolutionaries of tomorrow will prosper.