China Rocks!

I am giving you my aspirations

And my freedom too.

But you always laugh at me

Because I have nothing.

“I Have Nothing”, by Cui Jian.
Chinese rock music, in simplest terms, means Chinese music with modern orchestration (with or without traditional Chinese musical instruments), exemplified by attitude and lifestyle not compliant to mainstream market and state-approved entertainment. Chinese rock music, in its own way, creates a mythology of individual freedom and rebellion the world over. 

Yan Jun, a Chinese rock musician, once divided the development of Chinese rock in 4 periods [1]

1986-1990: “Myth of the hero”

The main event during the time is Cui Jian, father of Chinese rock, and his Northwestern Wind style rock. Rock music in this period drew heavily on the folk song traditions of northern Shaanxi Province in the northwest. They combined this with a western-style fast tempo, strong beat and aggressive bass lines. In contrast to the mellow Cantopop style, Northwest Wind songs were sung loudly and forcefully. Many Northwest Wind songs were highly idealistic and politically allusive. They reflected dissatisfaction among Chinese youth, as well as the influence of western ideas such as individuality and self-empowerment.

1990-1993: “Rock as Popular Music”

Chinese rock reached a peak of creativity and popularity between 1990 and 1993. Dozens of rock bands were established and rock music was performed on a regular basis. The core participants in rock subculture adopted characteristic nonconformist appearance and behaviors. These included long hair for males, jeans, silver metal ornaments, black leather coats, and carefree, hippie-style behaviors. The decline of Northwest Wind and simultaneous rise of the rock fad represented a shift in the attitude of many of China's intellectuals: alienation from China's traditional and rural culture.

1994-2004: “Underground Spirit”

Third generation believes the rock stars of the 1st and 2nd generation sold themselves as they performed with pop stars. Rock musicians such as Tian Zhen and Xu Wei have adapted their subject matter to the Cantopop style and achieved commercial success. Others, such as the self-styled punk He Yong have fiercely resisted Cantopop culture and their imitators on the Mainland. They even reject well-resourced record companies and raise revenues from film-making and advertising.

2004-today: Today's Period

Today, rock music is centered on almost exclusively in Beijing and Shanghai, and has very limited influence over Chinese society. Wuhan and Sichuan are sometimes considered pockets of rock music culture, as well. The Chinese rock movement differed from its Western counterpart in that it never fully made it into mainstream culture. The marginality of rock seems to point to significant cultural, political and social differences that exist between China and the West.

[1] Azchael, History of Chinese Rock/Modern Music, available from world wide web: