Peking, China The Chinese government has declared a guerrilla war on heavy metal. Concerts are cancelled, musicians and fans are being harassed. They are disturbing the “Chinese Dream”. A report from Beijing’s mosh pit.
In early spring, two patrolmen walking past the Tango Club in Beijing are suddenly stopped in their tracks by strange noises and risk a glance inside. Within the club, metal heads are dancing Siqiang, known in the West as “Wall of Death”. The rockers, dressed entirely in black, first stand in two facing rows and then run directly at each other. Long hair flying, the two parties collide. Some are thrown to the floor. The policemen, having never before seen such a thing, immediately call for backup.
This occurrence marks the immediate end for the 330 festival. After only two performances, the head banging is stopped by police clearing the club. Kou Zhengyou is sitting on the stage, crying. He’s the creator of the metal festival and for the first time since its premiere in 2002, it can’t take place – a harsh cut among the young scene.
The relationship between state and art in China has always been very sensitive, but this year, it’s shot to a whole new level. There have never before been so many cancelled or postponed concerts, especially those scheduled in the capital. Beijing’s biggest open-air event, the rock festival Strawberry, failed to get a permit in April – for the first time in history. The authorities postponed it indefinitely.
A similar fate was suffered by main competitor Midi: The authorization process was dragging along so slowly that the organizers relocated it to a different city at the last minute, 650 kilometers from Beijing. The Japanese singer Makoto Kawabata, front man of the band Acid Mothers Temple, wasn’t even permitted to perform, same with the British punk band The Boys. Hip hoppers with socially critical lyrics have it especially hard – as well as heavy metal.
Artists are expected to “breathe in harmony with the nation”
“They’re just not familiar with the metal culture”, says Kou Zhengyou, laughing. The creator of the 330 festival, who has even performed at the Wacken Open Air as guitarist for a trash metal band, is sitting on a roof terrace of a café in Beijing, smoking one cigarette after another and trying to explain this “misunderstanding”. Of course people fall once in a while during Siqiang and get nosebleeds, admits the 36-year-old. But someone is always there to help you back up. “Everyone helps each other out.”
The authorities struggle to accept Kou’s view regarding this – the crowds of people are “dangerous”, the events unsuitable for minors, is how they justify the cancellations. The Tango is only permitted to admit 600 people at once, as Kou found out at the police station after the chaotic evacuation – 1300 tickets had already been sold by then. “The club never mentioned anything”, says Kou.
Until recently, these things weren’t of much importance in China. The fact that the authorities are suddenly taking this matter so seriously and the increasing pressure on musicians is politically intended. In a recent speech made by president Xi Jinping, he requests artists to “breathe in harmony with the nation” and set an example of socialist values.
Currently, Xi’s campaign illustrating the “Chinese Dream” shows exactly how this cohabitation is suppose to be: the country’s building facades, construction sites and subway stations are papered with posters portraying the ideal family in the heart of the nation. Below the motives, grey-bearded writers share their thoughts on the blessing of socialism with the public, painters have created idyllic mountain landscapes, obedient musicians are plucking melodious folk songs on the lute. Every town, no matter how small, is packed to the brim with this kind of propaganda.
The metal heads, with their foreign rituals, don’t blend in with the image of a society that even considers a tattoo on the upper arm “guai”, meaning strange. People like Kou attract attention, with their ponytails and black shirts stating their idolization of bands like Suffocated, Raging Mob or Pupil of Satan.
Victims of this turnaround are fans like Erika and Kulo from Shanghai. These mid-twenty-year-olds love concerts but this year, they will be drinking their beer mostly at home on the couch of their shared apartment on the 8th floor. “We no longer have the opportunity to go to a metal gig”, says Kulo.
These two girlfriends aren’t interested in shopping or pop music like most of their peers. They wear gothic-style clothing, are tattooed and want to stand out from the common crowd. “Many metal songs are about finding your own way, fighting for your identity”, explains Erika. Both believe that this attitude is not in keeping with the principles of the communist party.
Still, the government’s sudden interest surprises them both. “In China, no one cares if someone drives drunk or if minors are consuming alcohol”, says Erika. “But now they’re suddenly concerned about metal?” The scene is so small, anything but a mass movement.
“The government is afraid of everything foreign to them”, states Cassandra. The 30-year-old Chinese woman with chin-length hair dyed red, works in one of China’s few metal bars, the Inferno in Shanghai. The name is tattooed across her entire forearm.
The Inferno had to relocate recently. In the prior district, there had been too many police visits following complaints made about the noise. Cassandra is receiving more and more enquiries from young metal bands wanting to perform. She believes that is the reason for the government’s sudden interest. “Culture influences the society’s mindset. If one culture becomes too dominant, the government feels threatened.”
Whatever happens on stage is now being strictly monitored
Marc Loupe (name has been changed) remembers a time where it was different. The Frenchman arrived in Beijing in 2002 as a music manager, organizing concerts and bringing foreign bands to the stage. “I was very impressed by the city’s energy”, says Loupe. He moved to China because he was under the impression that the government was actually trying to encourage the culture’s expansion. “They were flexible regarding new tastes, including things that they didn’t quite understand – such as people expressing emotions at festivals.”
But for about two years now, ever since Xi’s rise, things have been changing. Foreign as well as Chinese bands are being controlled more vigorously, says Loupe. “They’re failing to appreciate it.”
The music manager can sense this every time he tries to organize a concert. Requesting permission up to three months in advance, he and his team have to translate all song lyrics into Chinese and send them to the cultural authorities. The officials want to see the exact track list, forbidding the musicians to deviate from this list during their performance on stage. Unnecessary harassment for touring musicians who naturally refine their performances while on the road, cutting songs and adding others. Since recently, Loupe is expected to also hand in videos of previous performances. There’s a sudden interest in the musician’s police records, drug-related offences, anti-China statements or sympathy for Tibet.
In spring, the German band Equilibrium was prohibited from entry, scheduled concerts were cancelled – due to visa problems, stated the band. Due to pagan lyrics, suspects metal fan Kulo. These laws were established years ago, says Loupe, but the officials hadn’t taken them very seriously before. “Now, they’re inspecting all the videos, listening to the music, reading the lyrics. They could moonlight as music critics”, jokes the Frenchman.
For the first time in 15 years, Loupe is concerned about his own future in China. But he views the risk that the society could loose its dynamic due to the new political line as far more troubling.
“Wacken in China”
And after everything the metal heads have already achieved in China…In the late 1980’s, metal came from the USA to China. Kou Zhengyou heard it for the first time back then, on illegal cassettes from the USA. Customs cut up the tapes, recounts Kou. His friends and he glued them back together, listened to them and knew: this is the sound they want to create as well.
Kou bought himself a guitar and a bass and got started – as a hobby musician for a long time. For about four years now, his band Suffocated has been able to live of their music. “As one of maybe five metal bands in China”, says Kou.
Censorship has grown up as well, having nothing more in common with the former conditions. But it’s far too late to break up trends like heavy metal. Long gone are the times in which only Beijing and Shanghai could boast with modern concert halls. New clubs and bands are springing up in million-strong metropolises like Lanzhou, Wuhan or Suzhou at an astounding pace. The band Nine Treasures with front man Askhan from Inner Mongolia combines hardcore sound with Mongolian melodies and throaty chanting to create a very unique variation of folk metal.
And the musicians are very adapted to conquering free spaces for themselves. Kou leaves the roof terrace café and takes the subway to an office complex. The lift takes him to the third sublevel floor, past parking spaces, into a mirrored and brightly lit rehearsal room. Cables are scattered on the floor, the mixing consoles are brand new. Kou’s fellow band members are ready, four young men, silent and dressed in black, holding sharply-shaped guitars and sitting behind a drum set.
Kou isn’t willing to give up on his plan to make the 330 great. “I will dedicate my entire life to making metal possible in China”, he says. “Something like Wacken in China.” He taps on his pedal and his distorted guitar drowns out everything else.