Cui Jian
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Chinese trap music to jazz and techno, 2019 seems to be the year of musical fusion and diversity in China. But singers like the Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers are not the first to incorporate Chinese elements into non-pop music. 

When China opened up to the world in the late 1970s, different western musical genres flowed into the country. Some young Chinese artists started integrating rock with traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as gŭ zhéng (古筝) and dí zǐ (笛子). Through their experiments, these artists created a form of rock music that was distinctly Chinese – yáo gŭn (摇滚). 

With its provocative lyrics and creative composition, yáo gŭn swept through the country in the 1990s. It became an outlet for urban youth to channel their discontent, pride and hope in the midst of dramatic social changes. 

While we have long passed the golden age of yáo gŭn, Chinese rock musicians from the 90s are still popular nowadays. Here are five key artists who defined yáo gŭn and altered the musical landscape of modern China. Their creativity and success have continued to inspire young Chinese artists to experiment and produce their own unique music. 

  1. 1 Cui Jian 崔健

    Cui is revered by many as the father of Chinese rock. He is a pioneer in blending Western rock’s fast tempo, electric guitar and strong drum beats with key elements of Chinese folk music. He adopts the forceful singing in Chinese peasant songs and uses traditional musical instruments, such as dí zǐ (笛子), gŭ zhéng (古筝) and suǒ nà (唢呐). 

    Cui’s 1986 song “Nothing to My Name (一无所有 yī wú suǒ yǒu)” marked the beginning of Chinese rock music. It is one of the most influential songs in modern Chinese history because of its musical innovation and political impact. Cui’s reputation and popularity still persist today.

  2. 2 Beyond

    Based in Hong Kong, Beyond is widely celebrated as the most prominent Canto-rock band in history. Unlike major Canto-pop singers of the time, Beyond ventured outside of love songs. Their lyrics advocated world peace, the pursuit of dreams and appreciation for mothers. 

    One of their most famous songs, “Glorious Years (光辉岁月 guāng huī suì yuè),” was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. It commemorates his struggle to fight against apartheid and racism in South Africa.

  3. 3 Black Panther 黑豹乐队

    Led by alternative singer Dou Wei, Black Panther was the best-selling rock band in China in the 1990s. In comparison, Black Panther featured fewer Chinese instruments and more western rock elements. Their success led to the emergence of a form of Chinese rock different from Cui Jian’s. More “western” in their appearances, they also contributed to the rise of a rock subculture, with features like leather jackets, long hair and the hippie lifestyle.

  4. 4 Tang Dynasty 唐朝乐队

    Tang Dynasty was the first heavy metal band in China. They combined electric guitar solos, dense bass lines and drums with poetic lyrics. Their most famous song, “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty (梦回唐朝 mèng huí táng cháo),” is a prominent example. The lyrics evoke the glorious past of the Tang Dynasty - a period when cultural diversity flourished in China.

  5. 5 Xu Wei 许巍

    Xu Wei was a popular rock/pop singer in the 2000s. Like Xu Wei, many rock musicians in China in the new millennium started to incorporate more pop music elements. However, many pop-rock songs, such as Xu’s “Hometown (故乡 gù xiāng),” inherited the legacy of Chinese rock in the 1990s. They maintained the emphasis on instrumental solos and the use of traditional Chinese instruments.

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