Rock in China: An Insider’s Journey

Over the past 30 years, many a foreigner has headed into the middle kingdom to find fortune in the brisk economy of a rapidly changing nation. When Jonathan Campbell went to China over a decade ago, he was searching for the sounds that describe an era. While many of his peers were huddled around business banquets pulling and piling guanxi, Jonathan was getting up-close and personal with China’s young but dynamic yaogun (摇滚), or rock-and-roll scene. After publishing Red Rock: the Long Strange March of Chinese Rock and Roll last year, Jonathan has become China’s unofficial rock-and-roll ambassador to the English speaking world. In February, Book Club in a Box interviewed Jonathan about his time in China and relationship with its contemporary music scene:

Jonathan Campbell: Before I arrived in Beijing, in 2000, I had played with some bands, but my music career, as it were, really began in China. Upon arrival in Beijing, I quickly joined a band and was out seeing gigs, meeting people, and figuring out what was going on. I worked at a couple of local events magazines where it was my job to know what was happening and who was involved. Then I was freelance writing for international publications, and that combination led to a lot of work putting together and promoting gigs and tours for visiting musicians. Though it took a while for me to be able to say it, I became more of a promoter than a writer, though I never stopped writing completely.

[…]I got interested by seeing gigs and playing gigs, and being blown away by (some of) what I saw. The first gig I saw was an amazing acoustic group, the Wild Children (video here), and in addition to loving what I heard, I got to talking with the guys in the band, and we became friendly. That would happen over and over again until I realized I was part of the scene.

Jonathan recently told The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Chow how China’s rock music carries the sub-cultural sound of hope that may have faded from its sonic counterparts in the West, and compiled a list of six albums to demonstrate his point:

The jaded Western music establishment can learn a thing or two from China, Jonathan Campbell says.

The 37-year-old, who spent four years in Beijing as a band promoter, documents the relatively brief history of Chinese rock in his book “Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll.” “The best of Chinese rock music embodies something that isn’t embodied in this part of the world anymore—hope, energy and survival,” says Mr. Campbell, who now lives in Toronto. “Rock did change the lives of a lot of people, and Chinese rock demonstrates that.”

Click through to hear the many shades of sound that make up China’s rock scene. Also see Jonathan’s Yaogun 101: A Chinese Rock Primer.

For more on rock music in China, see Rock ‘n Roll With Chinese Characteristics or Cui Jian: Still Rocking, via CDT. For more on musical diplomacy, see Building US-China Relations by Banjo, also via CDT.


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