In response to the recent New York Times article about Hip-hop in China (and partly inspired by the execrable Jay Chou/Song Zuying performance on last night’s CCTV gala), I present to you a video that perfectly sums up, for me, everything that’s wrong with foreign attitudes to allegedly underground Chinese music.
A minor digression first: that NYT article is written to give the impression that “many students and working-class Chinese” are rhyming about the “bitterness that comes with realizing …[they are] left out of China’s economic boom.”
This is horseshit. The angry Chinese rap I’ve heard is generalized teenage angst with no attempt at social commentary. The most “daring” rap I’ve heard is predicated on schoolboy puns about smoking pot. And while I no longer make much of an attempt to follow the music scene here, I am familiar with the bands discussed in the NYT piece.
Let’s start with 隐藏 Yin Ts’ang, the originators of “在北京 In Beijing” — the song that, according to the article, “took the underground music scene by storm.” Sample lyrics:
Cabs come in 1.2 kuai and 1.6 kuai prices.
The traffic’s usually not bad, but sometimes there are traffic jams.
You don’t have to worry about restaurants — roast duck and zhajiang noodles
Or Gui Jie to eat hotpot. There are too many choices, oh my god!
Wow, guys, tell it like it is.
阴三儿 Yin Sanr, the band whose name the article incorrectly and sloppily romanizes as “Yin Tsar,” and completely mistranslates as “The Three Shadows,” has got more going for it in the anger department. The article mentions the band’s song 老师你好 “Hello Teacher” (skip ahead about a minute and a half to get to the actual rapping) which most certainly is an angry song:
You say you’re a role model but you spit on the ground outside
The only cunting thing you know how to do is phone my father
You’re shameless and useless
Do whatever you want but don’t touch my CD player
You fucking cunt
I’ll listen to music in class if I want to.
I’ll do my math homework in writing class.
I drew a big cock in my copy book, that’s what I think of you.
The NYT article translates the first line of this excerpt and then waggles its eyebrows, encouraging the reader to mentally connect “railing against the authority of unfair teachers” to seething antiauthoritarian rage. It doesn’t translate the rest of the song, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the paragraph that precedes it, in which a young man complains about the wealth gap. Unless you equate hating high school with the potential for violent social upheaval, in which case I would have been the Che Guevara of my generation.
The author of the piece would have been much better off going with Yin Sanr’s song 北京晚报 “Beijing Evening News,” which does have political content and is a much, much better song. Sample lyrics (in Danwei’s translation):
Big officials and leaders park outside night clubs
Girls hiding in the toilet
Whiskey and duck neck
Models and starlets
Sitting in a private room with stupid dicks
Cops patrolling, Dongbei pimps
Lots of college girls
But student IDs get no discount
Beijing is building
But the people are changing
Who is responsible for all of this?
While I’m ranting, another problem with the NYT article: 说唱 shuochang, the word the piece gives for “hip-hop,” is “rap,” not hip-hop. The word for “hip-hop” is 嘻哈 xiha, a phonetic loan, and my impression (possibly wrong) is that people here who are into hip-hop would look upon the use of shuochang as a sign that someone was not part of the scene. Which the writer of that article clearly is not.
(Another small digression: I was planning to write something about the ultimate feasibility of rap in Mandarin as opposed to languages more phonologically suited for it, but this post has gone on long enough already. However, those of you who are interested in seeing rap perpetrated in languages not really built for it may enjoy Leimigi Thart, which answers the age-old question of how to say “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe / If your girl steps up, I’m smackin’ the ho!” in Irish.)
(“Freastloidh me thu ar nos John McEnroe / Ma shiulann do bheal suas, buailfidh me an ho!”)
Anyway, getting back to the start of this post: The effects of censorship on artistic creativity have been discussed before — David Moser had a wonderful piece on Danwei about the effect that the dictum that humor must 歌颂 rather than 讽刺 has had on the comic form of 相声 — but I think the video below really hammers the point home.
Happy New Year, everybody.