Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Gloom Gives Way to Bloom, In Chinese Arts Scene

The 21-gun salute that greets President Clinton when he steps onto the world's largest stage at Tiananmen Square tomorrow is aimed at heralding a bright new future for US-China friendship.

Yet the sound of gunfire over Tiananmen is likely to trigger recollections for some of a dark drama of the past: the shooting down of young pro-democracy demonstrators on the orders of their elderly Communist leaders nine years ago.

About these ads

The crackdown was aimed at silencing Beijing's restless youths, yet angry replays still seem to ripple across Chinese culture.

The staccato of the Chinese Army's machine-gun fire as troops marched on Tiananmen in 1989 has reverberated through Beijing's music world. The chants of student protesters who made their last stand at the square, and their screams as they were surrounded by tanks and rifles, have seemed to echo endlessly in the heavy metal and punk spawned since then.

Cynicism and gloom have dominated the paintings, music, and political views of China's best and brightest during the 1990s, but there are signs that a new era may now be in the making.

Shen Lihui, a pop-rock singer who attended an art school in Beijing in 1989, says of the post-Tiananmen period: "It seemed we were trapped in a black whirlpool, with no exit and no escape."

"It was only after we were pulled all the way to the bottom that we could begin to see ourselves again," adds Mr. Shen, who is a rising star in China's musical firmament.

Shen and his upbeat, post-punk band, Sober, are part of a new wave of artists, musicians, and writers who aim at a target that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago: triggering a turn-of-the-century renaissance out of the dark age of Chinese culture that has marked much of the '90s.

"The fatalism of the early 1990s began to poison the music and thinking of an entire generation until finally we said, 'It's time to create something new,' " says Shen.

About these ads

In contrast with the dark musical tableaux painted by many of Shen's contemporaries, Sober's compact disc "Superlife!?" resembles a series of sketches by metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico or surrealist Salvador Dali.

Chinese rock music appeared only a decade ago, and it was an innocent ballad of angst and hope, "Nothing to My Name," that student demonstrators adopted as their anthem when they peacefully took over the capital during the heady days of spring 1989.

When the ballad's singer, Cui Jian, China's first rock star, performed at student-occupied Tiananmen, the square was briefly transformed into a mini-Woodstock. But that zeitgeist was crushed when martial-law troops reclaimed the streets of Beijing.

A 1989 time warp

After the attack, the harmony seemed to disappear from Mr. Cui's music and from the lives of a generation of Chinese youths.

Cui began producing pop-punk songs like "The Last Bullet," whose title is repeated over and over to the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic-rifle fire.

In another attack on China's Communist rulers, the heavy-metal band Tang Dynasty screamed out calls for a return to the 1,000-year-old Tang era: a golden age of Chinese culture when the love of music, poetry, art, and life seemed to inspire everyone from craftsmen to the open-minded Tang emperors.

As post-1989 Chinese rock slid into nihilistic chants of discord and melancholy, Beijing's leadership unleashed a nonstop series of shrill criticisms of the antisocialist genre.

The two sides seemed to be caught in a 1989 time warp, a freeze frame where the only point of reference for rock musicians was the government they opposed, and the music and life seemed to be drained out of a decade of songs.

"Complaining about life, society, and the government was so pervasive that it became a mantra that every rock musician had to recite," says artist-songwriter Shen.

At the same time, China's young painters began turning out "political pop art" that juxtaposed Chairman Mao Zedong's portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace with Coke logos or screaming faces.

"When political pop first appeared, it was undeniably aimed at satirizing the party," says Tan Ning, one of the best young sculptors at Beijing's Central Academy of Art.

"But then a generation of artists discovered Chinese pop art sold well in the West, and that fueled a huge wave of Mao pop clones," he adds.

Although Mao is depicted in history books here as the great creator of communist China, he is privately called the great destroyer of Chinese culture.

To remake China in his own image, Mao enlisted millions of young Red Guards in a decade-long battle to destroy the nation's roots by attacking Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, traditional artists, and pro-Western thinkers.

Mao's passing in 1976 opened an era of limited liberalization and a small-scale cultural comeback, but it also triggered calls for ever-greater freedoms that only ended with the 1989 showdown in central Beijing.

Yet the clash of generations that exploded at Tiananmen may be fading into history as China's elderly revolutionaries shuffle off the political stage, say many Chinese scholars, artists, and students.

The death of supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping "has opened a new period of freedom and diversity," says Yu Jie, a young writer.

Mr. Deng, who ordered martial-law troops into Beijing in 1989, died in early 1997. The Chinese leadership has since seen the rise of a pro-reform bloc headed by Premier Zhu Rongji.

"Since Deng's death, there have been scattered signs of a revival of interesting art, plays, and music," says Orville Schell, an expert on Chinese culture at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. Yu says while the socialist heroes and ideals of the past have crumbled away, "imported Western culture is rushing into China to help fill the vacuum."

As the party eases its controls over the economy, culture, and contacts with the West, signs of a more independent and global-minded generation are everywhere:

* The Central Experimental Drama Theatre just staged the long-banned "Waiting for Godot"; in a quirky adaptation set in a Chinese disco, the protagonist seems to be waiting for a partner or outcome that never arrives.

* Sculptor Mr. Tan, who graduated in 1989, uses techniques from such distant cultures as ancient Greece and China to produce works in bronze or clay ranging from Western neoclassical busts to Chinese post-modern steles.

* Writer Yu's recently published book promotes a "new youth culture" of individualism and skepticism toward the party and military, and it is now a bestseller.

* Zhang Youdai, a disc jockey on Beijing Music Radio, floods the Chinese airwaves with alternative rock from Seattle to Beijing and is becoming a Pied Piper for a rapidly growing segment of China's hybrid "East-West generation."

Western influences

Mr. Zhang, who also runs a network of record stores in Beijing, says Western pop now dominates the charts in major Chinese cities.

While some Chinese rock singers, ironically, are now echoing the party's onetime chant that the mass invasion of Western culture is threatening China's roots, singer Shen welcomes the trend.

"If most of the top hits in China are from the West, it means that music is the best the world has to offer, and we have to compete with that," he says.

"Chinese cities are becoming much more global, and to succeed here, you must have global appeal," he adds.

The combined forces of globalization, the commercialization of society, and an information revolution sweeping across China are all helping fuel a renaissance, he says.

Jeffrey Cheen, an American music and video distributor in Beijing, agrees.

"Social, cultural, and economic changes in China ... are moving ahead at a ba-boom speed, and it's almost too rapid to be called a mere renaissance," says Mr. Cheen.

Yet others are not so sure that a cultural revival has already begun.

"The stirrings in the Chinese arts now are like the first glow of light on the horizon at the end of the night," says sculptor Tan.

"The dawn of a real renaissance," he says, "can only begin when China has the freedoms of a full-fledged democracy."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.