Red Rock: Chinese Women Take to the Stage

by Ember Swift

It was only in 1986 that contemporary rock music began in China. The artist was Cui Jian, and the instruments were a mixture of Western and Eastern styles, featuring screaming electric guitars. He is now seen as the figurehead of the Chinese rock movement.

Since then, the music scene in China has developed at breakneck speed. Now, in what is seen as its fourth generation, there is a burgeoning scene for every musical style. Some compare the Chinese music scene today to the late ’60s of North America.

It was only in 1986 that contemporary rock music began in China. The artist was Cui Jian, and the instruments were a mixture of Western and Eastern styles, featuring screaming electric guitars. He is now seen as the figurehead of the Chinese rock movement.

Since then, the music scene in China has developed at breakneck speed. Now, in what is seen as its fourth generation, there is a burgeoning scene for every musical style. Some compare the Chinese music scene today to the late ’60s of North America.

So where are the women? They’re here, but they are few.

And, just like Joni Mitchell, Janice Joplin and Joan Baez in the North American movement of the ’60s, they stand out at times and at others get overshadowed.

I had the opportunity to catch up with four prominent women in the music scene in the country’s capital, Beijing.

I first spoke with Xiao Nan, the original guitarist and lead vocalist for the first-ever all-female rock band in this country, Cobra. Xiao, in her mid-40s and a self-described musical “grandma,” was inspired to form a band while hanging out with Cui and his friends in the mid-’80s. It wasn’t long before Xiao and three other female friends decided to form Cobra in early 1989. They were all schooled musicians in the classical genre—Xiao had been employed in an orchestra for several years—and so it wasn’t difficult to transfer their musical knowledge to contemporary Western instruments. She went from the accordion and the piano to the electric guitar and lead vocals with little trouble.

Little did they know, Xiao recalls, that they would become “so special.” From 1989 until 1998—a full nine years—they were the only all-female rock band in the entire mainland of China. This garnered Cobra instant fame and opportunities for European touring in 1992, and a trip to the U.S. in 1995 included an appearance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The band released two albums, one through a label and the other independently. Xiao went on to perform in other groups and to do some solo projects, but Cobra didn’t officially break up until 2004. Now, she is the only member still living in Mainland China and continues to perform with several different projects, as well as to teach music professionally.

Asked to describe how China differs from the West in terms of concepts of gender and equality between the sexes, she explains that the prevailing influence of Confucianism— both the philosophy and the religion—prescribed very distinct gender roles to Chinese society, leaving women in secondary and subordinate roles for many centuries. This oppression of women, not unlike that of post-war Japan or Germany, generated a residual shame that permeates the modern discourse on feminist issues in China. In other words, we all know about bound feet, concubines, and abandoned girl babies, but no one likes to talk about it.

That’s because, in the last half century, China has gone through many, many changes. Xiao notes that Chairman Mao Zedong’s revisionist campaigns to promote the “liberation of women” were only partially successful. The problem was that this kind of politically sponsored thought control had already been going on for decades. Even though the government publicly advocated for women’s liberation (equal opportunities in the professional sphere, for instance), when this shift in society occurred, many felt that the intended equality had been reached and that the discussion was over. Chinese women had been liberated. Goal accomplished.

This was an external political campaign, Xiao explains, but Chinese people’s hearts and minds had long been impervious to such campaigns. People didn’t absorb it as truth, let alone as an appropriate goal, and so what is left is a society that claims equality outwardly but, in familial and inner circles, defers to the impossibility of its true existence. And this is without even discussing the vast differences between urban and rural realities in Chinese society.

Still, I wanted to explore whether Chinese women have any aspirations for gender equality. Traditionally, Chinese women were relegated to certain musical spheres while men occupied their own. Like the separate but complimentary notions of yin and yang, women in China were trained on the supposedly more feminine pipa or guzheng stringed instruments while men took up the guqin, another stringed instrument, or else traditional percussion instruments. This musical separation was considered appropriate and not exclusionary.

Knowing this history, I asked Xiao if launching the all-female band was her response to not being welcomed by the male rock world.

“There were no gender precedents in that community at that time,” she replied. “Our band wasn’t contested because it simply wasn’t even a concept for women to be in the contemporary rock world until we made it a concept. Our presence there wasn’t met with any criticism until after we were already established.”

Jiang Xin, another well-known female musician who emerged on the scene with her own original music in 1995, rejects the notion of feminism in China. She says she is not a feminist but prefers the term “womanist,” as it more accurately takes into account the different cultural and racial realities faced by Chinese women as opposed to upper-middle-class white women in North America.

“Chinese women will never be equal to men. Women are like water and men are the mountains,” she says, laughing. “Why would we want to be equal?”

Jiang’s musical journey, not unlike Xiao’s, was pursued without many female role models. She knew of the band Cobra, but her career took a different path. As a singer who started out writing song lyrics here and there, she worked exclusively with well-known male rock musicians. Over time, she has released four albums and has progressively controlled greater degrees of the creative content of her releases. Her most recent record features full arrangements, production and lyrics of her own making. She is currently on a 13-date tour in China to promote her new material.

Considering herself part of the second wave of women in the industry, Jiang laments that she is the only female musician from her community in China who is still working. “When they hit their 40s, they all just quit!” Jiang goes on to explain that her few friends from the early days disappeared to the West in search of an environment that didn’t condemn them for being over 30 and unmarried, childless and still interested in pursuing art as a career. Over there, she says, “Women can still can develop their careers and find love—men don’t think they’re too old.”

Wang Yue, the lead singer of China’s second all-female band, Hang on the Box, founded in 1998, echoes Jiang’s complaints when she talks about the impression women in the industry make on society at large. Of course, music making is a hard life in any culture, but in China that is especially true, because people assume that you’re a “bad woman,” Wang explains.

“That’s why there are so few of us.”

In the punk scene, dressing up in punk clothing and extreme makeup is part of what the genre is about, she says. “But this outward appearance is going to make people misunderstand you. Women in rock are assumed to be promiscuous or unethical.”

As a result of these misconceptions, Wang claims pursuing music has negatively affected her love life. Now, just 32 years old and considered no longer young by Chinese standards, she says her boyfriend is uncomfortable with her expression of confidence and her pride in her musical accomplishments

She doesn’t see marriage in their future.

Hang on the Box is still performing. The group has released four full-length albums and a best-of compilation. The band has toured overseas and continues to have a strong following in the punk and riot-girl scenes. Wang also released her own solo project, Gia, in 2009 and formed a second all-female band in 2008, called Girl Kill Girl.

She believes that “Chinese men don’t like to be with women who outshine them.”

Xiao tells a similar story about her early days with Cobra.

At a very successful gig in Sichuan province, a friend went into the audience to watch the performance and overheard a couple discussing the band. The couple was full of praise and admiration for the band. “Wow, these women are so good and so tough. Really amazing,” they said. And then the man commented,

“But who would dare marry them?” Traditional Chinese culture has always encouraged women to be modest, understated and to defer to the wishes of men.

Xiao says she feels that, in general, “Chinese women are more willing to trust others, rather than to trust in themselves.”

Since music is about expressing oneself, it directly contradicts a whole cultural paradigm. Thus, these common prejudices against women in the music industry prevail.

“With Cobra,” says Xiao, “we got along great with other male bands and had a great time, played many gigs together. But did the men in the business really respect us, see us as equals and truly wish us well? That’s forever in question.”

That’s because Cobra and Hang on the Box each obtained a level of fame that many male bands had not.

“When we first got together, we weren’t expected to be good at music, but we still got more attention then the men did,” suggests Xiao. “The audiences were just interested in our very existence.”

Hang on the Box was first introduced to the scene before they had written any songs or even rehearsed as a group. “We just messed around on stage for two or three minutes, [but we] didn’t know what we were doing,” Wang says. In addition to their lack of preparation, their male friend, who had loaned the group his instruments, had purposely de-tuned the guitar before handing it to her.

Such an impressive debut nonetheless saw the band quickly featured on the cover of the Asian edition of Newsweek magazine.

What resulted from this catapult into the public eye, however, was a backlash from the male music community.

People said the band was only on the cover because they were an all-female band, and not because of their music.

So was it true?

That may have been part of it, Wang admits, “because at that time our music certainly wasn’t that outstanding.

But one of our members was only 16 years old, and so that may have been part of it too. But afterwards,” she said,

“we were committed to working hard and developing our music.”

Eventually, the endorsement of an overseas label gave the group some much-needed legitimacy.

Fu Han, lead singer of the modern band Queen Sea Big Shark and the youngest among the women interviewed, sees things somewhat differently.

“Music and gender are things that have always very naturally been inseparable. Because I have this [female] body and special [female] characteristics, I make this kind of music,” she explains. “I am a woman, and so I don’t want to make [the same] music that men do. Besides, we will always be separately assessed, like with awards that recognize best female artist, for instance. We’re just different.”

Queen Sea Big Shark, a Beijing-based indie rock band, has released two successful albums—a self-titled effort in

2007 and a 2010 album called Tide. Fu is the lead singer and writes the lyrics and vocal melodies. She is the daughter of a professional pianist and, even though hers is not the classical music her mother envisioned for her future, she enjoys the rare privilege of a family that is supportive of her career choice.

This is evidence of a modern shift in China regarding women’s role in the music industry.

Still, last year there was a big live stadium concert to celebrate the past few decades of rock music in China. But, as Jiang points out, there wasn’t a single woman on the bill. “At that time,” she said, “I accused the rock world of always bullying women. But there’re so few of us and so many of us have left the industry, maybe they thought they didn’t have much in the way of choice?”

It’s a generous theory. Citing Wang as a supportive “big sister” to their band when they emerged on the scene in the winter of 2004, Fu expresses optimism about the future of women in the business.

“Looking at the current situation around me, women and men have the same number of opportunities,” she observes.

“Current successful bands generally have women as part of their lineup. What’s more, women who are fronting Chinese rock bands are not just being used as decoration or as ornament.

They’re essential to the band’s ability to rise.”

When asked if there will ever be a time when women and men will be equally valued and equally assessed in the Chinese music scene, Fu responds: “If your ability is really strong, then you won’t be overlooked.… If a woman has any misgivings about her abilities before she even begins, then she will be influencing her own outcome. For me, I have never even considered my gender when it comes to my music.”

Maybe that’s what it takes to achieve anything anywhere.

Because, after all, as Jiang adamantly points out, “Artists are artists everywhere. They’re a group of people who want to live their own lives. But each country has a group that can’t control their lives and are oppressed or subject themselves to discrimination.”

Fu echoes this idea: “Whether that kind of prejudice [against women in music] exists is really not important. What is important is whether or not you can do what you do well.”

It’s clear that Chinese women, though few and far between in the contemporary music industry, have been doing their jobs well for several decades now.

“We women in this industry all have strong personalities and standpoints and won’t be influenced by men on one side, society on the other. We have our own ideas and pursue our own lives,” says Jiang. “This society needs more women to express a women’s inner voice and aspirations through music.

So we’re necessary!”

Perhaps women and men will never be equal in Chinese society or, by extension, in the Chinese music scene. But equality on the same basis as men doesn’t seem to be an aspiration of these women.

“Things in the West are sometimes taken more seriously than here in China, especially words and their semantics,” says Xiao. “We’re pretty indefinite about certain things, at least verbally. And, besides, it doesn’t matter—I know who I am.”

Ember Swift is a Canadian independent musician who lives in Beijing, China, with her partner and their daughter, Guo Ruyi Echo Swift. She has released 11 albums and one DVD. Her newest release, 11:11, is a two-disc album created in English as well as Mandarin.

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