Why Does China Have 1.4 Billion People and No Good Bands?
Mongolia rocks out while its giant neighbor slumbers.
The most successful Mongolian conquerors since Genghis Khan aren’t on horseback but on the drums. They’re called the Hu, and over the past year their bone-vibrating hard rock, which combines traditional Mongolian instruments and throat singing with Western rock and metal, has become a breakout hit with fans around the world—and made them official cultural ambassadors for the country.
The Hu first started gaining attention more than a year ago with the music videos for two songs—“Wolf Totem” and “Yuve Yuve Yu”—which blew up on YouTube thanks to their fist-pumping instrumentals and stunning steppe visuals. At a recent count, the two videos had a combined 61 million views on YouTube—20 times the number of people in Mongolia.
Fans attribute the success of the Hu to the group’s blending of Western metal with local styles. But it’s only the most well-packaged instance of an ongoing phenomenon. Mongolia has a strong tradition of rock groups working to modernize traditional sounds. Altan Urag, a Mongolian folk rock group from the capital of Ulaanbaatar, first succeeded in electrifying traditional Mongolian instruments almost 15 years ago. And it gave heavy metal the distinctive growl of throat singing with its seminal 2006 album, Made In Altan Urag. Mongolian bands like Khusugtun, Altain Orgil, Jonon, and Mohanik have all tweaked folk music to modern ends.
That’s a stark contrast with Mongolia’s neighbor China. Despite having 1.4 billion people to Mongolia’s mere 3 million, there’s no such thing as a distinctive Chinese national sound that mixes tradition and modernity in the same way Mongolians do—at least none that has become a serious commercial player. Instead, China has been left churning out a stream of pale imitations of other countries’ genres. That raises a big question: Why does Mongolian music slap so hard and Chinese music (with a few exceptions) suck?
The answers are partially historical. In the 20th century, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state. The Soviet policy toward music was to promote folk music that represented the national consciousness while remaining wary of foreign imports. Folk songs were collected, recorded, and performed to create a sense of anti-imperial multiculturalism. It helped that Mongolia didn’t suffer the same level of cultural destruction as some communist states. While there were brutal purges in the 1930s, Mongolia’s nomadic and dispersed culture allowed its music to survive under a softer form of communist rule.
Unfortunately, the kids wanted blue jeans and rock. Noticing the passion that Ulaanbaatar teenagers held for their secret recordings of Western music in the 1970s, the Mongolian culture ministry embarked on a campaign to blend the mandatory folk music with rock ’n’ roll. But this Mongolian rock wasn’t really popular at the time.
“It was very watered down and safe,” said Lauren Knapp, the director of the 2015 documentary Live From UB, which tells the story of rock music in the new Mongolia.
Yet the state-backed rock of the 1970s gave young Mongolians enough of a ground that in the 1980s, when students started pushing for democracy, rock music became an important force. The new wave was straightforward Western-style protest rock, akin to that of other dissident artists like Russia’s Viktor Tsoi and China’s Cui Jian. Songs like “The Ringing of the Bell” united Mongolians as they gathered in Ulaanbaatar to demand democracy.
Its political weight meant that Mongolians took music seriously. Fights between fans of different genres wrecked clubs in the early 2000s, with hip-hop aficionados swinging at metalheads. In the new millennium, though, musicians in Ulaanbaatar’s growing rock scene regained interest in developing a distinctively Mongolian sound. The pioneers included Altan Urag, conservatory-trained folk musicians who thought they might be able to get more of their friends to come to their concerts if they gave their music a harder edge.
They successfully electrified the morin khuur, the traditional Mongolian horsehead fiddle, and started experimenting with a new style. It was a hit, and the band remains beloved. A few years later, the group Mohanik, which is followed throughout Live From UB, decided to abandon its pop-punk beginnings and return to its roots. Even though the band members were all born and bred city kids, they say in the documentary, they believed they had the ability to create something fundamentally Mongolian.
“It’s not like we grew up riding horses,” Mohanik bassist Enerelt Otgonbaatar tells the camera in Live From UB. “But it’s there, we think.”
Knapp says the sense of a shared cultural music remains strong. Musicians are highly respected and play a role in the daily life of Mongolians. People still hire morin khuur ensembles to play at the opening of their new businesses or at their children’s coming of age ceremonies, she points out.
And maybe it helps that Mongolians are angry. The country’s economic boom ended sharply in 2016 after a slowdown of demand from China caused a hard crash in the minerals market. Local rage comes out in the country’s thriving hip-hop scene, where the most popular songs have often been violently racist toward Chinese. Young Mongolians are acutely aware that their country was once a world-spanning power but is now dominated and threatened by neighbors. Mongolia’s traditional sports—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—are almost inherently metal.
Most young Chinese wouldn’t recognize their own folk music if it were blaring right in front of them. Of course, just what comprises traditional music in China isn’t anywhere near as clear as it is in Mongolia, with its small population and strong sense of culture. Confucius famously disdained all music except the ceremonial tunes of the past state of Zhou, which had vanished before his time. And nobody actually knew what those were, though earnest attempts to re-create them were made over the centuries. The music that ordinary Chinese actually preferred, on the other hand, was a product of globalization even back in the days of the Silk Road. The erhu, one of the instruments central to Chinese music, originated in the Central Asian steppe, while the four-stringed pipa came to China via the Middle East during the Tang Dynasty. Ninth-century Chinese kids slammed to “the whirl,” a dance craze that temporarily seized the capital of Changan. Literati penned flute tunes in their spare time.
And in a country as vast as China, there was also intense regional variation. Folk music in the southern canal city of Suzhou differed significantly from that in the mountainous region of Shaanxi, a thousand miles away—and even from that in Wuxi, just 15 miles away. Even within Chinese opera—a younger tradition than Western opera, mostly dating back only to the turn of the 19th century—there were plenty of local variations, with the shrill trilling of Peking opera only the most famous. Folk music collectors loved picking through local traditions for unknown tunes and rare instruments.
China’s varied musical tradition, as with almost every other part of Chinese culture, was gutted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Most forms of traditional music struggled to survive during the decades in which politics dictated art and culture.
The onset of the Cultural Revolution demanded that all art be revolutionary art. Peking opera and Chinese folk traditions were explicitly banned. A few pieces survived in repackaged form. One of the most famous songs from this era, “The East Is Red”—briefly the Chinese national anthem—is set to the tune of an old Shaanxi folk song.
For a little while after Mao Zedong died, it seemed young Chinese people might regain interest in Chinese folk. As a generation struggled to make sense of the changes of the 1980s, China was swept by the xibeifeng (“northwest wind”) sound. Drawing on the folk traditions of the hardscrabble northwestern Shaanxi province and using traditional instruments played over forceful beats and loud, rough vocal delivery, xibeifeng music at once gave voice to defiant Chinese nationalism and increasingly bitter dissatisfaction. It was part of the larger xungen (“searching for roots”) movement of the era, when young Chinese tried to rediscover their own lost traditions. In songs like “My Old Hometown,” xibeifeng musicians drew on the imagery of the barren windswept plateau to reflect their bitterness over the bleak prospects for youth of their generation. It wasn’t quite rock ’n’ roll, but it was close, and indeed some xibeifeng tunes became popular anthems during the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
This authentic and organic Chinese sound was crushed along with the student movement after the tanks rolled in on June 4, 1989. Rock ’n’ roll, which was closely associated with xibeifeng, was briefly banned. More importantly, culture itself became dangerous to a generation that had seen hope end in blood. Throughout the 1990s, Chinese were more interested in getting rich than searching for their roots. At the same time, with hundreds of millions of people leaving their villages to work in cities, regional music and traditions were diluted—or lost forever. And even though new wealth created a vast commercial demand for music, the last thing it could be was dangerous. Instead the 2000s saw a vast expansion of musical banality, from twee pop numbers and nostalgic revolutionary songs to the repackaging of ethnic music as a harmless fancy rather than an expression of cultural passion. Han Chinese Singers such as Peng Liyuan, President Xi Jinping’s wife, became famous for singing Uighur and Tibetan music.
There were small local scenes, such as metal in Wuhan and punk in Beijing, but they spluttered and died, unable to reach the national stage thanks to censorship. Anything that did make it through was carefully neutered, as witnessed by the recent purging of hip-hop—hugely popular among Chinese born after 1995. After an uncomfortably authentic (and beloved) first season of the hit online show The Rap of China that got several of the most popular contestants banned, the second season went to great lengths not only to adhere strictly to nationalism and cut out any mention of sex, drugs, or cops but to overcompensate by encouraging contestants, including several Uighurs, to adopt a “Chinese style” (zhongguofeng) in their raps.
The main proponent of this style throughout the season was the show’s host, the former K-pop idol and infamously poor rapper Wu Yifan aka Kris Wu. For his performance of “Young OG,” Wu came out clad in a retooled Mandarin jacket backed up by a quivering orchestra of Chinese string instruments. At the climactic moment of the show, he seized a hammer and smashed it into an enormous gong, cuing a burst of fog from which emerged a half-dozen Peking opera performers in full traditional garb.
Put this Disneyfied version of Chinese music up against raging Mongolians on horseback, and it’s no wonder the northern barbarians come out the victor.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 print issue.