China’s New Voices: Popular Music,
Ethnicity, Gender and Politics, 1978-1997

By Nimrod Baranovitch

Reviewed by Barbara Mittler
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2004)

Nimrod Baranovitch.               China’s New Voices. Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender and Politics,              1978–1997. Berkeley: University of California Press,              2003. ISBN: 0-520-23450-2 (paperback), 0-520-23449-9 (hardcover).

Nimrod Baranovitch.  China’s New Voices. Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender and Politics,
. Berkeley: University of California Press,
2003. ISBN: 0-520-23450-2 (paperback), 0-520-23449-9 (hardcover).

If you feel that some things in life are not reliable, I hope you will exclude one thing, which is music. Music will never deceive you.

—Cui Jian during his 1990 tour around China (cited on p. 239)—

This book is a must-read for anyone working in the field of Chinese cultural studies as well as for those specialized in Chinese political culture and Chinese contemporary history and society. The book provides an exciting and insightful account of the popular music scene in the last twenty years of the twentieth century, yet it does much more. By providing comparisons to many cultural and socio-political fields apart from popular music, Nimrod Baranovitch gives an accurate and useful overview of Chinese popular culture during this period. His book contains discussions ranging from Roots Literature (xiangtu wenxue) to fifth generation film, from Obscure Poetry (menglongshi) to cultural manifestations of Chinese nationalism. It also provides much food for thought on issues such as ethnicity, gender, and contemporary cultural politics, by regarding all of these through the prism of popular music that, as the author aptly puts it “both mirrors and shapes society and culture as they change” (3). As Cui Jian put it, “Music will never deceive you.” In spite of its obvious importance in people’s lives, however, music remains a marginal topic in the discipline of Chinese studies. By making the connections to other forms of popular culture explicit, the book confirms once more how important it is to break restrictive boundaries and to integrate the study of Chinese music into the study of Chinese culture and society in general.

The book begins with a well-conceived introduction that presents the major methodological premises and arguments to be pursued throughout the book. Baranovitch provides a useful genealogy of different uses of “popular culture” in the Chinese context (5–6). He discusses the different agents and players within the popular culture scene and concludes that popular culture in China consists not only of the official mass culture from above, nor exclusively of the unofficial countercultures from below. According to Baranovitch, Chinese popular culture is both of these cultures combined. It includes official and unofficial cultures, and the arena of constant struggle over their respective definitions, too. In the Chinese context, official and popular cultures stand not in opposition to each other but rather in constant negotiation with each other. This relationship is of course partly due to the fact that the state has appropriated the market. Popular culture consequently becomes a “site where many different forces and groups meet, and the state certainly participates” (272). While Baranovitch successfully skirts the hegemony-resistance framework hitherto commonly used in studies of Chinese popular culture, he neglects another aspect implicit in this new and important redefinition of popular culture, namely the importance of elite culture that is often invisibly submerged but partakes in China’s popular culture today. The boundaries are blurred not only between official and unofficial, but also between high and low.

Baranovitch exemplifies the blurring of boundaries and what Geremie Barmé calls “the graying of Chinese culture” at the end of the twentieth century from three thematic angles: ethnicity, gender, and politics. Each of these is discussed in a separate chapter (2–4). The book begins, however, with a succinct first chapter recapitulating the history of popular music between 1978 and 1997. Here the author draws constant parallels between music making, filmmaking, and literary and artistic production. He argues that the most characteristic element in Chinese popular culture after the Cultural Revolution is its foible for ambiguities (36). While this point is very well taken, the question of whether such ambiguities are necessarily safer in the political game (e.g., the case of Obscure Poetry) remains to be debated.

There is, however, much to be learned from music. Baranovitch rightly points out, “if China scholars had treated pop culture more seriously in the 1980s, perhaps none of us would have been so surprised when the 1989 protest movement broke out with such a force. The 1989 movement was obviously the result of the feelings of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, despair, bitterness, idealism, self-empowerment, and the desire to change things that were articulated in xibeifeng songs and prison songs long before the movement started” (30). Here and elsewhere, Baranovitch probably overemphasizes the actual power of rock to influence the people and institigate a sense of rebellion (35). Even in the 1980s, rock music was never truly a mass culture and was always more of a “popular elite affair,” if anything. Yet Baranovitch’s point that music captured a particular Zeitgeist or mentalité is well taken.

The second chapter discusses the importance of ethnicity in popular music and argues that, rather than remaining the alleged “gazed-upon objects” deprived of agency and voice, a good number of minority individuals are creating a new and audible voice in popular music. Baranovitch examines in particular the case of Mongolian singer Teng Ge’er, who uncovers in his songs the obvious gaps between orthodox, idealized representations of Inner Mongolia and realities in Mongolia, by conscious parody, for example modifying quotations from orthodox songs about Mongolia. Ever since Teng Ge’er became a widely accepted “representative of the Mongolian people,” even the official China Central Television could not ignore him (80).

Baranovitch also studies Lolo, a musician of Yi origin whose very name makes obvious his strategy of ethnic negotiation—lolo (luoluo in pinyin) is a synonym for “savage” and is written with two Chinese characters each containing the dog radical, traditionally used to mark “barbarians.” At the same time, however, lolo is the standard self-appellation of the Yi minority of southwest China. Thus, Baranovitch concludes, the name is an expression of Lolo’s “struggle to redefine his identity” (84), his search for his “authentic roots,” and at the same time part of a process of “inventing tradition.” In the cases of both Teng Ge’er and Lolo, Baranovitch is able to illustrate that these musicians create their own unique, at times subversive voice, but that they do not exclusively look for contestation or conflict. Indeed, they actively participate in mainstream culture.

Chapter 3 approaches the question of gender. Baranovitch asks to what extent increasing gender differentiation after the Cultural Revolution has found its way into popular musical expression. Most ingeniously, he uncovers the similarities between the crisis of masculinity in literature and film and the same crisis in music, again drawing music into one of the more recent and important discussions about Chinese popular culture at large. When he discusses the neotraditional, objectified, marginalized, voiceless, and yet never quite powerless image of woman, he does so, again, by following the figures as they appear, not only in music, but also in pulp magazines and fiction.

Baranovitch uncovers in this chapter the many symbolic levels in rock and pop music at which gender comes to play: the almost exclusive masculinity of rock performance, for example, and the increasingly ambiguous femininities of pop, where singers gain their subjective voice even though they often sing scripts written for them by men. In the process, Baranovitch manages to bring fresh interpretations even to some of the most well-known songs in the Chinese pop and rock repertoire, such as Cui Jian’s “Having Nothing” (122) and Ai Jing’s “My 1997” (162ff.). This chapter is perhaps the best structured and best argued in the entire book, and it comes to important conclusions about the only apparent dominance of men in Chinese popular culture after the Cultural Revolution.

The fourth chapter returns to arguments already raised in previous chapters and serves very well to wrap up the book and its major arguments. The chapter succeeds once more in complicating our view, in this case of state power and state involvement in Chinese cultural politics. Rather than simply accepting the common lore of decreasing state control over cultural production in the last three decades, Baranovitch carefully examines the responsive and adaptive capabilities of the state in handling popular cultural affairs. He concludes that “the relationship between the state and even the most dissident voices in China today is not necessarily always antagonistic or in total opposition and that these forces may share important concepts, aspirations, practices, and discourse” (192). Indeed, Baranovitch even calls the relationship between state and popular artist “symbiotic” (215).

This observation tallies with findings in recent research in other fields, such as Nico Volland’s “The Control of the Media in the People’s Republic of China” (PhD Dissertation, Heidelberg, 2002). Here it becomes obvious, as Baranovitch already points out, that in some fields the state has improved its ability to control society, compared with the 1980s (269), and penetrates deeper into people’s lives than ever before. Obviously, new media and technologies are not only a threat to the state but are also used to exert tighter control (271).

The fourth chapter is particularly successful in its sensitive analysis of Chinese MTV, juxtaposing images, music, and text, and carefully working out their contradictions. The analysis of medley performances preferred by the state shows convincingly how they de-emphasize the importance of particular individual musicians and thus prevent the creation of a personal aura (249).

It is regrettable that Baranovitch does not engage more with the secondary literature in the field of Chinese music, particularly in this chapter. Much has already been written on the precedents for state involvement in the field of music, on the function of the remonstrating official, and on the danger of writing “meaningless” music and poetry—see for example Jean-Pierre Dieny’s Aux Origines de la Poésie classique en Chine: Etudes sur la Poésie lyrique à l’époque des Han (Leiden, 1968); Han Kuo-huang and Lindy Li Mark’s “Evolution and Revolution in Chinese Music,” in Musics of Many Cultures, edited by Elizabeth May (Berkeley 1980, 10–31; Walter Kaufmann’s Musical References in the Chinese Classics (Detroit, 1976); Barbara Mittler’s Dangerous Tunes: The Politics of Chinese Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China since 1949 (Wiesbaden, 1997). The discussion would have gained in sophistication by considering this literature.

Furthermore, while the book engages in some dialogue with the growing literature on Chinese popular culture in general, it neglects the literature directly bearing on popular music. Some of the more important writings are not acknowledged, including Andreas Steen’s Der Lange Marsch des Rock’n’ Roll. Pop- und Rockmusik in der Volksrepublik China (Hamburg: LIT, 1996), Jeroen de Kloet’s “Marx or Market: Chinese Rock and the Sound of Fury,” in Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia, edited by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003, 28–52), Mercedes M. Dujunco’s “Hybridity and Disjuncture in Mainland Chinese Popular Music,” inGlobal Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia, edited by Timothy Craig and Richard King (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2002, 25–39), and Zheng, Su’s “Female Heroes and Moonish Lovers: Women’s Paradoxical Identities in Modern Chinese Songs,” Journal of Women’s History 8, 4 (Winter, 1996).

Perhaps this neglect has something to do with the interdisciplinary venture that this book offers. It is difficult to satisfy everyone in a study combining theories and methods from anthropology, musicology, literary criticism, and cultural studies, as this book sets out to do. Specialists in each of these fields might have their own complaints. It appears that Baranovitch is at his best when using anthropological methods, such as fieldwork and interviews. From the point of view of literary or cultural studies, there is too much citing from secondary sources instead of going directly to the primary material. For specialists, the lack of Chinese characters throughout the book is a critical omission. The publisher should have at least allowed for a glossary of Chinese terms.

At times, the arguments lack historical depth. It is, for example, important that the author mentions echoes of criticisms of popular music from the 1930s and even cites the traditional indictment that these popular sounds are “sounds of a subjugated nation” (wangguo zhi yin) (16). Yet elaborating on the Confucian sources of this indictment would have taken the argument further. Likewise, for a book that advances so many sophisticated arguments, it is regrettable that no distinction is made between the particular attitudes of the early years of Cultural Revolution (ca. 1966–1969) and the entire decade also referred to as the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) (e.g., 62). The author also falls prey occasionally to the force of his own argument. The reference to the Tibetans as a “slave society” and to Tibet’s “feudal past” (63/64) is not used exclusively to denigrate particular ethnic groups such as the Tibetans. Han protagonists, too, have been described in these terms, to contrast past unfavorable conditions and the positive situation since the communist “liberation.” It is important not to read these terms as exclusively used against minorities, but indeed as polemical terms used within a particular rhetoric against China as a whole.

Like most books dealing with Chinese popular music, the book leaves much to be desired in terms of musical analysis. The main focus remains on the texts written to the music as well as the institutional and social background of the music, although the author should be lauded for the occasional reference to particular melodic features, instrumentations, and compositional structures (e.g. 62, 254/255). Yet nowhere does he add a score, not even when it is crucial to the argument, as for example in the case where a melody from the famous Butterfly Violin Concerto (Liang Zhu) and one from a sprout song (yangge) are interwoven in the song “Great China” (211), which is a sad omission.

On a more general, structural note, and this goes both to the author and the publisher, it must be said that much important material is hidden in the endnotes. Some intricacies, and the sophisticated argument of which the author is capable, are hidden when one does not read the notes in conjunction with the main text. This is evident from the very first endnote, which importantly qualifies the author’s sweeping and inevitably inaccurate statement that from 1949 through 1979 only a single voice, that of the Party State, was heard in public. This simplistic description is fortunately amended in the endnote, which recognizes the existence and importance of the many “hidden transcripts” and underground works during this period. There are numerous additional examples (e.g., 39 n27).

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, this is the most comprehensive account of popular music in China since 1978 published so far. As a whole, the book is extremely well written, very useful in class, and offers many new and interesting insights, supported by stunning evidence from both fieldwork and written and audio-visual sources.

Barbara Mittler
University of Heidelberg