Beijing’s psychedelic underground

China’s alternative music scene is thriving, as bands blend the new cultural influences from the influx of Western music, with the country’s deep-rooted mystic traditions


Beijing’s alternative music bar, XP, was given a raucous send-off on its closing night, with a lineup that featured some of the club’s regulars, and an audience that mixed musicians and serious fans. When it ended, just after midnight, the crowd reverently took posters off the wall to keep as souvenirs of, what many called, “the home of Chinese experimental music”, before they spilled out onto the street in the Di’anmen area.

What XP represented was the voracious appetite that China’s youth have for a psychedelic and experimental scene that fuses ancient mysticism with modern alternative music to form something uniquely Chinese.

“The Easterners are born psychedelic,” says Li Jianhong, an experimental guitarist and something of an elder within the psychedelic and experimental scenes. Li describes his art as “psychedelic noise music and free improvised music”, in which he looks to create “thick sound waves”.

His music sounds like the culmination of all of his influences – “krautrock, psychedelic rock of [the] 1960s and 1970s, avant-garde music in Japan, religious music with strong ritual sense and tribe music” – exploding from his guitar.

XP represented the voracious appetite that China’s youth have for a psychedelic and experimental scene that fuses ancient mysticism with modern alternative music

“The real influence is Chinese traditional culture, the music theory of ‘centred on heart’, the traditional instrument music that well combined scenes and feeling, the legends of ghost and reincarnation heard from a very young age until now.

XP represented was the voracious appetite that China’s youth have for a psychedelic and experimental scene that fuses ancient mysticism with modern alternative music

Set against this stately figure, the current poster boys of the genre, Chui Wan, are perhaps a little more accessible. Their 2015, self-titled album reached number 28 on the CMJ – American non-commercial and college radio charts – and justified the band’s short tours of America and Europe.

While the name, Chui Wan, comes from the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s work, Qi-Wu-Lun, which the band quote as being “a mystical work on inner sageliness and outer kingliness”, their influences range from The Beatles to the Velvet Underground and American avant-garde artist, La Monte Thornton Young.

Behind the firewall

The formation of Chui Wan is a familiar tale. When vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Yan Yulong, came to Beijing, he advertised that he was looking to start a band on the website douban.com. Soon after, he came into contact with bassist We Quiong and Chui Wan started to come together.

Douban.com is part online community, part message board and part music streaming site, but its effectiveness comes in its almost universal patronage by artists across the Chinese music landscape. With many social media sites officially banned – although a lot individual users circumvent the government’s efforts to block them – artists on all levels develop pages, which feature officially released material as well as treasure troves of demos and live recordings.

Michael Pettis at the D-22 club. Picture courtesy of Mark Leong
Michael Pettis at the D-22 club. Picture courtesy of Mark Leong

However, a key figure in Beijing’s live alternative music scene is not Chinese at all. Self-confessed former “Wall Street guy”, Michael Pettis, moved to Beijing in 2002, and while his former colleagues might have spent their money on luxury cars, Pettis thinks of his Beijing music venues as his “Ferrari”.

Pettis had owned a bar in New York’s East Village in the 1980s, where Sonic Youth had played when they were starting out, and he opened his first in Beijing in 2007 with the purpose of promoting the local scene. “When we opened [D-22], the Chinese audience and musicians had this real inferiority complex. The crappiest band from Belgium got more respect than a band from Beijing, so we set out to break that mentality,” he says.

Beijing gig promotor, Zhu Wenbo, described D-22 as: “The first place open for new faces. You could start your first gig there; not very difficult. The venue encouraged lots of young bands. It was not a place that only wanted to sell tickets and drinks and make money.”

Zhu ran a weekly gig at D-22 – and later at XP – called Zoomin’ Night, that showcased Beijing’s psychedelic and experimental artists and Pettis cites this Tuesday night gig as the inspiration for closing D-22 and opening XP.

“XP was smaller, so there wasn’t much pressure to fill it. A lot of the bands wanted to play there so it was like home base. A lot of the audience were regulars and we didn’t have a lot of outsiders. We had punk bands and everything but the real focus was on the experimental scene,” said Pettis.

However, running a live music venue in Beijing can mean rubbing up uncomfortably against a heavy-handed government. As the owner, Pettis’ primary concern was always the severe punishments that could be handed down to him if there was an incident at his bar, especially if people were injured.

While Beijing, as well as other Chinese cities, have experienced gig shutdowns by the authorities, Zhu explained that these issues are “mostly for foreign artists”, rather than Chinese musicians.

Opening up

The government, however, has not always been a hindrance to the music scene. From 2003-2016 China’s internet users increased roughly 46 per cent, largely due to an effort by the government to get the country online. According to Pettis this meant that internet users effectively had “70 years of music history dumped on them”.

This sudden, and widespread, availability of music meant that people could listen to music without the weight of context. “I liken it to letting kids into a huge music store and they don’t know what to do and everything is so beautiful and exciting,” Pettis says, adding that the opening of the ‘store’ created an “explosively fresh attitude towards the music you couldn’t find anywhere else”.

“Nice pleasant music doesn’t seem to work with these kids”

However, Beijing’s music scene still exists against a backdrop of political tightening and rapid urbanisation. Michael Pettis speculates that Beijing’s physical transition might affect the music: “These guys are growing up in a city that is going through massive social change. It’s super urbanised when you walk around the city. Especially ten years ago, everything was either being knocked down or built up.”

This might be why:“nice pleasant music doesn’t seem to work with these kids,” he says.

New acts, like Gate To The Otherside, continue to pop up and the scene has developed to the point that it even has its own exaggerated mythology. An example of this is can be seen in the after-the-fact popularity of D-22, Pettis now describes the bar as: “One of these places that has such a reputation that if you believe what people tell you, the place was packed each night with the coolest people in China.”

Despite the closure of XP, and even though Zhu Wenbo now puts Zoomin’ Night on underneath a highway underpass, the psychedelic and experimental scene has continued to develop rapidly. According to Chui Wan’s Yan Yulong the growth in this somewhat obscure genre will continue if only because: “China is a very psychedelic country.”

Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage