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Jesse Doyle: Sounds of the Beijing Underground

The music scene in China is currently undergoing a much needed revival and it's being stemmed from the capital and cultural heart of the nation, Beijing. Deep inside the city's university district there is an establishment which is at the forefront of this revival, an venue which is fundamentally changing the way Chinese youth are thinking. The lyrics being sung from within its walls are a far shot from the cultural conformity which people have come to expect from the largely government-controlled Chinese music industry. For the youth in Beijing, indie rock club D-22 provides refuge from the monotonous sounds of mando and cantopop, which have dominated the party-controlled radio waves in recent times. The bands gracing the stage of D-22 have certainly struck a chord with China's youth who are more than open to hearing fresh sounds. One of these bands is P.K. 14, whose front man, Yang Haisong, also runs the independent label Maybe Mars Records with Peking University professor Michael Pettis, known locally as the "Godfather of Beijing Rock." The label has been instrumental in nurturing the Beijing indie-rock scene, which over the past five years has undergone a major transformation from a somewhat nascent scene to one of the most developed and promising in all of Asia. Pettis is no stranger to the world of underground rock. During the 1980s, in New York's East Village he ran the indie-rock club SIN, which played host to a number of groundbreaking bands including Sonic Youth and Swans. From there he moved into the world of investment banking and worked the markets for 14 years in New York before sensing the need for a change of scene. After a trip to Beijing Pettis felt that it was the place to be. Having secured a position as a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management he made the move. Now Pettis finds himself shaping the indie-rock scene with D-22 alongside his professorship just as he did some twenty years ago, albeit in unfamiliar territory. The quickness with which Beijing's underground rock scene has emerged and the momentum it's gained over the past decade has been a promising sign. No longer is the movement confined to the few indie-rock clubs in Beijing such as D-22 but it's now moved far beyond that onto adjoining areas such as Tianjin. Several of the bands signed by Maybe Mars have undertaken successful tours through Europe and North America. One of the label's most successful signings, the Carsick Cars, is currently on tour in the United States. At a recent gig in New York City, the band played to a packed audience of Chinese ex-pats and American youth at Santos Party House. The music they played was as diverse as the groups that have influenced them, from the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth to other contemporary Chinese bands such as Joyside. The crowd all the while deeply impressed with their tightly laid-down wistful riffs and explosive energy. When they played the title track of their second album, "You can Listen, You can Talk," the crowd erupted and it became clear that the largely one-way cultural flow between the West and the East is about to shift, on multiple levels. Analysts have been quick to shed light on the rise of China as the new superpower in military and economic terms; few, however, have made mention of its potential Soft Power. Japan has wielded the only significant Soft Power in the East for years and yet with the rise of the contemporary Chinese arts scene this looks set to change. It's still hard to determine just how significant the impact of this movement will be, but one thing seems certain—the sounds of the Beijing underground are laying the foundation for a new era of Chinese cultural influence. Jesse Doyle is a research intern at World Policy Institute.

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