As the mercury is headed south and the time for outdoor music festivals has come to an end for this year, many urbanites across China are now looking forward to heading back indoors and catching a musical performance or two at a live venue–snug as a bug. But before they do so, here’s a look at what was arguably one of this summer’s biggest musical surprises: one northern Chinese city’s quest to establish itself as a bonafide beat bringer. This one’s all about Shijiazhuang, aka “China’s home of rock.”
This summer, on the night of July 16, at a park in Shijiazhuang, capital of north China’s Hebei Province, rock and roll band MorningBoss began their performance with an English song called “Rock Home Town.” The band’s lead singer Hao Qing told Hebei Daily newspaper that the song had been written in 2016, in honor of the city, the hometown of all five members of the band. The song expresses their pride in their hometown.
“Rock Home Town” is the word-for-word translation of the Chinese characters of the city’s name “shi,” “jia” and “zhuang.” The translation first emerged as a joke because the fashionable music genre forms a contrast with the rustic image of the city, the name of which means “Stone family village.”
However, the city is now poised to turn the joke to its economic advantage by hosting a music festival it hopes will invigorate its rock music culture and promote tourism. The performance of MorningBoss on July 16 was part of the Rock Home Town music season, launched by the local government on July 13.
Beijing Review reporter Ji Jing brings you the beat.
Time to Rock
On July 13, the local government announced that it would host the season of music from July to October and build the city into China’s “rock music capital.” The music season ended up featuring a series of free rock music performances and a national rock music summit, where famous rock musicians, experts, scholars and executives of cultural enterprises were invited to review the evolution of the city’s rock culture and discuss the future development of the art form in China. Rock artists were also invited to perform on buses and subway trains to enable more residents to experience rock and roll and fall in love with music.
On the opening day of the music season, 25 rock bands performed at 20 venues across the city, which included squares, commercial streets, public lawns and parks.
On Subway Line 1 in Shijiazhuang, a rock band performed Father of Chinese Rock, Cui Jian’s, “Greenhouse Girl.” Passengers took photos of the band and were immersed in the happy musical atmosphere. Niu Junwei, the band’s singer, said it was a novel experience for him to perform on a subway train. “I could feel the audience’s enthusiasm and I will continue to perform in the city to bring people happiness.”
Despite its enthusiastic embrace of the music, Shijiazhuang’s ambitious plan to become a rock and roll capital did meet with doubt. Some said the avant-garde rock is incongruous with the city’s down-to-earth image, and some suggest that the city’s rock culture is not yet mature enough for it to become a rock capital. Others said that the city was just trying to slice itself a share of the concert market after seeing the success of neighboring Shandong Province in hosting concerts to promote its economy in recent years.
While the strong backing of the local authorities is a recent development, the city of Shijiazhuang is not entirely new to rock culture. In 1987, Popular Song magazine, which contributed to China’s rock and roll enlightenment and its subsequent popularization, was founded in Shijiazhuang. More than a decade later, the monthly So Rock! was also launched in the city. In 2019, the popular reality show The Big Band, produced by online streaming platform iQiyi, brought rock music into the spotlight once again, and many of the artists who took part in the show were from Shijiazhuang.
However, despite its long involvement with rock culture, until recently the city had failed to turn rock music to its advantage.
The tide began to turn in August 2021, when Ma Yujun, mayor of Shijiazhuang, announced in the government work report that the city would host cultural activities such as music, art and cartoon festivals and develop modern music under the title Rock Home Town to improve the city’s cultural strength.
That year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the city hosted a four-month music season titled Hutuo Impression that featured rock music. Hutuo is a river that flows through the city. In addition to inviting local rock bands to perform, the city also hosted an exhibition displaying the city’s decades of rock history. This April, the second Hutuo Impression music season kicked off and is currently ongoing.
The local government’s push to build itself into a rock capital may have been inspired by a new wave of music festivals held across the country earlier this year. According to the China Association of Performing Arts, ticket revenue from large concerts and music festivals had surpassed 1.2 billion yuan ($166.5 million) as of late May and the number of concertgoers had surpassed 2.5 million. Shandong was among the provinces that hosted the most music festivals in the first half of the year.
Shijiazhuang is often referred to as the most obscure provincial capital in China. Once an industrial city and transportation hub, the city had its share of glory in the early years of the People’s Republic of China and was chosen as the provincial capital in 1968. However, the city, with more than 10 million people, failed to capitalize on the rapid development of the Internet and financial industries in the early 2000s and its GDP fell from 16th among major Chinese cities in 1997 to 40th in 2021. The move to develop rock music is one of the city’s efforts to revive its economy by developing cultural industries.
In recent years, many Chinese cities have become Internet-famous, driving their economies, often through tourism. For instance, early this year, Zibo in Shandong gained fame for its distinctive barbecue and Rongjiang in Guizhou Province became popular for hosting a village soccer super league. Both the barbecue and soccer matches attracted tourists to the two cities and boosted their local economies. Shijiazhuang authorities hoped building a rock city would not only enrich local people’s cultural life but also bring more economic benefits to the city.
However, the city faced many challenges in its endeavor. Gao Lu, a commentator, said in a commentary published on Tianmunews.com that a rock city can’t be built overnight or simply by hosting several concerts every year. It requires long-term development and has high requirements for the quantity and quality of the bands.
“Does the city have the capability? If not, it needs to invite other bands to come. But whether the city can afford it and whether bands from other places are willing to put down roots here are questionable,” Gao said.
“The city should provide a favorable environment for rock music creation and incubate more bands, and only by focusing on cultivation and support of musical talent can the city become a real rock capital,” Liu Yan, a public opinion analyst wrote in a commentary published by the public opinion data center of People.com.cn.
Gao added that there may be residents who don’t like rock music and, for these people, rock performances on buses and subway trains will prove to be a noisy nuisance. Liu suggested that the government and bands sign a self-discipline pact to control the time and sound volume of performances so as not to disturb residents.
As Shijiazhuang launched its ambitious plan to become a rock city, Xinxiang, a city 300 kilometers away in Henan Province also played its rock card this summer. From July 8 to 9, a music festival featuring famous bands took place in the city.
Xinxiang in Henan Province claims to be the rightful home of rock in China as it hosted the Chinese New Music Concert in 1998 and 1999. The event was a big gathering of top Chinese rock artists. In the past more than two decades, the city has incubated many new rock bands such as The Fallacy and Pumpkins.
Liu said facing competition from other cities such as Xinxiang, Shijiazhuang should now develop its own characteristics through innovation to stand out. A China Youth Daily commentary read that breaking the boundaries of thinking and daring to explore is itself part of the rock culture.
From this perspective, Shijiazhuang’s move was and is very rock ‘n roll.
Now… Let’s head indoors!
THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF Ji Jing’S ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN BEIJING REVIEW, VOL 66, NO. 30 (July 27, 2023)
FEATURED IMAGE: Little Red Book
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