Think Chinese Pop Culture is Uncool? You’ll find China’s Cool in Hiding

Lexie Liu on The Rap of China
Lexie Liu on The Rap of China. Image from iQiyi via Radii.

Korean pop and Japanese anime have both made breakthroughs in Western media, but China, a country larger in both size and population than Korea and Japan combined, still lags behind in pop culture appeal. Surely, with such magnitude and potential for content output, there must be a reason China doesn’t have strong global pop culture reach.

It seems that associations with the non-Chinese are considered “cool” in China — travelling outside of China, speaking a non-Chinese language, and not being Chinese all seem to make people more socially attractive. So why is China considered uncool? It might be the case that negative Chinese stereotypes obscure our view of the reservoir of cool in Chinese pop culture. But another possibility might be the generation gap between older authority and young creatives. A desire to experiment met with an expectation to conform can limit the impact of the works of young Chinese creators.

Chinese Youths and Self Expression Through Hip Hop

Many young creatives in China have delved into hip hop — a genre of music that exploded in popularity both in the West and the East — as a means of self-expression. Rap spread across the country’s underground music scene, and the continued influence of the West on Chinese youths has cultivated a massive hip hop subculture in China.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing number of Chinese artists like Lexie Liu and GAI breaking the mould and the limits of Chinese artistry. They explore and interlace cultures, genre, and style — though this can often be met with controversy in the mainland.

Lexie Liu – Sleep Away

Originally from Changsha, China, 19-year old singer Lexie Liu bridges the worlds of Chinese and Western pop culture through her music. She gained popularity after participating on the competition shows K-pop Star 5 and The Rap of China and signed to 88rising in 2018. Lexie is versatile — she seamlessly transitions between English and Chinese lyrics and blends R&B and pop with other styles and influences.

GAI – 重慶魂 (Chongqing Soul)

In a similar fashion, rapper GAI weaves a variety of Chinese cultural influences into his music. GAI co-championed the first season of the hit TV show The Rap of China, which brought Chinese hip hop into the mainstream. He raps in “non-standard” dialects — notably the Sichuan and Neijiang dialects — rather than in the “standard” Mandarin dialect. He writes lyrics that reference Chinese philosophy, culture, and traditional poetry (though this, and shifting to rapping mainly in Mandarin, may be a means to appease the Chinese government and maintain his spot in mainstream pop culture — we’ll get to this later).

Although China has a massive reservoir of talent and creativity, it’s often difficult for unadulterated self-expression to coexist with the mainstream Chinese media. Why? China likes control. Anything that doesn’t conform is frowned upon — and will likely be banned. As you might expect, censorship is rampant in the country (Chinese TV has gone so far as to censor, among other things, men’s piercings). To control the country’s image and reputation and enforce communist ideals, the government restricts what gets published and disseminated in the media and promotes entertainment products in line with their ideals.

In China, it’s not enough to be popular — popularity won’t get you off the hook for confronting China’s core values. Instead, artists in China must navigate the restrictions of the Chinese government, or face backlash, blocks, and bans from the media.

If You Want to Make it Big in China, You’ve Got to Conform

In order to keep GAI in the public eye, lots of image control has to be done behind the scenes. Door&Key (GAI’s label) aims to boost GAI’s appeal by emphasizing his unique musical style and Chinese-media-friendly lyrics, while simultaneously hiding all “improper” aspects of his music. GAI avoids speaking about his underground days, when he used to be called “gangsta GAI” and released tracks with titles like “Super Gangsta”. Instead, he opts for (pretty blatant) attempts to get on the Chinese government’s good side (like shouting “mother country, hurray!” on national TV).

PG One and Kris Wu –
以父之名 (In The Name of Father)

(The second) Co-champion of The Rap of China, PG One, was hit by government control much harder than GAI. The Communist Youth League called PG One out for vulgar lyrics referencing pornography, sex, and drugs in some of his older songs (to which he wrote an apology). The effects of criticism pushed PG One to delete all his Weibo (Chinese Twitter) posts on April 21, though he returned three days later with an a cappella rap video. At that point, PG One was seemingly banned from social media. The a cappella video was swiftly taken down, its removal attributed to “related laws and policies”. A professional hip-hop music blogger, Uncle Xiaoqiang, notes that:

It’s impossible to upload his music on big platforms like 163 Music, Xiami, or QQ Music. It doesn’t even work to upload his music video on Sina Weibo or Tencent Video.

Uncle Xiaoqing (translation from Radii)

Ultimately, PG One returned to social media through a minimally revealing WeChat account that, so far, has worked for him to publish updates and release new music.

Though his lyrics may be problematic, banning PG One from social media and shunning him off the Internet seems rather extreme for something that would be considered trivial in the West. But, according to hip hop journalist Sam Chang, “talking about drugs in China is like talking about white supremacy in the States, you just can’t touch that”.

Unfortunately, the champions — even GAI, who tried so hard to maintain his place in the mainstream — were completely wiped out of the Chinese media sphere when the Chinese government placed a ban on hip hop (among other things).

China’s Hip Hop Ban

Just last year, China’s SAPPRFT (The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China) came up with and began to enforce the “Four Firmly Don’t Use”:

The secretary of the propaganda department, Gao Changli, brought up that when radio and TV shows invite guests, they should [adhere to] ‘Four Firmly Don’t Use’: firmly don’t use actors who are in conflict with the Party’s core values and morals; firmly don’t use actors who are vulgar and kitsch; firmly don’t use actors who have low class and unrefined tastes; firmly don’t use actors who have gossiping and moral problems. In addition, SAPPRFT requires that artists with tattoos, hip-hop music, sub-culture (non-mainstream culture) and depressed culture (decadent culture) can not be on any shows.

SAPPRFT (translation from RADII)

The Four Firmly Don’t Use guidelines limit what and who is deemed acceptable to be shown on TV. But, there was nothing formal about the enforcement of these rules. Really, all we know about the Four Firmly Don’t Use comes from a widely circulated screenshot of a note that summarized SAPPRFT meeting information, and the fact that some of China’s favourite rappers have been eradicated from the media.

Magpie Digest suggests that the ban isn’t about censoring hip hop culture (GAI was well on his way to becoming the face of value-conforming Chinese rap). Rather, it’s about control. Control over Chinese ideals, control over creativity, and control over society. Control, because hip hop’s foreign roots might jeopardize the structural integrity of China’s bubble of censorship — designed to maintain conformity to traditional values.

As a result, it’s difficult for artists to truly express themselves and do so in the ways they want. Limitations enforced by the Chinese government and threats of dropping out of the mainstream restrict what creatives can do (without repercussions) with their art.

Where Creatives are Going

For creatives, trying to stay in the mainstream is a balancing act. Bridge, a contestant on The Rap of China, compares working in hip hop to playing a game: “The country sets rules against me, but I can always find ways around them”. He writes about everyday life to avoid anti-government insinuations and, as a result, avoids being completely wiped out of the media.

Higher Brothers – Made In China

Other artists might choose to take their talents overseas — like rap ensemble Higher Brothers. Signed to label 88rising, Higher Brothers bypasses some of the restrictions of Chinese media, though not entirely. In the Western market, the quartet’s creative capabilities are unlimited. But in order to stay relevant in China, they work around limitations with skill and humour. They flip criticism into celebration and “write what [they] want to write without touching something untouchable”. Many of their lyrics are rooted in their experiences of life in Chengdu and rapped in local dialect. So far, their approach has proven successful — apparently, they haven’t been censored by the Chinese government.

Going overseas seems like a pretty safe bet for Chinese artists hoping to bypass censorship and break into the mainstream. But for some artists, going overseas isn’t a viable option — monetary restrictions and language barriers, especially for those just starting out, limit what creatives can do and where they can go. And for others, making it overseas just doesn’t feel the same as making it big in your hometown first.

Regardless of location, going mainstream is the ultimate goal. After all, as GAI eloquently states, “if you can go mainstream, who the fuck would want to stay underground?

By stifling the ways that Chinese youths are able to express themselves, China is missing out on opportunities to build soft power: an ability to persuade and attract via culture, values, and foreign policy. Only acts that support or at least avoid interference with Chinese values are allowed to go mainstream and, more importantly, stay mainstream (which is not to say that these acts are bad — just different). Hopefully, China’s ban on hip hop doesn’t last for much longer, and hip hop can finally make its way back into the Chinese mainstream.

What do you think about Chinese censorship and pop culture? Let me know in the comments below!


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