Rock ‘n’ roll blues

Former star’s photo prompts middle-age lament


The photo that caused the stir

For many of its more avid fans, rock ’n’ roll is more than music: it is a philosophy and a lifestyle, representing independence and a lust for life.

In China some of the same sentiment abounds, and it has come to the public’s attention following the agonised introspection that has greeted a photo of a former rock idol settling into a more sedentary middle age.

The rocker in question is Zhao Mingyi, the drummer for one of China’s pioneering early rock bands, Black Panther. In the photo, the 50 year-old is drinking wolfberry tea from a thermos, his hair is grey, and he has put on some weight.

In fact, he’s the picture of an averagely healthy, middle-aged man. But while this image of relative normality offers a stark contrast to the burned-out, drug-ravaged bodies of some of his rock counterparts in the West, it is precisely Zhao’s normality that has left many feeling depressed.

Rock had a late start in China, whose isolation during the genre’s heyday kept the music off the airwaves. The first rock band didn’t appear until the late 1970s, when a motley crew of foreigners started up the Peking All-Stars. In those early days – when China was tentatively opening to the outside world after years of isolation – the expats had no places to go for fun beyond their designated living quarters and so a few of them got together to form a band.

Frontman Graham Earnshaw wrote in his blog that in the early 1980s the city was quiet after 8pm. So quiet, in fact, that he once heard a trumpet sounding through the dark, and he went off to find the player, inviting him to audition for the band.

He turned the man down in the end – not because he lacked talent, Earnshaw claims, but because he was a local, and locals were not allowed to fraternise with foreigners.

But in a twist reminiscent of Decca Records’ rejection of the Beatles, the young trumpeter went on to establish himself as the “godfather” of Chinese rock, Cui Jian.

Cui’s debut album was released in 1989. Entitled Rock and Roll on the New Long March, Cui said the album was about self-realisation, which resonated with many younger people grappling with China’s rapidly changing society.

Chinese rock was born at a period when many of its fans were beginning to pull themselves out of poverty and others were striving for political change. One of Cui’s best-known tracks, Nothing to my Name, even became the unofficial anthem for disaffected students. But for many of today’s netizens, the image of Black Panther’s Zhao Mingyi looking like an unremarkable middle-aged man reflects a sense that the promise of the 1980s – an era that also spawned a lot of satire, such as Yang Zhenhua’s Hat Factory, a TV show that made fun of the political factions that produced the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution – hasn’t materialised. The liberal ideas that inspired that generation have not aged kindly in today’s China, more middle-aged netizens seem to be bemoaning.

An article shared widely on WeChat highlighted some of the common problems facing China’s middle-aged today: tiring work, competition from younger professionals, unfulfilling marriages and declining physical health.

A melancholy and morose zeitgeist has found its visualisation in Zhao’s photo. Fortunately, the People’s Daily stepped in to lift the spirits. “This is not, and should not be, the true state of our society,” the Party mouthpiece reminded its aging readership in a ‘chins-up’ editorial. It pointed to “the unique and exceptional achievements” made since the late 1970s and told its readers to take heart from Xi Jinping’s promise of a ‘China dream’ too. The country has a huge future ahead of it, the newspaper urged, so citizens “should not lose their energy and drive, and should not fear struggle and hardship”.

Not everyone was convinced. “In this day and age, how can ‘drive’ possibly survive in the face of dim employment prospects, skyrocketing home prices, and the ever-increasing cost of living?” one reader responded.

Returning to Zhao and his middle-aged thermos flask (copies of which are now selling briskly on Taobao – reflection of China’s unflagging commercial spirit, perhaps), it is worth pointing out that not all rockers fade away. Various members of the Rolling Stones have raged against the dying light for years. And this year’s MTV Music Video Awards featured an unfeasibly youthful-looking Rod Stewart gyrating away to an updated version of his hit Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.

WiC checked: Sir Rod is 72.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.