For decades, Taiwanese indie scene has been all about mellow folk (Miss Stocking, Feckle) and Japan-influenced post rock/math rock (Sugar Plum Ferry, Elephant Gym). However, the island never seemed to also take after Japan’s appetite for rock. Apart from a few pop rock bands, there is little in Taiwan that can be called rock music.
In this context, it is interesting that a band named No Party for Caodong became a phenomenon throughout Greater China (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan).
The band’s only album so far is called “Chou Nuer,” a reference to Xin Qiji’s poem of the same name which includes the line “pretend to understand sadness so as to write pretty prose.” The band seems to intend an ironic interpretation—When ideas and feelings are oppressed by the society, any expression of “sadness” will be trivialized as trickery to gain attention. Rock n’ Roll, then, is a rebellion against such alienation, a waking call for the individual. This is the key of why Caodong became an instant success in China.
A look at Cao Dong’s most famous song tells us what they are singing about. The song starts with two questions: Why did a beautiful heart become a pool of mud? Why did a naive poem become irony? Without context, it is hard to understand what exactly they are getting at. The next three lines provide a perspective: The society is artificially constructed, and its voice is given to the privileged few. Therefore, common people’s dreams are the everyday life of the rich, and the illusion of equality is based on fundamental inequality. In the most plain (and somewhat ridiculing) words, it is “one of those songs about the losers.”
Here the “losers” are the underprivileged, both economically and politically. What they share in common is the inability to influence social norms—so their beautiful heart is taken as mud, and their naive poem is read as irony. The deprivation of a voice makes them realize that the world might not be real, that it is a made-up story. This accusation may have a specific target in Taiwan, but in mainland China, it certainly gained a new meaning. The made-up story can be thought of as the undoubtable righteousness of the communist party, the narrative that homosexuality is abnormal sexual behavior (as defined in a new governmental document), or the illusion that the country’s economic development is benefiting everyone.
The relationship between rock music and individual discontent is deeply ingrained in China. The first documented Chinese rock band, Thousand Mile Old Horse, was established in 1979, one year after Reform and Opening (a political change in China after Cultural Revolution that introduced market economy and tolerated individualism). As an import, Rock n’ Roll was from the beginning associated with the praise of individual value, as an acknowledgement that there is meaning to pursuing one’s own happiness. Today, China is again faced with a plethora of social issues, in a time when expression is limited, when criminals on TV can’t be “too evil” (because the soil of socialism doesn’t give birth to real evil) and have to be arrested by police in the storyline, when homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and sexual assault cannot be shown in cinema (because we should inform young people what’s proper sexual practice), when mainland citizens cannot say “this is all screwed up!” At this time, these words are said, perhaps unintentionally, by Cao Dong.
大风吹 (The Wind Blows)
However, just like Omnipotent Youth Society, another rock band popular in China (from mainland), Cao Dong expresses feelings rather than ideology. Instead of addressing political conditions from a conceptual level, it empathizes with how these political conditions influence the mentality of individuals.
One such example is “The Wind Blows.” The song depicts a school bully event. “The Wind Blows” is a game where there is one less chair than there are players. Everyone tries to take a chair, abiding by the rules, and the one who doesn’t get it become a “phantom.” The frontman Wu Du’s voice is like a recently-bought rag, its texture halfway between raspy and deep. Boosted by his suppressed vocal performance, it brings out the deep depression in the lyrics.
However, while Cao Dong sings about depression, it doesn’t sing about depression being a product of political situations. This is an important clarification, because in China there is a very advanced cultural administration system. Its basic logic is that we live in a country with the most progressive political system, of which the people are the true owner, so of course our culture should reflect our wonderful life. If a cultural product shows something negative, then it is first of all dishonest in its expression. Even worse, it might be intended to interfere with the very social progress that benefits the people. This is a well-built cultural administration system that reaches every corner of the nation, one that the current American president can learn a lot from for his everlasting battle against fake news. Most recently, this system published a regulation on any form of moving image (film, TV series, online video) that systematically bans any portrayal of abnormal sexual behavior (including, of course, homosexuality), unrespectable governmental leaders, and the invasions of foreign countries initiated by historical Chinese dynasties. And as anyone can expect, we Chinese citizens are very grateful towards this new policy as well as many others that are not written in words.
As such, we have to make it extra clear that Cao Dong has never made any accusation towards the Chinese government or any specific social phenomenon in mainland China. It is good culture; it abides by the core values of socialism. As for “The Wind Blows,” it is about bullying in a Taiwanese school. There is of course no bully in Chinese schools.
Special Thanks to Liao Li who has contributed to this article.