Written by Jian Xiao
Possibly the first punk musician in China, He Yong, arrived on the scene in 1994 in Beijing, and the first two punk bands, Underbaby and Catcher in the Rye, emerged at the same time. Only a few years later, 1998 witnessed the explosive growth of punk bands in China. At that time, there were several influential bands, such as 69, Brain Failure, and Anarchy Boys, which inspired the younger generation to sport mohawks and leather jackets. Another landmark event occurred that year: a punk club called the Scream (Hao jiao julebu) opened in Beijing, which would soon become a significant cultural space for the punk musicians of the day, such as Wuliao Contingent (Wuliao jundui). One important performance took place on April 8th, 1998 when more than 200 people came to this club, which was only supposed to house a maximum of 100. The founder, Mr. Liao, later commented: “Just as Tang Dynasty [Tang Chao, a Chinese band] had shown us what a heavy metal scene could be like, people began to understand what hardcore, ska, or Oi! punk were […]. I can still remember the intense punk atmosphere – it was strong, simple, straightforward, and powerful, while also full of happiness and exciting anger.” Yang (2012) has used the term “youth restlessness” to describe this atmosphere, especially in the case of Underbaby performances.
Adopting a similar style to punks in the West, Chinese punk musicians can be recognized as skinhead punks by their shaved heads, Doc Martens boots and belt trousers, or as street/metal punks by their Mohawk and studded leather jackets. Following the unprecedented economic growth and new cultural spaces that emerged after the Reform and Opening-Up, being a punk became a way to speak and act against commercialization. Moreover, because of commercialization, Chinese punks have had greater access to resources. This differs from the punk scene in Portugal, for example, where, as Guerra and Xiao (2018: 178) describe, “the present context of economic crisis and social precariousness has accentuated a recourse to punk (and its DIY ethos) both as a word and as praxis pertinent to everyday concerns such as housing, work, and urban sociability and conviviality.” Comparatively, the Chinese punk musicians have not been driven by necessity to apply a DIY attitude to fashion—it has been entirely possible to purchase the punk-type clothing items they desire, such as black leather jackets or Doc Martens boots, in China.
The DIY ethos is still important to Chinese punks, particularly for overcoming challenges relating to actualizing other aspects of punk activity—for example, music performances or punk media (music videos, publications such as zines, etc.). For punks to ‘dress like punks’, they needed to resort to various expedients for dressing in accordance with their stylistic code; for example, whenever they needed a belt, they had to customize it with spikes purchased from hardware stores as there were not yet any shops selling punk belts. The musicians would also make their own labels and craft their own hairstyles. Those creative, enjoyable and entertaining moments have also become culturally significant, allowing the musicians to integrate into the punk community in a global sense.
The meaning of punk fashion is often associated with resistance. Researchers at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was established at the University of Birmingham in 1964 and examined various aspects of youth, subculture and resistance, assigned great relevance to style. Cohen (1972) described style in terms of four central characteristics: clothing, music, rituals, and language. However, he also noted that style is not a quality inherent to subcultures but something that is constructed over a long period of time. Hence, what creates a style is the stylisation—the active organisation of objects alongside different activities and perspectives, which, in turn, produces an organised group with a coherent identity and distinctive ‘being-in-the world’ (Guerra 2010: 416).
In the Chinese social context, subcultural resistance in individual practice occurs in a more intimate environment and on a smaller scale. It manifests in various forms, such as insisting on dressing in a distinctly punk fashion, living a lifestyle of attempting to resist the mainstream, joining and staying in punk groups to resist peer pressure and parental expectations, and seeking alternative forms of employment and income to maintain a state of expressing one’s true self and opinions, and of resisting what is interpreted as a phenomenon of widespread ‘blindly following’ in mainstream society. In fact, the conflict between punk musicians and the mainstream can evolve from being just an alternative visual style at variance with ‘normal’ fashion into an alternative lifestyle against that of the mainstream.
The behaviour of dressing as a punk in a group can appear especially offensive and threatening to the public since their visual look can be associated with gangs. For instance, one punk musician’s decision to adopt a skinhead Oi! punk visual style in public was criticised by teachers, neighbours, and peers early in his life. As a consequence, he developed a form of visual resistance—insisting on his particular punk visual style specifically as defiance to the mainstream visual style—despite constant pressure from the surrounding mainstream. At this stage, the mainstream response to his visual resistance played a role in his construction of his punk identity, but did not immediately influence his life in other significant ways. It was at a later stage that this musician’s visual resistance caused problems at work, prompting him to leave his job.
Generally speaking, the state responds to the Chinese punk scene in a negative way. Punk events can often be stopped by the government for reasons of political sensitivity relating to some of the messages contained in the lyrics. For those events that are not shut down, the state intervenes through strict surveillance to prevent punk musicians from expressing alternative political opinions. This intervention, which is usually led by government officials, can sometimes turn into a violent one.
While variations are hardly noticeable in terms of punk style across different Chinese regions, internal differences within punk groups still exist and are related to concerns about punk authenticity. Punk musicians in Wuhan, for instance, believe that the Beijing punk circle is full of small subgroups and issues of hierarchy, possibly due to the difference between punk musicians born and raised in central Beijing, and those who grew up in the suburbs. Thus they create their own intimate groups based on ideas of equality and existing without a hierarchical approach, such as supporting new comers. By doing so, Wuhan punks regard themselves as being more authentic. In this sense, being a punk is never just about dressing like a punk.
Ultimately, fashion is a means of expression and the choice of style is a process of identity-building. One Chinese punk musician once commented: “We started to learn about skinhead culture, then the clothes. We like boots, braces, Levi’s trousers, and a simple working-class style. It suits us.” In this sense, dressing in a particular style is not only symbolic of cultural and musical resistance to a troubling status quo, but also a concrete expression of an urban movement focused on music, fashion, and a particular lifestyle, sometimes bohemian, sometimes working-class, and in this case, punk.
Jian Xiao received her Ph.D. from Loughborough University and works at the School of Communication and Design, Sun Yat-sen University. She has published in Journal of Popular Music Studies, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Chinese Journal of Communication, Punk & Post-Punk, Space and Culture (forthcoming) and so on. She published a monograph, “Punk Culture in Contemporary China” with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Her research interests are in new media, cultural studies and urban politics. Image credit: the author.