A Revolution of Forced Cheerfulness: China Releases List of Banned Songs
The Chinese government announced a ban on a list of 120 songs, some of which have lyrics that “harm social morality,” and others that express protest. Meanwhile, tightening online censorship brings Chinese netizens to create a new form of language.
(Read origial in Hebrew on Mekomit/Local Call)
// Aug. 18, 2015
Guest Authors: Sulafa Zidani and Rachel Beitarie
Last week, the Chinese Ministry of Culture released a list of 120 banned songs, which will no longer be allowed to be played anywhere in the country as they contain lyrics which are considered vulgar, pornographic, or harm the morality of the public. All music and entertainment sites have received an order to remove video or audio files containing any of these songs, including documents with their lyrics. These orders also apply to bars and karaoke clubs (KTV).
The blacklisted songs include “Fart,” “I Love Taiwanese Girls,” “I Don’t Want to Go to School,” “Suicide Diary,” “I Kissed You in the Dark,” “No Sex No Love,” “Beijing Evening News” and more.
Some of the songs have no more than a few obscene words, or they are love songs that are just a little to detailed or graphic for the Chinese censorship’s taste. Other songs express clear social criticism — of the lack of freedom of speech, the oppressive education system, the lack of solidarity, and the apathy of the people. Although rap and hip-hop are both considered to be outside the mainstream in China, these two genres take up almost half of the list of banned songs.
Censorship of art and entertainment content is, of course, not new in China, or elsewhere around the world. Most Chinese musicians are well aware of the boundaries of what they are allowed — or not allowed — to say, and even the most daring of them would almost never express direct criticism of the Communist Party or the president, and they would definitely never openly call for democracy. However, in the last few decades, musicians in China (as well as writers, artists, and intellectuals) have managed to mold an ever-growing space for themselves within these boundaries, where they can express themselves freely. They have adopted genres like rock, blues, hip-hop, reggae, rap, and others, with the successful ones putting in a local twist to these genres by adding some Chinese musical elements.
Even if this industry stays mostly in the margins, or underground, it has clearly made a great contribution to diversification and openness in China. The government has shown a tendency not to get involved too much in this industry as long as it stays outside the mainstream and does not pose a direct threat to the regime itself.
One example of an underground rock song from the list is the song “Them” by Li Zhi (李志). The song expresses cynicism towards the political, social, economic, and moral situation in contemporary China. Here are a few lines from the song:
Some cry, some sing, some were born with moneybags
Some dream, some hallucinate, some have never had their stomach full
They point to the right, they point to the left, they bought aphrodisiacs
We can’t say a thing, we can’t do a thing, our life is so beautiful
Dad likes to visit prostitutes, so Mom gives him trouble, and there are always private lessons after school
Grandma cannot see, that Grandpa isn’t falling asleep, thank goodness for the angels in white
They point to the right, they point to the left, the puppy’s always hopping around
We have not complained, we have not hanged ourselves, isn’t that kind enough?
Comrade Sun Yat Sen, Dr. Mao Zedong, Mr. Chen Shui Bian, they are all useless
They point to the right, they point to the left, you and I must have brains in our heads
Turning a blind eye life is meaningless, and with both eyes open we have to put up with it, our life is so beautiful
In the past two years, since Xi Jinping assumed office as General Secretary of the Communist Party and the president of China, the status quo described above has been changing, with the boundaries tightening again. We have witnessed this earlier this year with the arrest of five feminist activists for “disrupting social order” after their attempt to organize a protest against gender violence, and in the increasing number of arrests of lawyers and activists who have mostly been active within the boundaries allowed by the government. Now, these new boundaries have reached the music industry.
The blacklisted songs include 17 songs by the hip-hop trio In3 (阴三儿). One of these songs, “Hello, Teacher” (a greeting which students all over China chant uniformly when a teacher enters the classroom), is a hate anthem to an unfair and oppressive teacher, and allegorically also to the public education system, often criticized for its strictness. Another blacklisted song by In3, “Beijing Evening News,” describes the night life in Beijing — full of alcohol, drugs, violence, and exploitation of women — as the alternative to the censored TV and newspaper content, and honest work in a society full of faking:
Beijing Evening News, some people sleep in underground passes, while others go out to drink and spend the public’s money, then the government reimburses them
Beijing Evening News, you’re sick and need medication, but you have no way to pay the bills, and no one to reimburse you
Beijing Evening News, everyone is a faker, mentally ill and psycho people work as university lecturers
Beijing Evening News, I’m not paying back my loans, because tuition is just a scam
Beijing Evening News, her ass isn’t good enough, so if she wants to be a star she’ll have to sleep with the director
All these songs are not even close to being a call to bring down the regime, but it appears that Xi’s China, which glorifies the “Harmonious Society” and realizing the “Chinese Dream” (the latter is a term coined by Xi) dissatisfaction is in itself considered subversive behavior.
In our discussion of the recent reports, we remembered the book “The Fat Years” by Chan Koonchung, which was published in Hong Kong in 2009, and became a bestseller in Mainland China despite the fact that it was banned from official distribution. The book describes a dystopia of the world where China has replaced the United States as a global superpower. The book portrays a booming economy and happy citizens; beautiful, confident, and busy with endless consumerism.
Except for the protagonists of the story, a small group of decedents, who refuse to join the party of the masses, and seek to find the truth about this world. But the book’s depressing conclusion is that the truth, even after the protagonists have found it, does not help them, because no one wants to hear it. They are left with the two options: either to join the party and merge in the system, or to leave.
The book draws an image of a dictatorship that echoes “A Brave New World.” A world where everyone must be happy at all times, and where most people gladly cooperate with this system. In an interview with Chan Koonchung five yeas ago, he told me that he wrote this book as a “warning of a society that is becoming fascist.” Hence, we are asking here: is this warning already coming true?
It appears that the Chinese government — perhaps out of fear that its authority may be undermined, or, on the contrary, out of confidence in its ability to control its citizens — has decided to impose a sort of cheerfulness and exemplary behavior that leave room only for expressions that promote conservative family values, expressions of pride in the country, and confidence in the future. While doubts, worries, depression, anger, and even sarcasm, it seems, are becoming illegitimate. It will be interesting to see how this new order will be enforced following the tragic explosions in Tianjin.
The Chinese people have never let censorship stand in their way. The online censorship system, or the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” works systematically to stay up-to-date with the ever-changing technology, and current events from China and the world. Every day, new sensitive subjects appear, political scandals are revealed, there are protests, revolutions, wars, and more, and the censorship struggles for the control of the Chinese public opinion, all in the name of social harmony.
Many people react to this tight control with creativity. Chinese netizens are creating a new form of language online, including: word-play, using characters that are homophonic or homographic to sensitive words, putting unrelated characters between the characters of the sensitive words as “camouflage,” and even making up new expressions.
For example, the meaning word “harmony,” the term so loved by the Chinese government, has been expanded, and is now used online to refer to to the censorship itself, to the action of censoring something off the internet, and even to the Chinese government. For example, instead or writing that a post was censored, netizens write that it was “harmoized.”
This way, the censorship needs not only to stay up-to-date with technological changes and news events in China and around the world, it needs to find a way to deal with the limitless creativity of the Chinese netizens. The result, then, is some kind of cat and mouse race, where it is clear that the former is stronger than the latter, but the latter is not less clever.
About the authors:
Sulafa Zidani holds a Master’s degree from the Hebrew University, where she researched network society with a focus on language and subversive expressions in Chinese blogging.
Rachel Beitarie is a publicist and journalist specialized in China. Former reporter of Calcalist and Voice of Israel radio in Beijing.