Hanmai, a Chinese rap-like performance, symbolizes a cultural interest in Rural China
“I was once crazy for ya.”
“I worked my ass for ya.”
“My heart only belonged to ya.”
“But you fxxked someone at my backyard.”
These words were uttered by a young male in a tacky outfit sitting in front of the computer screen in a revamped bedroom. Tianyou, his name is. MC, he entitles himself.
In this recorded live-streaming video, he was constantly spitting out his anger about discrimination, wealth and disappointment of social inequality in the form of Hanmai, a rap-like performance popular in China. The coarse combination of narration and single-rhythmed music back in 1980s’ Disco ballrooms uncomfortably bombarded my ears, but was celebrated by tens of thousands of young people in China.
Not long after this, I learned his story: dropped school at 16, now the top live-streamer in China and has made a fortune by this said new type of “music” — Hanmai. A millionaire at the age of 23.
He has companions — thousands of performers are shouting out loud on various livestreaming platforms trying to catch attention, most of which are uneducated young males from northern China and have to make a living by themselves at very young age. Their average monthly income ranges from ￥2000 to ￥4000.
Audiences are mostly millennials, scattering in rural areas and second tier or third tier cities in China. Most of them are neither highly educated nor have high income, but the total number is massive.
Yes. Hanmai is a big deal in China.
Hanmai is a rap-like performance, not rap.
Hanmai is born on Chinese live-streaming platforms, mainly on YY Live. It originates from MC, which stands for “microphone controller”, a role who enlivens the atmosphere at clubs or pubs. They embellish what they are talking at parties by narrating with high-energy dance music. That is why most Hanmai live-streamers’ aliases start with MC.
MC is more like a host of a party or an event, but Hanmai is a real type of performance. The basic components of Hanmai include rhyming lyrics and accompaniment with a strong beat, like a combination of prose and raps.
Hanmai is famous for its lyrics, from regional slang to online popular phrases. They usually have themes centered on sex, violence, money, discrimination and social issues. Meanwhile, I found out Hanmai live-streamers are usually in favor of such words like “dragon”, “king”, “bitch”, “bros”, “drunk”, “rich”, “cars”, “intercourse”, “betray”, etc. Sounds like gangster-rap huh.
But the truth is Hanmai is not rap. With no flow and no delivery, not required to be performed in time to a beat, Hanmai is just a narration with music.
Hanmai is popular in rural China
However, the lack of flow does not hurt its popularity. It is now one of the most welcomed form of music in rural China.
It is extremely popular on YY Live and millennial fans are crazy about it. MC Tianyou has over 17 million fans on YY Live, and the number is still growing.
One probable cause is that Hanmai can raise people’s inhibited desire for release, especially for those Chinese millennials who are stressed by life and hard work. They long for things that can resonate with them. Look at the history of rap, and you will soon be aware of the similarity between it and Hanmai.
One of MC Tianyou’s fans told me Tianyou was his idol because of his powerful lyrics and his personality. He earns 2000 yuan per month and he spends half of his salary on awarding Tianyou.
Another reason could be its simplicity. The lyrics are catchy and entertaining, while the rhythm composes of simple integer ratio which our brains are more tuned in to this type of music. With all these advantages, Hanmai becomes a widespread performance online.
Last but not least, live-streaming business is skyrocketing in China, offering a great environment for Hanmai performers. In 2016, a new live-streaming platform goes online in every 18 minutes.
That does not equal to the acceptance of all people, though.
MC Tianyou submitted his Hanmai-style song to an original music competition, but it was rejected for Hanmai is not considered to be a real piece of art. It reveals a public opinion that Hanmai has not been considered as a serious type of music or arts in China yet.
Meanwhile, Hanmai is controversial for its lyrics because it indicates political incorrectness, narcissism and male chauvinism. You might see criticism occupying pages of comments about Hanmai in various Chinese online forums. “It is loser’s spiritual comfort.” “I have never seen such ridiculous lyrics and it has so many loopholes in lyrics that I cannot withstand it for even one more second.”
There is a long way before Hanmai goes mainstream. Or will it after all?
Hanmai live-streamers are rock stars in their 200-feet streaming room, gifted and complimented by millions of fans online. But it is still a local phenomenon.
The director of the music competition that rejected MC Tianyou’s latest workpiece made an announcement after MC Tianyou tweeted complaints over this issue. He said Hanmai’s oversimplified rhythm made it a long way to go mainstream.
It reminded me of the history of rap, a merely spoken oration centered on violence and materialism back in 1970s in the U.S. Rap was not accepted as the mainstream music and art until someone like KRS-One or Public Enemy in 1980s spoke out against violence and embedded race and class into his lyrics.
Later on, Eminem’s popularity at the beginning of 21th century as the first while popular rapper, made rap be a mainstream culture that is welcomed by white kids.
It took 30 years for Rap to be a widely accepted music style. The time duration won’t be less for Hanmai.
I will not deny the commercial potential of Hanmai as a kind of to-be-mainstream music. Any subculture, like rap 30 years ago and Hanmai for now, will face inevitable obstacles of being excluded from mainstream. It needs various factors to make things different, including a phenomenal figure that has the impetus to reform the performance, a well-known performance style that can fuse original characteristics of Hanmai and an established business operation.
There’s still years to go, before people actually take Hanmai serious, or it can appear on any official stage.
It does remind me of something though.
Like a lot other Chinese people who live in the metropolitan, I sometimes forget about the other part of the world — there are a huge number of Chinese people out there, enjoying music that we’ve never heard and leading a life even though there’s always little money to spare. A different life, but vigorous too.