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When China First Rocked

In her latest exhibition, veteran photographer Gao Yuan captures the blood, sweat and tears of China’s rock scene in the 1990s through intimate portraits of the people who built it

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

This summer, some of China’s most important indie rock bands shared the stage on hit TV talent show The Big Band. Groups like New Pants, Hedgehog, The Face and Miserable Faith not only reached a new generation of fans but also rekindled nationwide nostalgia for the golden era of Chinese rock.  

While singer-songwriter Cui Jian is credited with kicking off Chinese rock with a concert in 1986, things really started rolling from the 1990s to the turn of the millennium thanks not only to Cui, but also artists like Zhang Chu, He Yong and the prolific Dou Wei, as well as hard rock megabands Tang Dynasty and Black Panther (which Dou Wei fronted from 1988-1991). They saw success across the Chinese mainland and inspired the musicians now appearing on The Big Band.  

As a professional photographer and friend of the Chinese rock scene, Gao Yuan, 50, has photographed almost every rock musician and important concert since 1990. Her access allowed her to document the evolution of rock in China up-close through her lens and the lives of her friends. On September 18, Gao held a two-month photo exhibition at Beijing’s Today Art Museum. Titled Look Back into the Sun, the show includes over 100 black-and-whites that capture the growth of rock music in China during the 1990s.  

Gao called the exhibition “a record and an affectionate look back on the old days and its people.”  

(Top Clockwise) People leave the Hong Kong Coliseum after the “Chinese Rock Power” concert, December 1994 Musicians attend the funeral of Tang Dynasty bassist Zhang Ju, May 1995 Members of rock band Hongshaorou, 1995 Dou Wei sits during a sound check at the Hong Kong Coliseum, December 1994

Early Daze
In 1986, Cui Jian delivered the country’s first rock concert in Beijing. Dressed in worker’s clothes, he performed his most celebrated song, “Nothing to My Name,” which later became a rock anthem for the coming years. Rock was born on the Chinese mainland.  

Gao remembers 1990s Beijing as somewhat empty – a vast space waiting to be filled in the city and young people’s hearts. 

“Almost everyone in every field was prospering. They were nurtured by a sense of freedom. In their music, I heard and witnessed sentiments that hadn’t been seen in previous generations. That marked my initial understanding of rock,” she told NewsChina.  

In the late 1980s, her father, film/TV actor Gao Lei, encouraged her to refine her skills at The Central Academy of Craft Art (now The Academy of Arts & Design of Tsinghua University). But the school did not officially have a photography department. When she was admitted, there were only two photography students – and four instructors.  

There were no dedicated rock venues in Beijing in the early 1990s. One of the only places rock musicians could perform was Maxim’s, a foreign-owned French restaurant. 

Gao spent all her time in the darkroom or snapping shows at bars and Maxim’s. Her friends, also rock fans, were among her first subjects. 

The first musicians she photographed were Ding Wu, the frontman for heavy metal band Tang Dynasty, and hard rock band The Face. In 1993, Magic Stone Records, an important rock label, hired Gao as their concert photographer for their artists. Most were her close friends. 

Gao shot from behind the scenes. Many of her photos show intimate moments: people dozing off on an airplane, getting a haircut on the street or lighting up a cigarette at a friend’s party.  The year of 1994 was significant in the history of Chinese rock. Magic Stone Records released three seminal albums: Dou Wei’s Black Dream, Zhang Chu’s Shameful Being Left Alone and The Waste Yard by He Yong.  

That December, the three artists joined metal band Tang Dynasty for “Chinese Rock Power,” a concert at the celebrated Hong Kong Coliseum. The show marked a first for mainland musicians, and a pinnacle for Chinese rock.  

Gao chronicled the ground-breaking concert. One funny photo shows Dou Wei grinning as he flicks cigarette ash on producer Jia Minshu, who is asleep and slumped in a chair. In another, He Yong stands on a Hong Kong street while drinking a bottle of water. She also photographed Zhang Chu rehearsing backstage in a white shirt and worn jeans. 

Dou Wei makes up a major part of Gao’s work partly because they were married briefly in the early 2000s. Their relationship put Gao on the other side of the camera as a target for the paparazzi. Media often focused on the tensions between Gao, Dou and his first wife, Mandopop megastar Faye Wong.  

Gao first met Dou after he performed at a party in Beijing held by foreign embassy employees and other expats in Beijing. “[Dou Wei] had long, curly hair and wore a leather jacket, showing his bare chest. He also wore gaudy, tight shorts and big leather boots. After he performed, he got off the stage and warmly hugged people in the crowd, sweaty and excited,” she recalled.

Eras in Contrast
Gao was also there for the tragedies. In May 1995, Tang Dynasty bassist Zhang Ju was killed in a high-speed motorcycle accident. Gao met Zhang when she was 15 and the two were friends for more than 10 years. His death came as a huge blow to Gao and the rock community.  

She photographed Zhang’s funeral. On the wall of the memorial hall hung a large black cloth covered with handwritten messages from friends written in whiteout. Rock musicians, with their long hair tied up, stood mournfully while wearing white paper flowers on their chests.  

In 2015, Gao published her first photo collection, Finish the Song of Youth, which includes hundreds of black-and white photos taken during the 1990s from more than 10,000 negatives.  
Some of Gao’s photos are out of focus and lack composition. But as many critics and readers have commented, her work is uniquely powerful, expressive and genuine.  

“There’s no distance between Gao and her subjects. She freely entered the private space which most professional photographers are not allowed to enter. She was so close to her subjects, and the way she presented them was so direct and genuine, which give her works the same spirit of rock ’n’ roll in the 90s,” said Michael Kahn-Ackermann, the founding director of the Goethe-Institut Peking.  

“Under my lens, rock permeated every corner of the 90s. Rock crystallized our brief but lively adolescence. Looking back today, it feels more like an ideal spiritual sanctuary, breaking the shackles of old. Ancient traditions and new concepts collided; fresh rules and past perspectives mixed; love and hate, pain and joy, leisure and sorrow, dreams and reality, were all encapsulated into the fragments from these 10 years, quietly whispering,” Gao Yuan wrote in the foreword for her exhibition Look Back into the Sun. 

“Many years later, people often thought Chinese rock carried a powerful ideology – it was deeply entangled with the politics and culture of the time. Having experienced it up close, I had encountered the softest parts of this cultural movement. It was a simple time,” she added. 

“The early 90s was a time that most people could only hear Western music through pirated copies of cassette tapes. For musicians, having a commercial concert seemed like a pipe dream, since most of the time we couldn’t even get the right equipment. But we still made music in our own way, always trying something new. No matter the era, I believe that’s what every artist should do,” Zhang Chu said at the opening ceremony of Gao Yuan’s exhibition on September 18.  

Drummer Zhang Yongguang, 1996

Gao Yuan (right)

Gao Yuan (right)

A Proper Farewell
Singer-songwriter Lao Lang, who became widely popular for his nostalgic high school ballad “My Deskmate,” also appears in Gao’s works. One photo in her collection shows him sitting in the hallway outside his apartment, looking directly at the camera.  

“[Gao Yuan] and I lived on the same street when we were kids. We kind of grew up together. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, coincidentally we also lived on the same block. We started hanging out through our mutual friends, and she photographed those good old days,” Lao Lang said at the exhibition opening.  

“I see her photos as a proper farewell of a particular time, and now a new generation of musicians is preparing to take their places in the Chinese music landscape,” the singer continued.  

Former Tang Dynasty guitarist Liu Yijun said: “These photos instantly brought me back to that time full of excitement, passion and rebellion. I felt as if time had been frozen and our memories were eternal. Although the musicians of our days and the younger generations lived through different times, we can still communicate through music, humanity and spirituality. Such communication can transcend time.”  

In his review of Gao’s collection Finish the Song of Youth, Kahn-Ackermann said Gao’s photos reveal why Chinese rock remained on the fringes for most of its history.  

“Since the 1990s, consumerism gradually became the country’s cultural mainstream, whereas Chinese rock and roll went the opposite way. It’s because Gao Yuan was so close to these rock musicians that she could document every detail of their lives, capture that happiness when they broke taboos, and record their improvised lifestyle in poverty. Her photos are a response to the marginal status rock was situated in – Chinese rock was the final cry of China in the 1980s and not a prelude for the 21st century,” Kahn-Ackermann wrote.