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Yan Jun: Which Hell Do You Prefer?

May 2014

"The end of the world has already happened and we are all living in that apocalypse together." Yan Jun takes the temperature of two of China's biggest cities and their music.

Hell is a place we actually live in, but we don’t want to face that reality. In China there are two kinds of hell: Beijing and Shanghai. The first is hot and the latter is cool. One is about yesterday and the other is about the future.

So, Beijing turns to olden times and Shanghai escapes to another dream, a future world that does not exist and never will. There are all kinds of music in Beijing and Shanghai, but, following the above line, nostalgic music typically accompanies Beijing and an international standard of music fits Shanghai.

As two of the biggest cities in China they share equal attention from the rest of the world. They’re both powerful and rich. But if there is one pound of contemporary artists and musicians in China, I guess that 14 ounces live in Beijing, Shanghai has one ounce and the rest of China shares the last bit. Young people have named Beijing as Capital Of The Empire and Shanghai as Capital Of Magic. You see, empire is a visible illusion and magic is an invisible one.

I live in Beijing but over the past two years I’ve travelled to Shanghai for many different reasons: a residency, concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and once I paid for my own train ticket to attend a Toshiya Tsunoda event there. In Beijing I’m busy labouring at DIY endeavours: organising concerts, producing CDs, carrying books and CDs to the post office and writing tons of emails. In Shanghai they call me teacher Yan (Yan Laoshi, something between Sir, Master and Mister Intellectual) and I get paid. Most foreign sound artists invited to China end up in Shanghai – for instance, the early visitors [The User] and their massive water pool Ondulation. In Beijing there’s the Media Art Triennale, a few group shows and Sony ExploraScience, but not much else. In Shanghai, there’s more institutional and government supported events like the International Electronic Art Festival, Sound Art China Exhibition and Shanghai Electronic Music Week. The last one was organised by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. They promote a lot and even supported a concert of “noise from outside the school”.

There is the longer running Beijing International Electroacoustic Music Festival held by the Central Conservatory of Music but they never announce their events to the general public. Once I went there hoping to see George Lewis perform but I was stopped at the gate by an organiser who told me “there’s no tickets for sale. We paid for him and so we don't need to share the performance with any outsiders.”

But the situation in Shanghai isn’t perfect. The conservatory paid for the noise concert but not one of the academic insiders came to see it and nor did any of the festival organisers. The concert had to end after Torturing Nurse blew the tiny speakers they had to work with. This ten year old noise duo have played in all kinds of situations in Shanghai including a mothership event called Noishanghai, a monthly concert in an underground bar. They are famous even if most people don’t really want to listen to them. Once Thurston Moore said if there is one Chinese band Sonic Youth wants to play with, it’s Torturing Nurse. But Torturing Nurse responded through their social media: we don’t care about that kind of rock star posing.

Sometimes organisers ask Torturing Nurse to play “not too loud”. I’ve seen audience members run away from their gigs. But, they’re still invited to play at art or fashion events. The underground is welcome here: this city is sensitive and open. Somehow it doesn’t care what it’s open for. And Torturing Nurse don’t care either. Fair enough.

And how is it in Beijing? A typical phone call from an art centre or gallery: “We will be having an opening party so why not bring your friends to perform and drink for free? Let’s have fun!” That means neither the audience nor the organiser have to pay out anything. Or: “Hi I’m a friend of your friend. We have an opening party. It would be very much appreciated if you help us find a nice singer/song writer/ambient electronics/dub step artist.” Beijing definitely knows what it wants: fun!

There are too many art happenings in Beijing. We share less audiences and less money. But people in Shanghai are thirsty. Bosses in Shanghai are looking for something not totally dominated by Beijing. In doing so they make their hell fresh and polite.

In my experience, visitors from Europe and North America usually love Beijing but are not into Shanghai as it looks too much like Europe with its coffee shops, historical colonial buildings, the inhabitants’ professional smiles and fluent English. Beijing is dirty, in a mess and too huge to move through. It feels drunk and crazy. There was a group in Beijing called Speak Chinese Or Die!. The locals are natural born anarchists who don’t give a shit about “please don’t” sentiments. Yes, Beijing is the heart of Chinese rock ’n’ roll if it still has one.

Many of my friends love Beijing as well, despite its ever higher rents, poisoned air and angry drivers stuck in the all day traffic jams caused by white collar workers who bought cars to kill time with. Most musicians in Beijing don’t have regular jobs. We make money from music for theatre, dance, film or writing for magazines, from events in Shanghai and other odd opportunities. It’s still fine if you are a poor artist in Beijing. But in Shanghai you can go to hell if you don’t have money.

So the choice is : go to Beijing? Or go to the real spirit of Shanghai?

Musicians must go to their day jobs in Shanghai. Some are even members of the Party. They look normal, maybe even a bit fashionable, and are always on time. Yes, that’s why we in Beijing hate Shanghai. We don’t want to be domesticated. Also, the parties in Beijing are better, not the least because you’re more likely to find a lovely stranger who’ll share a puff of weed with you.

Beijing was a wonderful place for underground musicians, unknown artists, punks, neo-hippies and anyone who had no money but had a dream. Suddenly China has started emanating the illusion of being a major, rich country. Beijing was painted to resemble a monster amoeba by real estate developers and the Olympics. Then visa policies became stricter: losers out. The dreamers either had to move to cheaper places or hold each other close to keep warm. That’s why people here love hot music.

So this is all about dreams: if you have one you will not have to face the cruel truth. You just want to have fun.

There is no dream in Shanghai. Since the birth of rock in China there has never been any real rockers in Shanghai. Somehow the avant garde is a natural choice for musicians who live without dreams. I still remember how excited I was when I heard ISMU (Intelligent Shanghai Mono University), Aitar and Junkyard in 2002. They were not that avant garde but they really tuned into the machine aura while the others, outside Beijing, were just rock of flesh. Don’t forget this city was a great base of the Communist Party during its early years, and then there was the Shanghai Commune in 1967.

Today the smartest artist in Shanghai is Xu Zhen. He plays with ideas and jokes: technics. He is post-techno in art. The smartest artist in Beijing is Ai Weiwei. His work uses consciousness and metaphors: morality. He is free jazz in art. If they ever get to work together they would be world beaters just like Hollywood. But that will never happen as they’d both disappear the moment they shook hands: anti-matter.

The audience in Shanghai: they sport better colour-matched clothing and a higher grade of biochemical solvents on their skin. The audience in Beijing: once a girl vomited in the crowd during a heavy guitar battle between Otomo Yoshihide and Li Jianhong. Another time, when I played in someone’s living room, a member of the audience took off his T-shirt and danced around with the strong smell of sweat.

I love both audiences – especially the ones who buy my CDs – I love the high voltage free jazz storm in Beijing (and New York, and so on) but find it nostalgic and lonely. I also enjoy the feeling of walking through the cyberpunk smog in Beijing. In Beijing I’m in the depth of a reality where people are struggling to go back to an older time. But Shanghai looks like something out of an advertisement to travel to another world – a quality that Torturing Nurse work with, using that system as if they are going to commit suicide with it.

Some friends of mine in Shanghai once made fun of Beijing’s heavy smog. But now they have it too. I’m so happy that we share this smog. It means that there is no exception for anyone on this planet. The end of the world has already happened and we are all living in that apocalypse together. In Beijing, people are trying to fight this reality with their strong and honest ego: free jazz or neo-psychedelic noise as if this is a better thing, a natural ego returning to nature. Now I can imagine that more of the modernity-wounders in Shanghai will turn from their favourite ECM jazz to Edwin van der Heide's oceanic audio-visual show. Last year I heard a stoned audience member at his concert say: 'oh, he is like God, he is bringing us back to heaven with the sounds and lights! It’s all about hurt. And no future.

So, now I am left with yet another question: shall we console ourselves with ambient music (like in the public sound system in cars on the subway line 6 in Beijing) and the riot rituals of free jazz and noise rock? Or shall we console ourselves with huge, smooth, bright and sexy technology?


"Once Thurston Moore said if there is one Chinese band Sonic Youth wants to play with, it’s Torturing Nurse. But Torturing Nurse responded through their social media: we don’t care about that kind of rock star posing."

Good to see not everyone is willing to let themselves be latched onto by the worlds biggest and most desperate hipster.

Dear Yan Jun. It was really interesting to read about ,your life in Beijing and your thoughts and comparisons of the two cities, the two hells. Great work. David

Yan Jun's curated double compilation cd 'Noise in China' is still avsilable via mail order at

Thoughtful reflection on where sound has been, what it can do, and where it can this new millennium.

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