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GUANGDONG, South China — At the end of a long June afternoon, shooting for the first episode of the new season of TV talent show “The Big Band” was finally about to wrap up. Over the previous hours, more than 30 Chinese indie musicians had trooped onstage to play for a packed studio audience in Beijing. Now, there were just two acts left to perform.
Next up was Wu Tiao Ren, a veteran group of folk-rockers from south China’s Guangdong province. Ambling up to the microphone in typically breezy style, the band’s frontman, Xu Renke, paused for a second, silence descending inside the auditorium. Then, the band started to play.
Within seconds, a frown spread across the face of the director of “The Big Band”: Something was wrong. The stage lighting wasn’t synched up properly. The lyrics the band was singing bore no relation to what was supposed to be on the teleprompter. In fact, the crew could barely understand a word they were saying.
Ah Mao and Renke, members of the rock band Wu Tiao Ren, discuss their rise to fame and their unique approach to music. By Wu Huiyuan and Xu Wangyuxuan/Sixth Tone
Wu Tiao Ren had caught the show off guard with a last-minute change of song. Instead of playing the Mandarin-language hit they’d performed during rehearsals, they’d switched to a grittier track written in their local dialect — a variation of the Min branch of Chinese spoken in the southeast, which has eight tones as opposed to Mandarin’s four.
It was a rock ’n’ roll move — one that would later spark a media sensation. But for Wu Tiao Ren, it felt perfectly natural. The band has spent their careers out of harmony with China’s mainstream music scene.
While the overwhelming majority of Chinese artists tailor their acts to a national audience and sing in standard Mandarin, Wu Tiao Ren’s style is fiercely local. Everything about their music, from the operatic falsetto vocals to the dialect-heavy lyrics, is infused with the folk traditions of rural Guangdong. The chance to perform their most down-home songs on a massive platform like “The Big Band” was too tempting to pass up.
I just thought the audience would love to see something unique.
- Xu Renke, Wu Tiao Ren frontman
“I just thought the audience would love to see something unique,” Renke, the Wu Tiao Ren frontman, who prefers to go by his first name, tells Sixth Tone in an interview a few weeks later.
At the time, it looked like Renke had badly miscalculated. The spectators in Beijing were unimpressed by the Min ballad, and Wu Tiao Ren were voted off the show. Their appearance on “The Big Band” was over after just one week.
But then, something unexpected happened.
When the episode aired on China’s Netflix-like iQiyi in late July, Wu Tiao Ren’s stunt went viral across Chinese social media. Netizens delighted at seeing something so different from the middle-of-the-road acts that tend to achieve commercial success in China, with many expressing amusement at the band’s chutzpah. Within weeks, Wu Tiao Ren’s number of followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo had jumped fivefold.
Five episodes later, Wu Tiao Ren made a dramatic return to “The Big Band,” brought back after a deluge of petitions from their swelling fan base. They’ve since made it all the way to the contest’s finale, which is due to air over the coming days.
For Wu Tiao Ren, the turnaround appeared a vindication, and the culmination of a long journey. After 12 years of performing, they’d finally achieved national stardom. Yet it also thrust the band back into the center of a fierce debate about language, culture, and authenticity in Chinese music — a discussion they’d been struggling to leave behind.
From the beginning, Wu Tiao Ren looked and sounded completely different from most Chinese rock bands. Renke and Hu Maotao — the band’s other founding member, who goes by the stage name Ah Mao — grew up over 2,000 kilometers from Beijing in Haifeng County, a rough-and-tumble region on China’s southern coast.
Haifeng is among the poorest places in Guangdong, but it possesses a vibrant folk culture. As children, Renke and Ah Mao got their first musical education from the troubadours and opera troupes that passed through the county and performed on bamboo platforms outside local temples and shrines.
But from an early age, the pair was also drawn to Western rock music, which was just beginning to spread through China via illegally imported bootleg CDs. As a middle schooler in the ’90s, Ah Mao recalls endlessly playing a knockoff version of British indie band Gomez’s album “Bring It On.”
After flunking China’s college-entrance exams, Ah Mao moved to Guangzhou — the provincial capital — to find work in 2002. Having little idea what to do, he decided to stick with what he knew — and began hawking black-market CDs on the streets.
These records — known as dakou CDs in China — were leftovers that Western music labels had chipped, to prevent reselling, and then thrown away. They arrived on China’s shores in container ships filled with electronic waste. But the discarded discs were wildly popular among Chinese music fans, as they provided access to a slew of hard-to-find foreign artists — from Wagner to Metallica.
“In China at the time, there were only official releases for Madonna, U2, and Michael Jackson, but the more alternative voices, they couldn’t get,” says Jeroen de Kloet, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who researches Chinese youth culture. “Many Chinese bands formed in the ’90s like New Pants really grew out of the dakou.”
Working as a street vendor wasn’t lucrative, but it helped Ah Mao deepen his knowledge of the rock pantheon and gave him the freedom to work on his own artistic projects in his spare time. As he started writing his own songs, he realized he wanted to sing in his own language.
Ah Mao’s first taste of live performance came in 2004, when he and a few friends organized Haifeng County’s first open-air music festival. The event took place during the Lunar New Year holiday, with singer-songwriters from across the county coming to perform.
It was a DIY affair. A few hardcore fans hand-painted promotional posters. The mics were set up outside the local culture bureau’s offices, facing a busy street. A friend of Ah Mao’s had convinced local officials to lend their support.
Renke, who was 17 years old and already thinking about dropping out of art school, sang after Ah Mao. The crowd’s reaction was beyond his expectations, with one man abruptly jumping onstage to sing with the performers.
“The whole night was crazy, and the acoustics were crap,” says Renke. “The event went from being orderly to chaotic, but that was no big deal. Nobody cared.”
Wu Tiao Ren are wonderful, because they show China is multiple and that there are many Chinas.
- Jeroen de Kloet, professor
That day was the first time Renke ever received an autograph request. But most importantly, it was also when he first got to know Ah Mao. The two hit it off, and quickly found they shared a similar taste in music. Within months, Renke decided to leave Haifeng and catch an unlicensed bus to join Ah Mao in Guangzhou.
The pair rented an apartment in one of Guangzhou’s urban villages, the cheap, ramshackle neighborhoods that became havens for the millions of migrants then flooding into the city. To make rent, Ah Mao continued selling dakou CDs, while Renke hawked pirated books. The rest of the time, they roamed the streets with friends, or stayed at home reading and writing.
Many of Wu Tiao Ren’s most famous songs came from this period, as Renke and Ah Mao found inspiration in memories from their old hometown. The band’s first album, “A Tale of Haifeng,” was released in 2009, with a second record, “Some Other Scenery,” following three years later.
The albums are at turns playful, surreal, and searingly honest, with many of the songs telling the stories of everyday people in Haifeng — from local officials to jaded factory workers — in the Min dialect they spoke on the streets.
“We formed a new path,” Renke tells Sixth Tone. “It might have been a dead end. So be it! We’ll go to hell!”
The band also wasn’t afraid to stray into some seriously sensitive areas. One early song featured two policemen joking about Peng Pai — the venerated revolutionary who launched a farmers’ uprising in Haifeng in 1927.
Though the band stressed they didn’t intend to defame a socialist martyr, many disagreed. To this day, “Peng Pai” isn’t available on China’s major music platforms.
The critics, however, loved these early works, with media hailing Wu Tiao Ren as the best new folk act of 2009. The use of Min dialect and sonic references to southern folk opera appeared fresh and exciting to many accustomed to listening to Beijing rock bands.
“This is why I think Wu Tiao Ren are wonderful, because they show China is multiple and that there are many Chinas,” says de Kloet.
Though the rock scene continues to revolve around the Chinese capital to this day, space has gradually opened up for alternative sounds — from Wuhan’s rebellious punks, to Chengdu’s vibrant indie movement.
In Guangdong, Wu Tiao Ren formed part of an expanding cohort of artists experimenting with local traditions. Bands like Toy Captain and Mabang consciously tried to preserve the sounds of southern dialects in their work, insisting that local culture can coexist with modernity in a rapidly developing China.
Wu Tiao Ren’s unique style won them a big fan base in the Min-speaking areas of Guangdong and neighboring Fujian province, as well as a growing following in major cities across China, according to Vito Su, an early supporter of the band who now manages Wu Tiao Ren’s online fan club. But like many bands singing in dialect at the time, Renke and Ah Mao seemed to hit a glass ceiling after their initial success.
For Chinese artists, using local dialects can be a double-edged sword. Top Floor Circus, a band from Shanghai, was well-known during the ’00s for singing almost entirely in Shanghainese, a branch of the Wu Chinese language family. But after the group split up in 2016, bassist Mei Er was frank about the difficulties this decision caused.
“It’s very painful for dialect-based bands from the south,” Mei told domestic media in a 2016 interview. “We’re famous for using dialects, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever become a so-called A-list band nationally, because people still can’t understand us.”
Long before their appearance on “The Big Band,” Wu Tiao Ren had already begun shifting away from their Min roots. For their third album, 2015’s “Canton Girl,” the band signed up with China’s largest independent record label, Modern Sky. Half of the songs on the record were written in standard Mandarin.
The change won the band legions of new fans, but also prompted backlash from diehard early followers who accused Wu Tiao Ren of selling out. Some critics also reacted negatively. In 2016, music critic Ning Er named Wu Tiao Ren’s fourth album, “Dreamy Lisa Salon,” the most disappointing album of the year in an annual review published in Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper, stating the band had lost its edge since its turn toward writing primarily in Mandarin.
Renke, the band’s frontman, confronted Ning’s accusation head-on. In a written response, he denied Wu Tiao Ren had given up on singing in Min, but said the band didn’t want their use of dialect to become a gimmick — in his words, a “local specialty offered up to the emperor.”
“Sometimes it’s necessary to step outside your dialect for a moment to create something new,” Renke wrote.
For Renke and Ah Mao, the band’s new style is an inevitable result of their altered circumstances. After 12 years of performing, their Haifeng childhood and the years living in Guangzhou’s urban villages feel like a distant reality. These days, the pair lives separately, traveling from Guangzhou to cities across China for gigs. Both are about to turn 40.
Wu Tiao Ren’s later work is more reflective, dwelling on universal themes like love and loss. Renke describes the band’s last three albums — “Canton Girl,” “Dreamy Lisa Salon,” and 2019’s “Story Collections” — as a trilogy about life in today’s city landscapes.
Sometimes it’s necessary to step outside your dialect for a moment to create something new.
- Xu Renke, Wu Tiao Ren frontman
But Jian Miao-ju, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University who studies Chinese indie music, stresses that focusing solely on the band’s change in style is reductive.
“If you’ve been listening to them from the early days till now, you wouldn’t use dialects and traditional elements to label them,” says Jian. “They have a painstaking approach to music.”
By the time their public relations manager convinced them to enter “The Big Band” this year, Wu Tiao Ren had cemented their status as one of the most celebrated folk-rock bands in China. Ahead of their appearance on the show, Renke and Ah Mao selected a plastic bag as the band’s logo. In Renke’s words, the bag represents modernity: “Everyone in the world knows what it is without the need for further explanation.”
After all this, the controversy over Wu Tiao Ren’s “The Big Band” appearance has been bittersweet for the band. For weeks afterward, Renke and Ah Mao found themselves overwhelmed by interview requests. Yet the pair appears tired of discussing their use of language and culture, rather than the music itself.
When asked about the band’s evolving style, Renke says it’s natural for others to have an opinion: “In our lives, while we observe others, we’re also observed by others.” But he prefers to let others do the talking, while he focuses on the singing.
“It’s good that we’ve impressed you,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if another person isn’t impressed. There will always be two camps. For us, our part is done.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Lyrics illustrations: Visual elements by Hu Zhenchao; designed by Ding Yining and Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)
(Header image: A group photo of Wu Tiao Ren, 2020. From @五條人WUTIAOREN on Weibo)