On the Edge of Freedom | Capturing China's Underground Punk Scene

In the 80s and 90s, photographer Yang Zhang captured Chinese youth in all its revolutionary spirit

by Hannah Ongley
Nov 22 2018, 12:26pm

This Is a Problem (Miserable Faith), Yang Zhang, 1999

If something’s not allowed, it only becomes more alluring. This is especially true with rock and metal music in China. After the student-led Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, the scene was driven underground by the government, out of fear that loud music would encourage young people to revolt.

The move created something of a catch 22. Chinese kids found an outlet for their anger in the condemned genre — and found themselves increasingly angry as political forces tried to quash the scene entirely. Never mind making it into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame — these kids were enduring squalid living conditions and juggling multiple jobs just to make ends meet as young musicians.

China Underground Music
No! (Miserable Faith), Yang Zhang, 1999

Yang Zhang turned 20 in 1996, when he moved to Beijing. He spent his college years documenting the bands he gigged and pursued fame with in China’s rock ‘n’ roll epicentre. As Zhang explains to i-D, at a recent exhibition of his photography and film — EVOLUTION: About the Survival and Growth of Underground Musicians in China, curated by Xiaojuan Xie — it’s hard to teach yourself music if you can’t hear what it’s supposed to sound like.

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