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Jin Liu
Rap music and hip-­hop culture, usually perceived as originating in the local
African-­American street culture of the South Bronx area of New York City,
have been continually relocalized and thus globalized by youth speaking
different languages all over the world. The distinctive linguistic feature of
the localization of rap music in mainland China is not so much that it is
rendered in the official national language, the Standard Mandarin ( putong­
hua, literally “common speech”), but rather that the rhythmic vernacular
transforms into distinct colloquial, nonstandard local languages or dialects
( fangyan, literally “regional speech”).1 Particularly since 2001, there has
been a proliferation of rap songs, sometimes blending English and Standard
Mandarin words, in Shanghai Wu, Hangzhou Wu, Suzhou Wu, Wenzhou
Wu, Yixing Wu, Jinyun Wu, Changsha Xiang, Hakka, Nanjing Mandarin,
Yangzhou Mandarin, Wuhan Mandarin, Beijing Mandarin, Northeastern
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Alternative Voice and Local Youth Identity in Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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Mandarin, Sichuan Mandarin, Qingdao Mandarin, Guangzhou Cantonese, and so on. Moreover, although a handful of (semi-­)Chinese rap songs
predate the Internet, the wave of rap songs did not hit until the emergence
of Internet-­mediated songs (wangluo gequ) in China, which was arguably
ushered in by Xue Cun’s Flash-­accompanied hit song “Northeasterners
Are All Living Lei Fengs” (“Dongbeiren doushi huo Lei Feng”) in 2001.2
This song, with a strong Northeast flavor, initiated a trend of Internet songs
rendered in local languages. Besides reworking popular songs whose lyrics
were originally in the dominant Standard Mandarin, Internet-­savvy youth
began to write rap songs in the various Chinese regional languages. The
principal focus of this essay is to examine this emerging trend of Chinese
local-­language rap songs in the age of the Internet.3
In one of the few critical studies on Chinese hip-­hop, Jeroen de Kloet,
inspired by Rey Chow’s reading of Walter Benjamin’s translation theory and
Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger, views Chinese hip-­hop as cultural
pollution and contamination that affects both the “assumed origin” and the
“alleged copy.”4 Taking the Yin-­Tsang band, which is composed of members
from various nationalities, as a case study, de Kloet argues that the impurity
and dirt in such a band renders the notion of Chineseness “highly problematic” and therefore subverts “any longing for cultural essentialism and
nationalism.”5 Viewing inauthenticity as a productively postmodern sort of
impurity, de Kloet also briefly discusses how the “inauthentic” Chinese hip-­
hop pollutes the imagined and constructed “origin” of hip-­hop. However,
his comparison of the Chinese “copy” and the Western “origin” is cursory.
Using a stereotyped US-­based hip-­hop ideology as the yardstick and evaluating the oeuvre of Yin-­Tsang alone, de Kloet lists a series of superficial
“absences” in Chinese rap songs, for instance, “the absence of (the violence
in) the ghetto or the ‘hood,” and fails to explore many underlying “presences,” or the intrinsic generic similarities in Chinese hip-­hop, something
this essay tries to demonstrate.6 Taking an explicit US-­centric approach,
several critics covering the emerging rap music scene in China for Western
media also fault Chinese hip-­hop for its lack of rebelliousness and explicit
social and political commentary. They thus dismiss Chinese rap as being too
mainstream and further suggest that Chinese youth have been brainwashed
by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official ideology.7
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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It is important to recognize that in one sense, Chinese hip-­hop is, in
fact, imitation. The perceived origin of rap music in the United States is a
source of inspiration and aspiration for young Chinese rappers. Wang Fan,
a Shanghai-­based pioneer of rap, named himself BlaKK Bubble, the double
Ks paying homage to his favorite rap duo, Kris Kross. Wang was first introduced to hip-­hop music in the 1990s through the dakou (cut) audiocassettes
and CDs illegally imported from the United States.8 He became friends with
Dana Burton, a Detroit native who is credited with founding an annual rap
competition in China in 2002. For the local Chinese wannabe emcees (MCs),
the element of the ethos of freestyling and US gangsta rap they espouse the
most is the freedom “to speak your piece,” although this perceived freedom
would merely mystify their peers in the United States. They identify with
this US minority youth music genre in part because it empowers marginalized, alienated, and restless teenagers, which is evidenced, for example,
in Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Frontline interview with the Beijing
rapper Wang Xiaolei in 2008 and Jimmy Wang’s New York Times reportage
on the Northeastern rapper Wang Li in 2009.9 In addition, in terms of rap
production, Chinese rappers freely and sometimes mindlessly borrow the
Western beats that they download from the Internet. For instance, the beat
for Beijing In 3’s furious “Hello Teacher” (“Laoshi hao,” 2008), which I will
discuss later, is from the slain Tupac Shakur (2Pac)’s “Hit’Em Up.”
However, as Ian Condry warns, amid the never-­ending charges of “imitation” leveled at hip-­hop musicians in Japan, original authenticity and
local creativity are often inextricably intertwined in these transnationally
oriented productions.10 He suggests, for example, that “if we define imitation as working within a genre of music, in the case of hip-­hop perhaps
characterized as sampled and programmed tracks over which emcees rap
rhythmically nuanced rhymes, then all contemporary hip-­hop, in Japan and
anywhere else, for that matter is imitation.”11 Rather than arguing over the
extent to which Chinese rap is imitative, this essay is more interested in
exploring the performative force that Chinese rap achieves through imitation or appropriation — in other words, the music’s impact on the local
community and the local significance that Chinese youth create by mobilizing the generic conventions of hip-­hop. Moreover, this essay disputes the
common criticism of Chinese rap as lacking social and political commen-
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tary; these criticisms are based on limited data. Through a close reading of
rich local-­language rap song texts combined with fieldwork interviews, this
essay argues that unlike the mainstream popular love songs in the mainland
China music market, which are dominated by Standard Mandarin, local-­
language rap songs are characterized by strong social messages, which thus
enable Chinese youth to construct an alternative subcultural space outside
that defined by adult culture and hierarchical institutions. Mediated by the
largely uncensored Internet musical space, these rap songs assert an oppositional, counterhegemonic voice against the Chinese educational system, high
official culture, and mainstream discourse.
Furthermore, rendered in regional languages, these rap songs are infused
with distinctive local knowledge and the sensibilities of a specific place. The
songs articulate a distinct musicalized, collective local identity for urban
youth by adopting a strong convention in the rap music genre, namely, the
representation of one’s hood/posse/city/region/territory.12 Much of the recent
academic interest in locality and spatiality is related to the study of globalization and localization. Yet in most research, the local appears to be
interchangeable with the national. For instance, Timothy Craig and Richard King’s book explores how global or US cultural and musical resources
and commodities have been appropriated and integrated with local knowledge by artists and musicians in the so-­called “local” nation-­states such as
China, South Korea, and Malaysia.13 However, this essay presses the issue
of localization further, examining local communities that are contained
within the nation-­state. From this perspective, the function of the nation-­
state seems more and more aligned with globalization and its concomitant
homogenization and centralization. In China’s quest for modernity during
the twentieth century, one of its central aims was to build a unified modern national language. The essence of fangyan was variously identified and
characterized as the living, vernacular, or oral language; regional speech;
one’s mother tongue; folk language; vulgar slang; or the rural or provincial
patois of the illiterate masses. It was an integral part of major literary movements and intellectual debates: the phonetic script reform and the national
language movement that began in the late Qing period; the baihua vernacular movement, including the folk song – collecting movement in the May
Fourth era; the discussion on mass language (dazhongyu) and the Latinized
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New Writing movement in the 1930s; and the debate on “national forms”
during the period of the Sino-­Japanese war (1937 – 45). With its own multiplicity, heterogeneity, and hierarchy, local language was associated with and
simultaneously dissociated from this historical project of building a modern
nation-­state, a national culture, and a national language. Although local
languages were valued and promoted at various historical moments, they
were fundamentally and ultimately suppressed, marginalized, transformed,
and subordinated as subnational languages or dialects. Moreover, the state-­
promoted Putonghua, after the massive revolutionary program of linguistic
engineering, formalization, and orthodoxization in the Mao era, has evolved
into an “overly politicized language” or a peculiar “social dialect” strongly
associated with the official discourse in the postsocialist reform period, as
some contemporary Chinese writers and poets reflect upon it.14 The state’s
recent efforts to promote a single, standard Mandarin and impose linguistic uniformity and homogenization are represented in the 2001 Law of the
People’s Republic of China on the Use of Chinese Languages and Chinese
Characters (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo guojia tongyong yuyan wenzifa), the
first national law on language and writing. The law prescribes Putonghua
as the principal language for broadcast radio, television, movies, school education, and administration; the use of local languages is strongly discouraged in mass media and in the public sphere. In this sense, the contemporary resurgence of local-­language cultural productions, including rap music,
in mainland China provides a unique vantage point from which to critique
and challenge Putonghua and the Putonghua-­dominated official discourse.
Long excluded and marginalized by the national language, the “vulgar”
slang-­studded local languages help to articulate marginalized and unassimilated identities in postsocialist China, to enable those on the periphery
to criticize the center and comment on the failure of modernity, to foster a
strong sense of a distinctive local community that challenges any monolithic
accounts of Chineseness, or to provide youth with a noninstitutional language that allows them to explore an alternative cultural space.
Finally, on one hand, this essay recognizes a dialectical relationship
between the global and the local, which do not necessarily pose as cultural
polarities but are interpenetrating, interacting, and mutually signifying. For
example, in the field of popular music, Andy Bennett argues that far from
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Xue Cun’s Song and the Wave of Internet Songs in Local Languages
In China and elsewhere in the world, the production and dissemination of
popular music is inextricably bound up with the technology that makes it
possible. In 2000, the first online purchase of a popular song, enabled by digital audio technology, was successfully made in China.18 In 2001, Xue Cun’s
“The Northeasterners Are All Living Lei Fengs,” with a distinctive northeastern spin aided by Flash-­animation cybertechnology, arguably became
the first widely circulated Chinese online song. The song eulogizes the good
deeds of the Northeasterners through a synecdochic substitution of an ordinary working-­class or peasant Northeasterner for the entire population. In
a basic, mostly repetitive diatonic melody, the seventy-­five-­second song tells
a simple story: Mr. Zhang drives to the Northeast and gets injured in a car
accident. The driver who caused the accident flees the scene. Fortunately, a
Northeasterner helps out by taking Mr. Zhang to the hospital. After recovering, Mr. Zhang invites the Northeasterner for dinner to thank him, and
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subsuming distinctive local cultures into a single homogenized global culture, globalization may in fact enhance local differences.15 Similarly, Tony
Mitchell, drawing on Roland Robertson’s term glocalization, which involves
a simultaneous twofold process of “the universalization of particularism
and the particularization of universalism,” argues that “hip-­hop and rap
cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African American culture; it
has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking
local identity all over the world.”16 However, on the other hand, although
local-­language rap songs assert the value of pluralism and diversity and
defy the characterization of China as a unified, homogeneous nation-­state,
this essay problematizes the local identities constructed through copying
and imitation. The eager desire to compete with each other in asserting a
local identity might belie a general anxiety of placelessness in a dramatically globalized world. Therefore, these constructed local identities, which
form diversity within similarity, plurality within unity, and localization
within globalization, may turn out to be what Stuart Hall calls that more
“tricky version of ‘the local’ which operates within, and has been thoroughly
reshaped by ‘the global’ and operates largely within its logic.”17
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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the Northeasterner says, “We are all Northeasterners. The regional specialty
in our place is Korean Ginseng. And pork stewed with bean noodle. We
are all living Lei Fengs. We don’t have such a person in our place. How can
someone not help the injured after causing the accident? On the hills in our
place grow fungus mushrooms. That man is not a Northeasterner!”
In the song, typical Northeast Mandarin pronunciations such as yin for
ren (person) and zuyou for zhurou (pork) are integrated with characteristic
Northeast Mandarin words such as anmen neiga (we there, our place), words
for well-­known regional specialties such as gaolisen (Korean ginseng), and
words for local cuisine such as zuyou dun fentiao (pork stewed with bean
noodle). The Internet played a key role in making the song a national hit.
The singer-­songwriter Xue Cun, a dropout from Peking University (PKU),
wrote the song as early as 1995, but it was dismissed by record companies
at the time. In 2001, a PKU alumnus, Liu Lifeng, among others, made a
quirky Flash animation and uploaded it to a PKU-­hosted Web site, which
soon became the major source for the song’s dissemination among college
students, including diasporic students overseas. In 2002, Ying Da, also a
PKU alumnus, adopted the song as the theme song for his popular Northeast Mandarin sitcom A Family in the Northeast (Dongbei yijiaren, 2002).
Thus in 2003, the song’s final soliloquy “Cuihua, get me pickles” ranked
among the top three catchphrases among Chinese youth in a survey.19
As this chronology of the song’s success clearly shows, the song, although
written by a college dropout, was first appreciated and promoted by
university-­educated youth, particularly cultural elites from the most prestigious universities, such as PKU. Their (re-­)appreciation of noninstitutional
knowledge that lies beyond the scope of their formal education — for example, knowledge of local language and indigenous regional culture — cannot
be understood without the context of globalization. In his article “Local
Language in the Age of the Internet,” Li Rui expresses great consternation that the Internet would encourage the global dominance of hegemonic
English to the point that all other languages, including standard Chinese,
would be marginalized as local dialects and face the threat of elimination.
He cites Han Shaogong’s critically acclaimed novel Dictionary of Maqiao
(Maqiao cidian) as an admirable effort to demonstrate the complexity, richness, and liveliness of Chinese local languages and cultures.20 He writes, “In
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such an age of the Internet, under such circumstances, resisting formatting,
resisting the hegemonic control of the language of the center, insisting on
the independence of local dialects, reexamining the value and significance of
local dialects, and appealing for and establishing the equality of languages
are issues unavoidable not only for literature but also for everyone.”21 In
this light, Xue Cun’s song can be interpreted as resisting global or national
homogenization and celebrating diversity and pluralism. As Zhang Ning
vividly illustrates with a culinary metaphor, the younger Chinese generation
is fed up with the ketchup and French fries of the ubiquitous McDonald’s
and is now turning to indigenous regional peasant cuisines such as Cuihua’s
northeastern pickles for a fresh alternative.22 Subnational local languages
and cultures are reinvented as an unexpected and refreshing source of popular youth culture that Chinese youth are exploring on the Internet in the
new millennium.
Xue Cun’s song ushered in a trend of online songs rendered in local
languages. Reworked versions of popular songs, originally set in Standard
Mandarin, the dominant language for lyrics, are rampant on the Internet. For instance, Yang Chengang’s Internet hit “The Mouse Likes Rice”
(“Laoshu ai dami,” 2004) was rendered in numerous versions encompassing the seven major dialect groups. Taiwan pop superstar Zhou Jielun
(Jay Chou)’s “Nunchuks” (“Shuangjiegun,” 2001) was reworked as “The
Chongqing Peasant Version of ‘Nunchuks’ ” (“Shuangjiegun zhi Chong­qing
nongmin ban”) in Chongqing Mandarin and was ranked among the top
ten most-­searched dialect songs in 2004 on a baidu chart. Moreover, the rap
songs created by Internet-­savvy urban youth are primarily a form of digital
music. The rappers create songs on home computers with music software,
using sampling and beats downloaded from the Internet. Upon completion of these homemade, mostly raw pieces, they upload their demos onto
the Web. Sometimes accompanied by Flash-­animation versions, the songs
are disseminated mainly among local urban youth sharing the same native
dialect. Clearly, the Internet is the major venue for the production, circulation, and consumption of local-­language rap songs. It offers a largely unofficial cyberspace for Chinese youth to voice their discontent, frustration, and
rebellion against their parents’ culture and hierarchical systems. The next
section elaborates on this trend.
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
Addressing social issues is a prominent theme in Chinese local-­language rap
songs, as the following table illustrates.
Table 1. Social Issues in Chinese Local-­Language Rap Songs
Artist/Band Name
Pen Peng (Poom Poom)
Song Title and Year
Local Language
“Go Back Home,
Shanghai Wu
a critique of pop stardom
Peasants” (“Huiqu
and the entertainment
zhongtian,” 2003)
Jihetuxing (Geometric
“A Turbulent Day in
Suzhou Wu
a condemnation of school
School” (“Xuesheng
fengyun,” 2004)
Hao Yu
“College Evening Study
Northeastern Mandarin
a snapshot of the chaos
Room” (“Daxue zixishi,”
and disorder of college
students’ evenings of
Koushuijuntuan (Saliva
“Someone with Too
Hangzhou Wu
everyday urban
Much Swagger”
(“Ren’erdeng,” 2001)
Hei Bang (Hi-­Bomb)
“No. 87 Avenue Joffre”
Shanghai Wu
childhood nostalgia
(“Xiafeilu de bashiqi
hao,” 2004)
“Everything Is Being
Guangzhou Cantonese
a protest against
Dismantled; Cantonese
restrictions on Cantonese
Must Not Be Dismantled”
in local media
(“Mat dou caak,
gwongzauwaa m hoji
caak,” 2010)
Yin San’r (In 3)
“Beijing Evening News”
Beijing Mandarin
a bashing of mainstream
(“Beijing wanbao,” 2008)
Hei Sa (Black Head)
“Fuck Japan” (“Liansi
Shaanxi Xi’an Mandarin anti-­Japanese nationalism
xiaoriben,” 2003)
Zhu Xiaolei
“Hello, Chen Shuibian”
Partly Nanjing Mandarin political commentary
(“Nihao, Chen Shuibian,”
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An Alternative Cultural Space
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Sometimes the young rappers’ social comments and opinions are so biting and polemical that they are likely to arouse controversy and debate. For
example, in his “Qingdao Bumpkins” (“Qingdao laobazi,” 2004), the then
seventeen-­year-­old MC Sha Zhou unabashedly expressed his strong dislike
of the peasant workers’ migrating to Qingdao, using derogative local words
such as laobazi (country bumpkins) and bæ biaola (stop being a sucker or
an idiot). Sha Zhou complains about the urban chaos and moral decline
brought by the migrant workers, such as the salon prostitutes from rural
Jimo County. He is outspoken about what is going on around him and what
he thinks about it. Yet his strong opinions were perceived as offensive and
immediately evoked controversy in the local community after the song was
uploaded. Some migrant workers felt so demeaned and insulted when they
first heard the song in an Internet café that they called the local newspaper
to find out who the singer was and demand a public apology from him.23
Thus when we compare these local-­language rap songs to the mainstream
popular songs largely rendered in the Putonghua Mandarin of mainland
China, we find that the lyrics of the former are usually about more collective
social issues and not about personal romantic love, while the latter are largely
dominated by love songs, although sometimes nationalistic or propaganda
songs are also popular.24 In this sense, dialect rap songs can be viewed as
a conscious reaction of young rappers to the prevalence of pop songs. The
Shanghai rap duo Hi-­Bomb said in an interview, “The domestic music market is unanimously those love songs, yet actually young people need more
styles to choose from, and our album provides just such an alternative for
fans.”25 Sichuan Chengdu rapper Li Sui (aka Sleepycat) also told me that
he was sick of those saccharine love songs; embracing the genuine, “keep-­
it-­real” attitude of rap, he characterized pop love songs as fake and pretentious.26 This reaction to mainstream pop music, of course, is not confined
to the relatively new genre of rap. As early as the mid-­1980s, Cui Jian, the
godfather of Chinese rock, had viewed rock-­and-­roll ideology as an expression of resistance and of opposition to the “superficial, empty, soft, and feminine” pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan and to the popular music
industry in general.27 A play That Night, Let’s Do Music (Nayiye, women gao
yinyue), first staged in June 2009 in Beijing, parodies a Grammy-­style music
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
My music is the only way for me to vent out my feelings, can’t imagine
where I would be without it. . . . I gave up that suffocating place, where I
felt depressed, trapped in a prison; everyone is doing the same thing, and
that place deprived me of the right of being me. Even if the price is to give
up that so-­called diploma, I don’t believe a piece of paper can really prove
anything. What a joke.32
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award gala and satirizes evil practices in the contemporary pop music industry. Nevertheless, although romantic love is usually regarded as a universal
theme of pop music, love songs experienced a decade-­long struggle with
government institutions before they were officially recognized by the state
in the late 1980s as a legitimate musical genre in mainland China.28 But now
that formal institutions have largely accepted free love as a sphere in which
youth can be assertive, Standard Mandarin nevertheless remains the dominant language by far for romantic expression, and so using local language
provides access to another sphere that is not yet defined and sanctioned by
formal institutions. Local-­language rap opens up and constructs an alternative, subcultural space in which youth can actively and assertively voice their
views about society and their own lives rather than passively submit to their
parents’ culture and hierarchical institutions.29
Among other symbols of authority, the “notorious” Chinese educational
system is a major institution against which disaffected youth rebel. Most
rappers can hardly be regarded as high academic achievers. Both Dong
Lei, the founder of the Hangzhou band Saliva Regiment (2001 – 3), and Sha
Zhou, the Qingdao MC, dropped out in their first year of technical high
school. MC Webber (Wang Bo), one of the founding members of the Beijing
band Yin Tsang, quit school at the age of fifteen. Shanghai rapper Sun Bin
(aka Lotz) never liked school, and his formal education ended with elementary school.30 Chengdu rapper Li Sui, a senior high school student in 2009,
resisted the university entrance exam by writing a rap composition in one of
the mock exams.31 Instead of allowing themselves to be ostracized for incorrect thoughts or actions, these youngsters showed agency and subjectivity in
making their decision to leave school voluntarily. Regarding rap as a powerful form of expression and empowerment, Sha Zhou raps in the song “Why
I Sing” (“Weishenme gechang”) on his debut album,
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You lost your fucking words so you say I made you lose your mind
You threw away my bag, I don’t think I can forget that
I got issues with you because you never let me switch chairs
How do you expect me not to talk dirty when you always seat me next
to a trash can

You ripped up my paper for “plagiarizing” on an obviously open notes
Look at your bitch-­ass self
Fucking with me just because you’re menopausal, go home and fuck
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He did soon find that rapping was another path to fulfillment, something that demonstrated his talents and self-­worth, particularly after the big
commercial success of his first album. Aside from the dropouts, even those
college students who got their diploma have a strong opinion about Chinese education. Chen Haoran of In 3, himself a graduate from the Central
Conservatory Academy, similarly blamed Chinese education for discouraging individualism, blunting creativity, and exerting uniformity.33 And in his
group’s powerful song “Hello Teacher,” Chen launched a fierce denouncement of his middle-­school teacher and his education.
The song starts with a sample from Wang Shuo’s banned film I’m Your
Daddy (Wo shi ni baba, 1996), adapted from his novella of the same title.
The sound clip is about a conflict between the son Ma Che and his teacher
in the classroom, which is triggered when Ma questions the ridiculousness
and implausibility of the revolutionary rhetoric in the textbook the teacher
is reading: a captured communist soldier stares at his nationalist executor
with his eyes simultaneously conveying three emotions: fury, optimism, and
contempt. Completely blind to the illogic in this typical piece of rhetoric in
a Maoist hero narrative, the teacher scolds Ma for behaving pompously and
asks him to get out of the classroom. Refusing to leave, Ma daringly confronts his teacher, and the whole class becomes chaotic. Losing his temper,
the rapper unleashes a torrent of filthy language, venting his years of pent-­up
anger in a hysterical and furious voice.
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
A prominent feature of In 3’s lyrics, as in many other dialect rap songs,
is their trademark use of local expletives and slang, such as their pet phrase,
the Beijing curse word (ni) ya (literally “daughter of a bitch”).35 One of
Pierre Bourdieu’s main theses is that the educational system as an institution
plays a decisive role in the promotion, standardization, legitimization, and
imposition of an official language and that the dialectical relation between
the educational system and the labor market conspires to devalue those local
dialects that are thus relegated to the status of patois and are often dismissed
as uneducated, vulgar, and coarse.36 Here, the rapper deliberately uses taboo
language, forbidden and censored in schools, to launch a discursive revenge
against his teachers and the educational system. Therefore, as a noninstitutional language that has long been excluded and expunged from formal
education, mass media, and mainstream society, local language provides a
rhetoric of social status and identity outside the categories defined by these
hierarchical institutions. In this sense, local language becomes associated
with an oppositional youth subculture.37
Some local-­language rap songs, peppered with local gang argot and street
slang, depict a gangsterish, violent world, a world that is largely excluded
from the formal school curriculum. For instance, in the band’s hit song “A
Mooched Meal” (“Jian’er fan/Jiẽ er vẽ,” 2002), set to the “Can-­Can” tune
from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Dong Lei rhymes in
Hangzhou Wu about eating in a restaurant with no intention to pay.
Loosen my belt and I start eating. I ain’t got no money to meet no ends,
so let me pretend. Hey, go get the manager. My stomach’s broke, and it’s
all your fault, son! So what are you gonna do!? (Pay me son!) One more
word and I’m wrecking your business. Keep eating my time and you’ll
eat my fist. Son, don’t blame me, I’m just an OG. Messing with a punk
like you isn’t even a thing.
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Everything I committed outside you wouldn’t dare think about, bitch
Two minutes into class, excuse my interruption, but I’ve already cut
you off
Never checked my homework, everything’s just a motherfucking two
Apart from the gym teacher, you’re all sons of bitches.34
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The dense use of local words and slang such as bawangcan/bahuangcẽ (a
despot’s meal [unpaid by force]), gaoqiniansan/gaoqiniẽsẽ (mess around), and
biansanfan/piẽsẽvẽ (to beat someone) conveys a strong sense of hooliganism
or chivalry in the jianghu underworld, a particular entity hardly reducible
to the official mainstream society where Putonghua is spoken. Similarly,
Chen Xu’s “The Northeast Specialty Is Not Underworld” (“Dongbei techan
bushi heishehui,” 2004) in Northeast Mandarin seems at first to refute the
regional stereotype, in line with the song’s title, but ultimately reinforces the
stereotype with its dense use of violent and aggressive local slang and idioms
pronounced in the distinct Northeast Mandarin intonation, for example,
shuadadao (play tricks), danlian (one-­to-­one fight), xiaoshu buxiu bu zhiliu’r/
ren bu xiuli genjiujiu’r (a tree wouldn’t be straight without pruning/a person
would be arrogant without fixing).
These unconventional songs — widely circulated online and energetically
performed at nightclubs — generate the “emotional energies” among the
youth audience that promote peer group solidarity and form a collective
subcultural youth identity.38 Chen Haoran of In 3 found that the power of
hip-­hop is in getting people together and uniting them.39And their provocative song “Hello Teacher” undoubtedly provides a form of cathartic release
as well as empowerment for numerous disgruntled, oppressed students in
China. The song was overwhelmingly well received online and has greatly
helped to launch the rap trio’s rise to underground stardom in Beijing. As
of September 2009, the video had been viewed over one hundred thousand
times on YouTube since it was posted in September 2008. Similarly, once
Dong Lei uploaded the song “A Mooched Meal” onto several Hangzhou-­
based campus networks in 2002, local young fans enthusiastically raved
about it.40 Chen Xu’s “The Northeast Specialty Is Not Underworld” also
ranked number one on a baidu chart of the top ten most-­searched-­for Internet songs in 2004.
Although rap is a male-­dominated field in China and elsewhere in the
world, a small number of young Chinese women have taken up rapping
to challenge this male dominance and the patriarchal view that women
are not suited for performing this style of music.41 “Fall Under Your Spell”
(“Xinliao ni di xie,” 2006), a song by the Wuhan female singer Duan Sisi,
relentlessly criticizes evil practices in the entertainment industry. MC Lucy’s
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“Shanghai KTV Girls” (“Shanghai K jie,” 2005) is a vitriolic denunciation
of the escort girls working in KTV (Karaole TV) bars and nightclubs, who
seek only to take advantage of men for their money. Although their criticism is no less forceful than that of their male counterparts, they were first
introduced to the rap genre mainly by their male rapper friends. Since the
males are the mentors and enlighteners, the females become identified with
this male-­gendered musical form and its associated masculine ideals such as
competitiveness and aggressiveness. We can discern such masculinized discourse explicitly in the song “Shanghai KTV Girls.” At the beginning of the
song, the male MC niggAslim shouts in English, “This song iz from me and
my sister MC Lucy, and dedicated to all da real azz hoez in SHANGHAI
CITY!!” Throughout the song, the persona of the greedy, materialistic KTV girl that MC Lucy plays is a voice to be ridiculed, condemned,
negated, and maligned. Trying to bring the wild girl back to social order,
the female rapper thus assumes a patriarchal stance and joins in her male
partner’s condemnation: “shoot all ’em bitchez.” As much as the wild girl’s
own voice is silenced and obscured in MC Lucy’s song, we hear subjective
female voices defining their femininity in “Yangzhou Crazy Girls” (“Yangzhou fengnüyuan,” 2006), which is sung by a group of five girls in Yangzhou
Mandarin. The rappers are identified by their distinctive Net ID names, for
example, duwu me wudu (poisonless skull) and shichong erjiao (spoiled and
doted). By referring to themselves as fengnü in the song title, they make a
self-­conscious statement that distances them from socially prescribed feminine values. The song starts with a declaration that imitates revolutionary
jargon yet is couched in a nonserious tone: “Wherever there is oppression,
there will be resistance. In a dark night in which you can’t see your six fingers, we finally break the feudal cage.” Although at one point in the body of
the song the singers try to legitimize their gender identity by denying that of
the androgynous Super Girl Li Yuchun, whom they call a lady-­boy (renyao)
and later “a man,” their constructed femininity is far from conventional
and orthodox. They are hedonistic and seductive; they carelessly nickname
a friend’s husband “Mao Zedong’s elder brother,” “Mao Zechang” (which
sounds like “Mao zhichang” in the Yangzhou dialect, meaning “has long
hair on the body”); and they boldly use a plethora of local expletives and
violent words, such as diao (penis, fuck) and erbixian/apiφiẽ (idiot, sick). And
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Life’s just like that, so why be so serious?
Falling in and out of love is tiring, isn’t it? How can roosters lay eggs?
Even a smuggler (Lai Changxing) can easily find a wife, even a
president (Chen Shuibian) can be prosecuted for corruption
Men can still be Super Girl, women can still be Emperor
How can the world be so fair?
No matter how heartbroken you are, won’t you still get over it?
Don’t be so mad, don’t be so stuck on it
Dump those useless guys; ditch those clingy girls
All that “love at first sight,” “falling head over heels,” “loving with all
your heart,” it’s all a fucking facade
Learn from Marxist philosophy, nothing is static
Let’s start the revolution, no matter what the others do or say
I want to be my own destiny43
As an epitome of rap music as a contested arena, the song became highly
controversial in the local community immediately after it was uploaded.
Undoubtedly, the song challenges the patriarchal social order, established
mainstream norms, and high official culture. As to be expected, it was
mainly those cultural authorities, cultural elites, and elders who attacked
the song for being decadent, profane, and vulgar.44 They were particularly
upset by the girls’ use of local dirty words in a public space. This transgressive speech act was even criticized for denigrating the Yangzhou image.45
However, as Ove Sernhede argues, “One aspect of youth culture is, and
always has been, the breaking of taboos.”46 The girls’ defiant attitude also
won them avid patronage from hip-­hop fans like themselves.
Nonetheless, the rhetoric of resistance and opposition, which is characteristic of hip-­hop music, or more generally of youth culture, often manifests
complexity, complicity, and ambivalence. In demystifying the “keep-­it-­real”
ethos of rap in the United States, Samuel Watkins and Imani Perry, among
others, point out that as street credibility has become the selling point for
corporate rap music, ironically, the hip-­hop celebrities have to stay “hood”
and live out the narratives of gangster lives in order to authenticate a valo-
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in the end, they send a “teachy but not preachy” message of a carefree, transcendent attitude toward love affairs and the arbitrary, irrational world:42
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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rized and fabulously hyped portrait of ghetto life.47 Tricia Rose, in a more
systematic way, explores some of the most crucial issues, such as violence,
sexism, race, and market manipulation, in the polarized debates of resistance and oppression in US hip-­hop.48 Like any other binary framework,
the resistance-­oppression dualism is dialectic and dynamic. What looks like
resistance from one perspective can be viewed as oppression from another
perspective. Take In 3’s “Hello Teacher” as an example: as much as this song
resists the oppressive education system, the expletive-­laden verbal attack
on a female schoolteacher is insulting, demeaning, and degrading toward
women, reinforcing a kind of gender oppression that conforms to the notorious charges of sexism and misogyny laid against hip-­hop. Furthermore,
some forms of resistance imply or breed other forms of compromise and
submission. For instance, the very action of the five Yangzhou girls’ posting
anonymously belies their apparent fearlessness and rebellion, although one
might hail Internet anonymity for providing a platform for self-­expression.
Similarly, Duan Sisi commented that she hesitated quite a while before putting her song online for fear of possible attack, until she decided to use a new
Net ID. MC Lucy changed the original beat of her song “Shanghai KTV
Girls” to a less harsh one after one of her friends warned her of the image
issue. Such self-­censorship is not limited to female rappers, of course. Cao
Shi and Wang Daye of Xi’an’s Black Head later revealed that they processed
their voices to make them unrecognizable when making their widely circulated online song “Fuck Japan.” Moreover, probably because of its extreme
nationalistic sentiment, this song did not appear on the band’s first released
album, Wake Up Earlier than the Rooster (Qi de bi ji hai zao, 2007).49
It is quite noticeable that these songs with counterhegemonic potentials,
although they made the rappers instant cyber heroes, were altered for or
excluded from their debut record releases, which, compared with the largely
uncensored Internet musical space, normally puts the artists under greater
scrutiny. In 2002, the Little Lion, half of the Hi-­Bomb duo, uploaded a
demo of “No. 1,” a song performed in Shanghai Wu that outspokenly
expresses a self-­empowered swagger in filthy language. The success of the
demo through downloads eventually led to the pair signing a contract with
EMI.50 However, during the production of their first album A-­Yo Hi-­Bomb
(Xiha di yi bang, 2004), the duo were forced to rewrite this hit “dirty” song
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more than twenty times in “clean” Putonghua, until they “eventually vented
their frustrations in the form of lyrics, spouting their anger at their recording label into their music.”51 Chen Xu, after signing with a record label,
deleted some of the violent, aggressive lines when preparing the “official
version” of the song “The Northeast Specialty Is Not Underworld” for his
album released in 2005.52 MC Sha Zhou did not include the controversial
“Qingdao Bumpkins” on his first CD in 2004. In my interview with him on
June 3, 2009, Sha Zhou, who was establishing a music company at the time,
said he was now mature enough not to offend the public and would rather
let the newer singers in his company handle sensitive themes. Although the
rapper tried to maintain his artistic independence by not contracting with
a record company, he consciously catered to mainstream taste by incorporating more love-­themed songs in the albums he later recorded. The compromise between rap music’s position in the marketplace and its function
as a potentially counterhegemonic cultural resource is best illustrated by
the story behind the first Shanghai rap album, released in 2005, an album
coproduced by Sony-­BMG/Xinsuo Records and Shanghaining.com, the
major institution promoting Shanghai rap at the time. Although the album
is entitled Say What You Gotta Say (You sha jiang sha / you sa gang sa), the
inside story is far different. The rapper SRC was asked to rewrite portions
of his furious lyrics dealing with such sensitive topics as official corruption
and peasant immigration in his song “I Don’t Always Feel Good” (“Wo lao
fa shuang / ŋu lao vəsuang”). MC Lucy’s “Shanghai KTV Girls” underwent
a more radical overhaul: the original lyrics were completely rewritten so
that they described the daily life of a fun-­loving, fashionable young urbanite, and the revamped song was released with a new title, “Shanghai Cute
Girls” (“Shanghai dia nannan/nønø”).53 Young Chinese artists are subject
to manipulation, mediation, and (self-­) censorship by powerful mainstream
tastes, capital, the state, and record companies. Their authenticity and integrity are challenged when they become involved with commercialization and
institutionalization. For the nascent Chinese rap music industry, the future
still looms large.
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
The strong social commentary and subcultural sensibility of Chinese rap
draw on a generic feature of rap music as a form of resistance against authority and a vehicle for furthering social and political purposes. Another prominent feature of rap music — which, as a genre, has always been obsessed
with locality and spatiality — is the articulation of a collective local identity rendered in local language and slang. As Murray Forman observes, “A
highly detailed and consciously defined spatial awareness is one of the key
factors distinguishing rap music and hip-­hop from the many other cultural
and subcultural youth formations.”54 Prioritizing the significance of hood,
ghetto, inner-­city, and posse in US rap acts, Forman examines regional
differences in style, musicality, theme, and discourse between East Coast,
West Coast, “Dirty South,” and Seattle rap and hip-­hop.55 Set in a different
local context, Chinese local-­language rap articulates a comparably intense
sense of place and locality, which functions as a local cultural resource for
Chinese urban youth to construct a musicalized local identity.56 As noted,
many of these songs manifest young urbanites’ pride in their home cities
and celebrate their urban roots. This theme is conspicuously and abundantly
evidenced in such song titles as Saliva Regiment’s “Hangzhou Is a Good
Place” (“Hangzhou shi ge hao difang,” 2002/2003), MC Yil Ning’s “Made in
Shanghai” (2004), Black Head’s “Shaanxi Delicious Food” (“Shaanxi meishi,” 2007), and Run Tu’s “I’m a Chongqinger” (“Wo shi Chongqingzai,”
2006). Drawing on a keen sense of what Forman calls the “extreme local,”
these rap songs are replete with explicit citations and references to specific
local landmarks, specialties, cuisines, trademark streets, and other cultural
sites with local significance. Furthermore, as Martin Stokes points out, “the
‘places’ constructed through music involve notions of difference and social
boundary.”57 If Sha Zhou constructs his superior identity as a Qingdaonese
by setting up social and moral boundaries between the urban and the rural
in his “Qingdao Bumpkins,” a highly privileged identity as a Shanghainese
is articulated through an implicit comparison between Shanghai and the
rest of the larger national community in PZ-­FRAN’s “Our Shanghai” (“Ala
Shanghai,” 2004). Asserting a unique relationship between Shanghai and
China, the rapper rhymes, “We’re the upper corner of China,” in which
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Celebration of “Distinct” Local Identity and Local Community
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the local expression shangzhijiao/zãtsako (upper corner) refers to the fashionable, expensive neighborhoods in the former French Concession in western
Shanghai, as contrasted with the “lower corner,” the lower-­or working-­
class neighborhoods in other parts of the city.58 In addition, defending the
reputation of one’s hometown can be a strong motivation for making a rap.
For instance, Chen Xu’s “The Northeast Specialty Is Not Underworld” was
written in 2004 when he indignantly read a story about a number of non-­
Northeastern bandits imitating the Northeast Mandarin accent to carry out
a robbery.59 From the perspective of the rapper, the song is a Northeasterner’s refutation of (non-­Northeasterners’) stereotypes of Northeasterners,
no matter that the song ends up reinforcing this clichéd image.
These rap songs in local languages are infused with distinctive knowledge and sensibilities that originate from the particular place in which the
languages were acquired. Take two songs as examples: D-­Evil’s “Squeeze
in the Packed Bus” (“Ji gongjiao,” 2007) in Nanjing Mandarin depicts a
mundane urban experience of taking the bus, which is always packed, in
Nanjing. Besides the use of distinctive Nanjing Mandarin words, the lyrics
integrate a range of locally embedded images and sounds, for instance, the
recorded voice from the machine for swiping the bus pass, the bus driver’s
pet phrase to keep order, and comments on the local media celebrities who
do not have to take the bus. In a similar vein, Sha Zhou’s “Hang Out in the
Zhanqiao Port” (“Guang Zhanqiao,” 2004) narrates in authentic Qingdao
Mandarin his one-­day experience of hanging out in a local place of interest,
Zhanqiao. The lyrics draw on everyday knowledge gained through living
in Qingdao, for example, taking bus number five to Zhanqiao and spoofing
a 2008 Olympics propaganda song, “Welcome to Qingdao,” whose video
was shown daily on the local buses. Coupled with the Qingdao Mandarin
words siaomer/siaoge (the form of address for a young girl and a young fellow, respectively) and zhenjingla (damn, that is surprising), the rap elicits an
instinctive emotional response, and by evoking an intimate familiarity with
everyday life in the local community it offers local citizens the pleasure of
These lighthearted and inoffensive rap songs celebrating locality may
sound mainstream when compared with the more hard-­edged songs that
carry an underground sensibility. In fact, some Western media critics, over-
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looking Chinese rap songs that feature the latter theme, criticize Chinese
rap for its absence of subversion and rebellion. For example, Ralph Frammolino uses Yin Tsang’s “In Beijing” (“Zai Beijing,” 2004) to dismiss Chinese hip-­hop as “tamed,” a genre that has become the “unofficial music of
the Communist government.”60 Daniel Beekman, although recognizing the
antisocial message in In 3’s lyrics, finds it puzzling that the underground
band did not oppose the Beijing Olympics but rather sang the “patriotic”
paean “Beijing Welcomes You Back” (“Beijing dou huanying ni huilai,”
2008), which is in line with mainstream propaganda.61 However, these opinions are misleading because they presuppose a simplistic binary framework
in which youth subculture and mainstream society are in a fixed, clear-­cut
oppositional relationship. It is true that sometimes young rappers have to
compromise when they encounter the music industry and mainstream audiences; however, their songs of local pride may be better understood as converging and overlapping with mainstream discourse rather than surrendering to or collaborating with it. Moreover, it is important to point out that the
above-­mentioned media reports citing the two songs that “glorify national
pride” made a synecdochic substitution of the local for the national.62 The
songs are, after all, eulogies of their home city by the youth of Beijing, and,
in this sense, are no different from the hometown boosterism of urban youth
in other parts of China.63
These local-­language songs are part of a larger countermovement promoting the use of local language in local media to assert the identity of a
local community “as a site of distinctive cultural production, not simply as
a venue for transmission of a larger, national culture.”64 This movement
also seeks to reimagine distinct local communities, which have been insufficiently represented and mis-­imagined by the use of the single Standard
Mandarin. Except for those controversial rap songs that may split the local
community between younger and older generations, most local-­language
songs celebrating locality draw another kind of boundary: they include both
the youth and mainstream audiences in the local community who share the
same native mother tongue, while excluding those outsiders who do not
belong to the community. Therefore, these songs facilitate bonding among
local audiences and thus foster a sense of local community. The commercial
success of dialect songs in the local music market, which has been saturated
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with Standard Mandarin songs, testifies to the need for reimagining distinct local communities. For example, Sha Zhou’s first album sold fifteen
thousand copies (RMB 15 per CD) in two weeks in Qingdao in 2004. The
ringtone of the Nanjing-­Mandarin rap “Eat Wonton” (“He hundun”) was
downloaded 16,252 times (RMB 0.5 per time) by local Jiangsu China Unicom users in about ten days in 2005.65 Moreover, rap songs were frequently
integrated into regional media, including newspapers, thus reaching local
mainstream audiences. For instance, Saliva Regiment’s “Hangzhou Is a
Good Place” served as the music for the ending credits of the local hit news
talk show Aliutou Talks News (Aliutou shuo xinwen, 2004 – present) rendered
in Hangzhou Wu. The Shanghai local newspaper Shanghai Times (Shenji­
ang fuwu daobao) sponsored and organized local rappers who produced the
single “Love Shanghai for Ninety-­Nine Times” (“Jiushijiu ci lian’ai aishang
Shanghai”) in Shanghai Wu as an event to promote local identity in 2006.
Dialect raps thus contribute to the formation of a soundscape that fosters
a strong sense of local community and constructs a distinct local identity.
Other contributors to this local-­language soundscape include telenovelas
and sitcoms that tell stories about the ordinary lives of local residents, films
dubbed in local languages that address the social problems of the local community and convey the popular opinions of its members, and talk shows that
narrate the news of most concern and interest to local audiences.66
Nevertheless, although local-­language rap songs assert the value of pluralism and diversity and defy the characterization of China as a unified,
homogeneous nation-­state, there is a problem with this construction of local
identities, namely, the underlying similarities beneath their apparent distinctiveness. Take Xue Cun’s song as an example: it was so popular that it
was reworked in other dialects as a way for urban youth to eulogize the Lei
Feng – like good deeds of citizens in their home cities and thus to celebrate
their local identities. One example is the lyrics of Ye Zhenhong’s (aka Ye Pi)
Jiangsu Zhangjiagang Wu version in 2006: “We are all Zhangjiagangers.
The regional specialty in our place is the Toulou pie baked in a double furnace. And wonton stuffed with Chinese chives. We are all living Lei Fengs.
We don’t have such a person in our place. How can someone not help the
injured after causing the accident? The people in our place have consciences.
That man is not a native here!”
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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This song proved instantly popular among netizens from the singer’s
hometown.67 However, its celebration of the local Zhangjiagang identity
was largely achieved by simply replacing the Northeastern regional specialties named in Xue Cun’s original song with those of Zhangjiagang. In
other words, local identity is constructed by way of mimicry, imitation, and
derivation. Although in some instances, as Liao Ping-­hui concludes in his
study of cultural criticism columns published in the literary supplements of
Taiwanese newspapers, “the local can put the global into use in the form
of ‘neocolonial’ mimicry, in the mode of cultural bricolage or reproduction, that helps constitute multiple lines of invention and transformation,”
the local identity constructed here is problematic.68 Competition among
regional community members striving to assert a local identity might belie
a rising anxiety that it is becoming increasingly difficult to define locality in
a dramatically globalized world. Despite the different urban narratives these
rap songs construct, we can find the same or similar patterns behind many
of them. For instance, rap songs that praise the rappers’ hometowns almost
always list the local tourist attractions and culinary specialties. Copying and
imitating each other is rampant. Or consider the song titles: there is a long
list of songs with titles such as “Made in Shanghai,” “Made in Wenzhou,”
“Made in Jinyun,” to name just a few. These similarities call to mind Theo­
dor Adorno’s term pseudo-­individualization, which he defines in a different
context as “the stylization of the ever-­identical framework” or “the standardization of its own deviation.”69 In examining the ambiguous role played
by local language in contemporary Chinese media, Edward Gunn alerts us
to the fact that “the assertion of local languages in the same forms of media
otherwise dominated by standard language might have suggested the voice
of the subaltern in all its heterogeneity. Then again, its authenticity could
be evoked only to demonstrate its own disunity, its hierarchies, its need to
be rescued from its limitations or condemned for them and reeducated.”70
In the phenomenon of Chinese local-­language rap, we encounter rather the
underlying “homogeneity” of “heterogeneous” local identity: one “local” is
tantamount to any other, and the central distinction is between “the local”
and the national standard. In this sense, the invocation of local identity may
be deictic but not substantive. At this moment, the discourse of the local in
mainland China is not yet a fully formed, explicitly politicized discourse
positions 22:1
Winter 2014
I am grateful to Andrew Jones, Edward Gunn, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments for the revisions.
1. The controversy over the relationship between dialect and language is a global and often
politicized problem. This essay mainly uses the phrase “local languages” for the Chinese
term fangyan. For a historical study of standard languages and dialects in the context of
European nation building, see Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Pro­
gramme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 51 – 63, 93 – 100. For
the terminological dilemma faced in the Chinese linguistic context, see John DeFrancis,
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984),
53 – 58.
2. Cui Jian’s “It’s Not That I Don’t Understand” (“Bushi wo bu mingbai,” 1987), Zang
Tianshuo’s “Let’s Chat” (“Shuoshuo,” 1995), and Dou Wei’s “Advanced Animal” (“Gaoji
dongwu,” 1994) are sometimes credited as being the first compositions in China to incorporate rap into a primarily rock-­music style. Yet the music critic Li Wan dismissed Cui Jian’s
song, for example, as being merely a version of the traditional, folk kuaiban(shu) performance, in which the performers recite lines rhythmically to the beat of bamboo clappers
that they hold. See Li Wan, “Rap, shuode xiaqu ma?” (“The Prospect of Rap in China”),
Dushu (Reading) 5 (1994): 85 – 88. Similarly, an anonymous reviewer is critical of a 1994
rap mixtape for its lyrical incoherence and incomprehensibility. See “Daoban: Guoyu rap
zhuanji” (“Pirated Copy: A Rap Album in the National Language”), Yinxiang shijie (Audio
and Video World) 3 (1995): 18.
3. A couple of hip-­hop scholars have mentioned in passing the use of multiple dialects in Chinese rap songs, without delving into detailed analysis. For example, Jeff Chang describes
this “unusual” linguistic feature in an annual “Iron Mic” rap battle in Shanghai in 2007:
“One rapper spits out words in a distinctive Beijing accent, scolding the other for not speaking proper Mandarin. His opponent from Hong Kong snaps back to the beat in a trilingual
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on regional autonomy, politics, and factionalism.71 As Stuart Hall argues,
although globalization has “led to a strengthening of ‘local’ allegiances and
identities within nation-­states,” what may emerge is what he calls a more
“tricky version of ‘the local’ which operates within, and has been thoroughly
reshaped by, ‘the global’ and operates largely within its logic.”72 Thus the
“distinct” local identities that are promoted and celebrated in Chinese local-­
language rap songs may turn out to be examples of diversity within conformity, pluralism within unity, heterogeneity within homogeneity, and localization within globalization after all.
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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torrent of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin, dissing the Beijing rapper for not representing the people.” See Jeff Chang, “It’s a Hip Hop World,” Foreign Policy 163 (November/
December 2007): 58. Similarly, the Fulbright scholar Angela Steele made a brief film entitled “Language and Chinese Rap,” including interviews with several rappers, as part of
her series of research reports on the Chinese hip-­hop scene mainly during 2007 and 2008,
YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsZPFAjWysA (accessed May 2, 2013).
4. Jeroen de Kloet, “Cosmopatriot Contaminations,” in Cosmopatriots: On Distant Belongings
and Close Encounters, ed. Jeroen de Kloet and Edwin Jurriens (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007),
133 – 53.
5. Ibid., 138 and 133, respectively.
6. Ibid., 140.
7. Ralph Frammolino, “Chinese Find a Way to Tame Hip-­Hop,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2004; Daniel Beekman, “Beijing Hip-­Hop Trio Hopes Olympics Will Help Pick Up
the Beat,” Seattle Times, June 14, 2008. In addition, Anouska Komlosy even identifies the
“socialist” agenda of a Yunnan rap band, Gumbo, without much elaboration, in her article
“Yunnanese Sounds: Creativity and Alterity in the Dance and Music Scenes of Urban Yunnan,” China: An International Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 44 – 68.
8. For a detailed discussion of the dakou generation and Chinese rock culture since the mid-­
1990s, see Jeroen de Kloet, “Popular Music and Youth in Urban China: The Dakou Generation,” China Quarterly 183 (September 2005): 609 – 26.
9. Jimmy Wang, “Now Hip-­Hop, Too, Is Made in China,” New York Times, January 23, 2009;
“The Young and the Restless in China,” Frontline, PBS, 2008, written and directed by Sue
Williams, distributed by PBS Video.
10. Ian Condry, “Yellow B-­Boys, Black Culture, and Hip-­Hop in Japan: Toward a Transnational Cultural Politics of Race,” positions 15, no. 3 (2007): 637 – 69.
11. Ibid., 648.
12. An important study in this respect is Murray Forman, The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space,
and Place in Rap and Hip-­Hop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
13. Timothy Craig and Richard King, eds., Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002).
14. For the politics of language in Mao’s era, see Michael Schoenhals, Doing Things with Words
in Chinese Politics, Center for Chinese Studies Research Monographs 41 (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1992); Rudolf Wagner, “Zhonggong
1940 – 1953 nian jianli zhengyu zhengwen de zhengce dalüe” (“An Overview of the CCP
Policies to Establish an Orthodox Language and Discourse from 1940 to 1953”), in Wenyi
lilun yu tongsu wenhua (Literary Theory and Popular Culture), ed. Peng Xiaoyan (Taipei:
Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan Zhongguo Wenzhe Yanjiusuo Choubeichu, 1999), 11 – 38; Fengyuan
Ji, Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao’s China (Honolulu: University of
Hawai’i Press, 2004); and Ban Wang, ed., Words and Their Stories: Essays on the Language
positions 22:1
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of the Chinese Revolution (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011). For a study of language and
politics in contemporary China, including the distinction between everyday language and
official language, see Perry Link, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 234 – 348. For citations, Wang Shuo and Lao
Xia, Meiren zeng wo menghanyao (A Beauty Presents Me with a Sleeping Potion) (Wuhan:
Changjiang Wenyi Chubanshe, 2000), 209. Yu Jian, “Shige zhi she de ying yu ruan — shige
yanjiu cao’an: Guanyu dangdai shige de lianglei yuyan xiangdu” (“The Hard and the Soft of
the Tongue of Poetry — A Draft of Poetry Study: On Two Different Directions in the Language of Contemporary Poetry”), in Jujue yinyu: Zongpi shouji, pinglun, fangtan (Refusal of
Metaphor: Brown Notebook, Criticism, Interviews) (Kunming: Yunnan Renmin Chubanshe,
2004), 137.
15. Andy Bennett, Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity, and Place (New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2000), 54.
16. Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London: Sage, 1992),
100; Tony Mitchell, ed., Global Noise: Rap and Hip-­Hop outside the USA (Middletown, CT:
Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 1 – 2.
17. Stuart Hall, “Culture, Community, Nation,” Cultural Studies 7, no. 3 (1993): 354.
18. Shen Wenyu, “Woguo diyizhi wangluo gequ xiaoshou chenggong” (“The First Online Song
Sells Successfully”), Beijing wanbao (Beijing Evening News), February 22, 2002.
19. Chen Si and Yang Changzheng, “Qingshaonian ‘liuxingyu’ xianxiang diaocha baogao”
(“Survey on Youth’s Catchy Expressions”), Zhongguo qingnian yanjiu (China Youth Study) 2
(2003): 55 – 63.
20. Li Rui, “Wangluo shidai de fangyan” (“Local Language in the Age of the Internet”), Dushu
(Reading) 4 (2000): 42 – 47.
21. Ibid., 44.
22. Zhang Ning, “Cuihua, gei beida shang suancai” (“Cuihua, Serve the Pickled Cabbage to
Beijing University”), Baixing (Common People) 5 (2002). Page numbers are unavailable.
23. “ ‘Laobazi’ ge renao Qingdaoren, Qingdao fazhan zenke wangji dagongzhe” (“The ‘bumpkin’ Song Angered Qingdaonese; How Can We Forget the Migrant Workers in Developing
Qingdao?”), Qingdao chenbao (Qingdao Morning News), August 26, 2004.
24. Pop music in mainland China has been heavily influenced by Cantopop from Hong Kong
and Mandopop from Taiwan, so the language rendered in the pop songs would be more
accurately described as Standard Mandarin with a gangtai accent, imitating Cantonese-­
accented Mandarin and Taiwan Mandarin.
25. Jiang Hui, “Women huijiang xiha jinxing daodi” (“Take Hip-­Hop to the End: Interview with
Hi-­Bomb Band by www.tom.com”), July 30, 2004, Tudou.com, www.tudou.com/programs
/view/fOc7HZyVq8s/ (accessed May 2, 2013).
26. Li, interview with the author, June 23, 2009.
27. Timothy Brace, “Popular Music in Contemporary Beijing: Modernism and Cultural Iden-
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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tity,” Asian Music 22, no. 2 (1991): 43 – 66; Andrew F. Jones, Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre
in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music (Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University,
1992); Nimrod Baranovitch, China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Poli­
tics, 1978 – 1997 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
28. Baranovitch, China’s New Voices, 10 – 18.
29. I owe the idea of comparing Standard Mandarin pop songs and local-­language rap songs to
Edward Gunn’s comments. Nevertheless, the two musical genres are not mutually exclusive.
The general distinction discussed here does not imply that love songs cannot be subversive
or resistant, as some love songs can be read allegorically or symbolically, and their significance thus cannot be simply confined to love. Moreover, as this essay suggests, besides lyrical
content, the difference in their subversive potentials may also have to do with the location
and distribution of the songs, as the former are usually distributed in the world of mass-­
marketed, mainstream pop for a broad audience while the latter are mainly circulated on
the Internet among a niche audience.
30. Sun, interview with the author, May 30, 2009.
31. Li, interview with the author, June 23, 2009.
32. Sha Zhou, MC Sha Zhou (Jinan: DIY, distributed by Qilu Yinxiang Chubanshe, 2004).
33. Chen, interview with Angela Steele, “Hip Hop in China: Chinese Education and Hip
Hop,” YouTube video, 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6H7xprfQbAU (accessed May 2,
34. In 3, Unknown Artists (Weizhi yishujia) (DIY, 2008).
35. Chen provided an interesting account of his band’s trademark use of expletives in their
interview with HipHop.cn: the curse words function as an interjection (yuqi) rather than
as a content word (yuyan), “In 3: women laizi dixia” (“In 3: We Come from Underground”),
www.blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4d1296c20100c9ri.html (accessed May 2, 2013). This is similar to how Angel Lin interprets the use of chou-­hau (vulgar speech) in MC Yan’s Cantonese
rap song “War Crime.” See Lin, “Respect for Da Chopstick Hip Hop: The Politics, Poetics,
and Pedagogy of Cantonese Verbal Art in Hong Kong,” in Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop
Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language, ed. H. Samy Alim et al. (New York:
Routledge, 2008), 168.
36. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1991).
37. Also in this sense, the use of Chinese local language is in conformity with the use of “English
from below” in hip-­hop discourse. As Bent Preisler defines it, in contrast to “English from
above,” which is officially promoted and institutionally transmitted, English from below is
acquired via noninstitutional channels and is motivated by “the desire to symbolize subcultural identity or affiliation, and peer group solidarity.” See Preisler, “Functions and Forms
of English in a European EFL Country,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed.
Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (London: Routledge, 1999), 247.
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38. This term is borrowed from Eric Ma, who uses it to explore subcultural social formations in
his case study of the Hong Kong rap band LMF (LazyMuthaFucka). See Ma, “Emotional
Energies and Subcultural Politics in Post-­97 Hong Kong,” Inter-­A sia Cultural Studies 3, no.
2 (2002): 187 – 90.
39. Chen, interview with Angela Steele, “Hip Hop in China: What Is Hip Hop,” YouTube
video, 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruZlPU7ESvc (accessed May 2, 2013).
40. Zhang Lei, “Chang ‘Jian’erfan’ de nageren” (“Interview with Dong Lei, the Person Who
Sang ‘A Mooched Meal’ ”), Hangzhou ribao (Hangzhou Daily), February 26, 2005.
41. As early as 1995, an anonymous critic commented on the only female rap song on a rap
mixtape, He Jing’s “Women’s Street” (“Nürenjie”), as “feeling like a witch chanting incantations,” which implies, according to Baranovitch, “that it is a rare and abnormal phenomenon
that should not exist at all” (China’s New Voices, 157).
42. The phrase “teachy but not preachy” is borrowed from Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood:
Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 62, in which she
cites from Henry L. Gates’s The Signifying Monkey the other seven features of “signifyin(g),”
a prominent rhetorical trope in the African American literary tradition as well as in hip-­hop
43. I thank Shawn (Shuang) Kong for his help with translating the lyrics of this song, as well as
the songs previously discussed, “Hello Teacher” and “A Mooched Meal.”
44. Xu Qing, “Yangzhou MM: Women zhishi ziyuzile” (“Yangzhou Girls: What We Did Was
Just for Fun”), Yangzhou wanbao (Yangzhou Evening News), July 27, 2006.
45. Shun Chao and Song Yuan, “Shouzhi Yangzhou fangyan RAP gequ rebo, Yangzhou
jida wangzhan yin zhengyi” (“The First Hit Yangzhou Dialect Rap Stirred Controversy
Online”), Yangzhou shibao (Yangzhou Times), July 25, 2006.
46. Ove Sernhede, “Exoticism and Death as a Modern Taboo: Gangsta Rap and the Search for
Intensity,” in Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall, ed. Paul Gilroy et al. (London:
Verso, 2000), 306.
47. Samuel Craig Watkins, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul
of a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), 2 – 3; Perry, Prophets of the Hood, 90 – 95.
48. Tricia Rose, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — And
Why It Matters (New York: BasicCivitas, 2008).
49. Black Head, Qi de bi ji hai zao (Wake Up Earlier than the Rooster) (Xi’an: Shiyin Records,
50. BBC News, “Web Demo Launches Hip-­Hop in China,” March 8, 2005, www.news.bbc
.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-­/2/hi/entertainment/4329531.stm (accessed May 2, 2013).
51. Wendy Liu, “Cultural Spotlight: Hip-­Hopping,” posted on the City Weekend Web site
on December 4, 2006, www.old.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/articles/cw-­magazine/reviews
/Review_HipHop/ (accessed May 2, 2013).
52. Chen Xu, Chen Xu VS huaping (Chen Xu VS Vase) (Guangzhou: Feile Records, 2005).
Liu ❘ Chinese Local-­Language Rap Music
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53. Leiqing Chen, founder and CEO of the SHN Web site, interview with the author, May 30,
54. Forman, ‘Hood Comes First, 3.
55. Ibid., particularly 173 – 212.
56. Regarding regional flavors, the Chinese dialect rap is different from the dialect rap of southern Italy, which mainly draws on local traditional folk songs and instrumentation. See Tony
Mitchell, “Fightin’ da Faida: The Italian Posses and Hip-­Hop in Italy,” in Global Noise,
ed. Mitchell, 194 – 221. These rap songs are also different from the Chinese dialect rock
songs. Whereas migrant rock musicians largely employ the musicality of local languages
and the folk tunes to signify a marginal, outsider identity, urban rappers make substantial
use of a distinctive local vocabulary in their lyrics to articulate a privileged local identity
that celebrates their urban roots. More importantly, the rock musicians tend to appropriate
indigenous regional folk music and folk tunes to represent a “national” Chinese music, yet
Chineseness per se is rarely an issue of concern for the hip-­hop generation. See Jin Liu, “Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in Mainland China
since 2000” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2008), 115 – 25.
57. Martin Stokes, ed., Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place (Oxford:
Berg, 1994), 3.
58. Luo Xiaowei and Wu Jiang, eds., Shanghai longtang (Shanghai Alley), (Shanghai: Shanghai
Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 1997), 3.
59. Zhao Yuqing, “Chen Xu: ‘Dongbei techan bushi heishehui’ wei dongbeiren zhengming”
(“Chen Xu’s ‘The Northeast Specialty Is Not Underworld’ Provides Justification for Northeasterners”), Heilongjiang ribao (Heilongjiang Daily), March 30, 2005.
60. Frammolino, “Chinese Find a Way.”
61. Beekman, “Beijing Hip-­Hop Trio.”
62. Frammolino, “Chinese Find a Way.”
63. Historically speaking, the paradoxical presentation of the national in terms of the local
was a common interpretive mode on the issue of Chinese folk songs and nationalism. For
example, Gu Jiegang and other folklorists in the early 1920s believed local folk songs were
carriers of authentic national cultures. See Chang-­tai Hung, Going to the People: Chinese
Intellectuals and Folk Literature 1918 – 1937 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1985), 17. The leftist filmmakers in the 1930s, in their efforts to “sinify” the Chinese cinema,
frequently rearranged and rewrote regional folk songs to signify Chineseness. See Yueh-­yu
Yeh, “Historiography and Sinification: Music in Chinese Cinema of the 1930s,” Cinema
Journal 41, no. 3 (2002): 78 – 97.
64. Edward Gunn, Rendering the Regional: Local Language in Contemporary Chinese Media
(Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 204.
65. Yang Yude, “Cailing: Lirun jingren de fukuang” (“Ringtones: A Rich Mine with Astonishing Profit”), Jiangsu shangbao ( Jiangsu Business News), August 24, 2005.
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66. Liu, “Signifying the Local,” 12 – 78.
67. Qian Chaoxin and Wu Hui, “Wangluo geshou Ye Pi wangshang changhong Zhangjiagang fangyan ge” (“Internet Singer Ye Pi’s Hit Zhangjiagang Dialect Songs”), Xinhua
News, November 24, 2006, www.js.xinhuanet.com/zjg/2006 – 11/24/content_8609045.htm
(accessed May 2, 2013).
68. Ping-­hui Liao, “The Case of the Emergent Cultural Criticism Columns in Taiwan’s Newspaper Literary Supplements,” in Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational
Imaginary, ed. Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1996), 344.
69. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A
Reader, 4th ed., ed. John Storey (Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2009), 68–69.
70. Gunn, Rendering the Regional, 208.
71. For these elaborations, I owe much to Andrew Jones’s inspiring comments.
72. Hall, “Culture, Community, Nation,” 354.

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