By Sam Feldman

In China, emo is extremely underground,” Thompson explains. “Only about ten bands in the scene are making noise at any given time.”
—John Thompson

In the summer of 2006, rising University of Chicago third-year John Thompson was enrolled in a homestay language acquisition program in Beijing, attending Chinese classes by day and Chinese rock shows by night. At one of the shows he met Surprise (Chinese: Yiwai Jingxi), an emo band composed of five twentysomethings. Thompson went to several more of their concerts and ended up befriending the group. He is now writing his senior thesis on Chinese emo, and the band members have become not only his friends but his research subjects.

Thompson, who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, is a double major in English Language & Literature and East Asian Languages & Civilizations as well as a rock music aficionado. Last summer, the University awarded him one of ten Third-Year International Travel Research Fellowships to travel back to Beijing and conduct first-hand research. Thompson stayed with his host mother from the previous summer while studying the Chinese emo scene, which is in some ways very unlike the Western scene that inspired it.

What is Chinese emo?

“In China, emo is extremely underground,” Thompson explains. “Only about ten bands in the scene are making noise at any given time.”

The genre is still a relatively recent arrival in China, with the first local compilation album, “Emo China,” coming out less than two years ago. The album’s English title is significant in light of what Thompson describes as “a huge conflict in the scene about whether to sing in English or Chinese.” Some bands sing in Chinese to be more authentic, but many sing in English to be more accessible—Chinese rock has a very small following in China.

This discovery led to one of Thompson’s more surprising realizations: despite what Westerners might expect, Chinese underground rock isn’t particularly political. When it comes to emo and punk, Thompson says, “the only place a political battle is being fought is in Westerners’ imaginations. If the government got on their case, no one would care, because they’re such a small subculture.”

The occasional political messages that can be found in Chinese rock are often oblique or in English, which Thompson calls “complaining without complaining,” because it’s aimed at the West, not Chinese authorities.

Despite the cultural differences, Chinese emo often sounds a lot like familiar Western rock. Thompson compares Surprise’s sound to such American bands as Fall Out Boy and the Get Up Kids. He classifies the Raving Radio (Chinese: Diankuang Shouyinji), another band he studied, as “screamo” and compares them to the Canadian band Alexisonfire. Both bands include members from all over China, but like most underground bands they have migrated to the capital.

Emo scene

“Beijing is where you go to make it,” explains Thompson. Even in Beijing, the emo scene can only support three or four major venues—all bars—and the members of Surprise all have day jobs. For example, lead singer Duan Yumeng and drummer Zhang Yang work together at a North Face outlet as salesmen on commission.

At night, though, Surprise plays as often as possible. Thompson went along to most concerts as well as accompanying the band to practices and the recording studio. In the process he became better friends with the band members, whom he affectionately describes as “all really goofy characters.”

Thompson’s thesis, tentatively titled “Fading, Falling Tears: Authenticity, the Market, and Emo in Beijing,” will be the first close-up look at the Chinese emo scene when it’s completed this spring. When asked if he plans to stay in touch with the band, Thompson replies, “Of course. If I return to work in China, I'll need partners in crime.”

Originally published on March 24, 2008.