What China’s Hottest Rock Band Can Tell Us About the Nation’s Cultural Shifts

Ren Ke rocks the Harvard audience in conversation with Profs. Yuhua Wang and Zheng Lin

Wu Tiao Ren (五条人) began in Guangzhou as a small, counterculture band singing quirky lyrics in the Min dialect of Guangdong. But in 2020, they exploded onto China’s music scene when they pulled a stunt on the national TV show “Big Band.” Instead of the more anodyne song the band had rehearsed, on live TV they shocked the organizers with a provocative song about a kid who is languishing in jail. The band didn’t win the competition, but their gutsy action quickly made them an internet sensation.

Given their fiercely earthy, anti-pop act, what’s surprising is that Wu Tiao Ren have blown up in popularity. Why does Wu Tiao Ren attract such big audiences? Aside from cutting-edge art, do they also reflect the complex new cultural and social mechanics of today’s China? 

Ren Ke and Visiting Scholar Zheng Lin, an expert on the culture of Guangzhou’s “urban villages,” including the Wu Tiao Ren phenomenon

On April 17, in a packed Tsai Auditorium, Ren Ke, one of the band’s key members, shared his perspectives with Prof. Zheng Lin from Sun Yat-sen University, who is doing research on Wu Tiao Ren. She shared analysis of how the band’s fiercely local rock music plays with both language and imagery, revealing a unique, grassroots village-in-the-city (城中村) culture that has cropped up in Guangzhou. Lin also explored how the culture of counterfeits (shanzhai 山寨and dakou 打口) has helped shape their art and contributed to urbanization, and, ultimately, globalization in China. 

Harvard Prof. Yuhua Wang shared his perspectives on how this new cultural phenomenon fits into Chinese history.

Professor of Government Yuhua Wang shares his thoughts on the interplay between culture and politics in China