By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 19, 2002; Page C01
LIJIANG, Aug. 18 -- They had Janis Joplin on the sound system -- "Cry, cry baby" -- and they had mud. It rained all day Saturday. A cold, gray mist clung to the mountains and to the people in their plastic ponchos. Shoes squished underfoot as band after band played. Mud, rain, rock-and-roll. In these basic elements, the two-day Lijiang Snow Mountain Music Festival, which ended tonight, hewed to the traditions of the granddaddy of concerts that inspired its billing as "China's Woodstock."
From there, things diverged.
Take the tents where people camped: military tents, most of them. Green canvas that matched the overcoats of the police officers who stood around the big field with an unlikely mix of concertgoers -- women carrying grandchildren on their backs, men in fedoras and three-piece suits along with the Shanghai fashion set, goateed hipsters from Beijing and Gore-Tex-clad travelers from abroad.
The opening festivities featured government officials expressing hopes that the event would boost Yunnan province, this rugged and verdant piece of southwestern China rubbing up against Tibet. Then a woman took the stage in a red robe and a black head scarf, the traditional clothing of the Naxi, the ethnic minority people who predominate here. She sang a folk song in her native dialect.
Taping it all for broadcast throughout Asia was a TV crew from Channel V, a Shanghai-based music station that is part of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch -- an icon of Western commercial pragmatism.
With his conservative credentials, Murdoch is not ordinarily associated with the counterculture. But he is known as someone whose keen profitmaking interests in China trump pretty much everything else. And so his machine was here, promising the event would spread "the Woodstock culture" and offer a "festival of peace, love and music."
Not that the irony conflicted with marketing. "Woodstock is not really familiar to us," confessed 30-year-old Michelle Tang, Channel V's China publicity manager. "We just think it stands for the wild music festival."
Since the original, so much product has been sold in the Woodstock name around the world, so many T-shirts hawked and tickets dispensed, that even the whining objections to its crude commodification have become tiresome cliches. "Yes," we are supposed to say, each time the latest multi-day extravaganza comes along, "they played music outside and some people even took drugs and hugged other people, but it wasn't the real Woodstock." Whatever. They sell tie-dyed T-shirts at Wal-Mart. Woodstocks pop up like Hard Rock Cafes. Why not here? That Murdoch's commercial kingdom was directing the thing seemed somehow fitting.
The greatest significance of the event was that it was happening at all. Western music has a complicated history in China. The Communist Party has often seen rock music as a symbol of Western depravity, a purveyor of illicit substances and bad ideas about challenging authority. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist Party locked people up for listening to Western music. The beginning of China's economic reforms in the 1980s softened things, but certain bands were still banned.
Rock and pop have since become huge moneymakers in China. Lately, that is the consideration that matters here most. So it happened that the local government arranged to bring in what promoters said would be 30,000-plus people to do what they would in a national park 9,000 feet above sea level and a half-hour's drive from town as 14 bands -- all but two from China -- filled the heavens with electric sound.
In 1969 as America's young descended on a muddy farm in Upstate New York for its enduring moment, China's youth was occupied with other things. The Cultural Revolution, for example. They memorized passages from Mao's Little Red Book in between assaults on "capitalist-running dogs." The Little Red Books are still here, but now they are souvenir items for Western tourists.
As China's modern-day youth stood in the mud listening to pop stars sing about lust, themselves cast as the backdrop for televised entertainment served up for profit to a burgeoning Asian consumer class, it was clear that some sort of threshold had been crossed.
Still, there were limits. One of the organizers, Sun Mian, publisher of a Guangzhou-based cultural journal called New Magazine, acknowledged that he had to promise local authorities that the bands would steer clear of controversial subjects. The local Communist Party office demanded a complete list of songs and lyrics in advance for its approval. On Saturday morning, party officials crossed some songs off the list. Tonight, in the middle of a rapper's set, party monitors flipped the switch on the amplifiers for a moment when he deviated from the script.
But that all happened subtly, behind the scenes. In the crowd, it felt free and loose. Mian portrayed the concert as a landmark in China's opening. "Rock-and-roll music is a way to express our emotions," he said. "As long as it's not politically sensitive, why not?"
From a logistical standpoint, the festival was a disaster. The turnout was no larger than 3,000 on Saturday and perhaps double that today. The promoters opted to hold it in the rainy season, when, as it happens, it tends to rain. As the thing began, with people hunched under umbrellas behind a ring of wire and bundled up against the chill of elevation, the field felt more like a refugee camp than a festival.
Plenty stayed away. "Why do I want to go out there and stand in the rain and get sick?" said Xu Beichuan, 38, who arrived from the central China city of Chengdu with plans to attend, but opted instead to spend Saturday at a riverside cafe in town.
On Friday morning a plane skidded off the runway at the airport here on landing. No one was hurt, but it shut down flights for 24 hours, preventing thousands of people from making it in.
There was one upside to the poor turnout: In what must surely be a first in rock history, the port-a-potties were in more than adequate supply.
The first band, Zi Yue from Beijing, sounded like Frank Zappa without the irony. Next came Luo Zhongxu, a pretty boy who has obviously watched 'N Sync videos. Some in the crowd went for it, swaying back and forth, fingers in the air, in the now-global sign of collective grooviness, or thrusting their arms downward in a gesture alarmingly like a cross between a Nazi salute and the Tomahawk Chop.
But back at the concession stands, where yak milk tea sat in great bubbling vats next to another stand with Bacardi rum cocktails, the younger set was getting restless.
"I came here to listen to techno," complained Ryota Aoyagi, 25, a dreadlocked traveler from Tokyo. "We expected a party. This music is too slow."
"I want to dance, so I'm not liking this," agreed Zhang Jiaming, an 18-year-old from Guangzhou.
But the crowd livened up as Cui Jian took the stage. China's most famous rock musician, he has a controversial past. Though not overtly political, his best-known song, "I Have Nothing," became the definitive protest anthem for the generation that demonstrated in Beijing and other major cities in 1989 in China's last great outpouring of organized dissent. He wore a black jacket with white tassels and a white baseball cap. As he sat on a stool and placed his acoustic guitar in his lap, the crowd surged.
"He's an original," beamed Tao Jin, a longhaired 29-year-old in a black woolen cap who had made the trip from Kunming. "He doesn't just copy styles from the West. He's a real Chinese artist." Indeed, while one would be tempted to say he had a bit of Bob Dylan in his throaty voice, Cui clearly brought his own sound. "Fly away," he crooned -- the chorus of a song about the pressures of yearning for a girl. "Express your desire whenever you have a chance."
As night fell on Saturday, the temperature dropped, the rain intensified and the ground grew soupy. People drove cars onto the field and sat inside, taking in the scene like a drive-in movie. To the stage came Wang Lei and his dose of industrial rap. He strutted, punched the air, shook his head and sent his long black hair swinging against the white lights of the stage. He unleashed a string of profanities in a song whose chorus urged people to copulate with dogs. "I like it, you like it, we all need it," he screamed in the next number, as he pointed at his crotch.
"This is China -- we have everything now," said Scarlett Li, Channel V's general manager for the country. "You can't imagine this 10 years ago."
Wang was pushing the envelope and the crowd was loving it, dancing now, even the Japanese hip-hopper. People were passing joints around. A Chinese twenty-something man with rings in his nose and lip had his arm around an American woman backpacker. They took turns with a bottle of beer.
The cops were looking on, seeing it and not seeing it, some from underneath rain hoods. They were just letting it all happen. Off to the side, two of them were rocking back and forth -- dancing.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company