The Band That Rocked China’s Internet

How a viral TV stunt thrust folk-rockers Wu Tiao Ren into the center of a debate about language, culture, and authenticity in Chinese music.

GUANGDONG, South China — At the end of a long June afternoon, shooting for the first episode of the new season of TV talent show “The Big Band” was finally about to wrap up. Over the previous hours, more than 30 Chinese indie musicians had trooped onstage to play for a packed studio audience in Beijing. Now, there were just two acts left to perform.

Next up was Wu Tiao Ren, a veteran group of folk-rockers from south China’s Guangdong province. Ambling up to the microphone in typically breezy style, the band’s front man, Xu Renke, paused for a second, silence descending inside the auditorium. Then, the band started to play.

Within seconds, a frown spread across the face of “The Big Band’s” director: Something was wrong. The stage lighting wasn’t synched up properly. The lyrics the band was singing bore no relation to what was supposed to be on the teleprompter. In fact, the crew could barely understand a word they were saying.

Wu Tiao Ren had caught the show off guard with a last-minute change of song. Instead of playing the Mandarin-language hit they’d performed during rehearsals, they’d switched to a grittier track written in their local dialect — a variation of the Min branch of Chinese spoken in the southeast, which has eight tones as opposed to Mandarin’s four.

It was a rock ’n’ roll move — one that would later spark a media sensation. But for Wu Tiao Ren, it felt perfectly natural. The band has spent their careers out of harmony with China’s mainstream music scene.

While the overwhelming majority of Chinese artists tailor their acts to a national audience and sing in standard Mandarin, Wu Tiao Ren’s style is fiercely local. Everything about their music, from the operatic falsetto vocals to the dialect-heavy lyrics, is infused with the folk traditions of rural Guangdong. The chance to perform their most down-home songs on a massive platform like “The Big Band” was too tempting to pass up.

“I just thought the audience would love to see something unique,” Renke, the Wu Tiao Ren front man, who prefers to go by his first name, tells Sixth Tone in an interview a few weeks later. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.