Eight songs that didn’t make it into China’s Lunar New Year gala
As people across China welcome the Year of the Dragon, the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda machine has stepped up a campaign of “positive energy” and “good news” about the economy despite widespread reports of slashed bonuses, unpaid wages and youth unemployment and disenchantment.
Yet the songs that have truly resonated with people during the past year weren’t featured on the annual star-studded Spring Festival Gala show aired by state broadcaster CCTV on Friday.
Most of these songs first emerged on social media and became quite popular – until censors blocked many of them.
But people are still able to see and hear them using virtual private networks, or VPNs, or finding other ways to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall.” Some are still viewable on Bilibili, the Chinese version of YouTube, or other social media platforms.
1. “You’re Not Really Happy” by Mayflower
“Are you happy?” an interviewer asks an oil-smeared mechanic at the start of a reboot of the 2008 Mayflower hit “You’re not really happy.” “Sure,” says the man, adding that happiness is fixing cars and not giving his parents any cause to worry.
“But what about your happiness?” asks the interviewee. “I don’t know,” says the man uncertainly, in a remixed video posted to X by citizen journalist Mr Li is not your teacher.
Undercutting propaganda images of a prosperous country that is merely undergoing some “problems and challenges,” the song’s lyrics highlight the need to pretend everything is fine, just to survive.
“You’re not really happy — that smile’s just a disguise,” say the lyrics. “The world laughs, and you join in, hiding your tears. Survival’s the game, no choice, just comply.”
“Why take this punishment when you’ve already lost … let sorrow end now, start fresh, breathe new air,” it concludes, striking a chord with X users when it was posted on Feb. 2, ahead of the Lunar New Year festivities.
“Chinese people’s happiness is like North Korean happiness, like Stockholm syndrome happiness,” commented @pifuzhinu113541 on the video. “Because ‘unhappiness’ is a crime!”
“This is most people,” added @Louis00135, while @DodgyLee1 quipped: “Propaganda department: Don’t spread rumors if you don’t believe them. Also the propaganda department: The whole country is brimming with optimism!”
U.S.-based current affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan said the song “lays bare the scars that lie below the glamorous image projected by the Chinese Communist Party.”
“The video raises the question why, in the world’s second-largest economy, so many people from different social classes, men, women and children, are having such a hard time, and can’t achieve happiness,” Tang said.
2. “Descendants of the Dragon” by Namewee
Malaysian rapper Namewee’s love letter to the “little pinks” drips with cultural references and political irony, and has notched up more than 7 million views since it dropped — just in time to welcome the Year of the Dragon.
Complete with emperor figure in a Winnie-the-Pooh mask as a stand-in for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, the song isn’t the first time Namewee has taken aim at the “little pinks,” some of whom recently also went viral in a stand-off with British boogie-woogie pianist Brendan Kavanagh around the public piano at London’s St. Pancras Station.
Images and references to Winnie-the-Pooh are banned by Chinese internet censors due to a supposed resemblance to Xi, who is suspected of ordering the removal of Lunar New Year’s Eve from the list of official public holidays this year, because its name (除夕 chúxì）is a homophone for “get rid of Xi” (除习 chúxí).
According to Namewee’s Facebook page, the song is satirically “dedicated to every Chinese at home and abroad from all over the world (including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), to defend the dignity of the Chinese people!”
“As a ‘descendant of the dragon,’ we must always remember: Love the party, love the country, love the chairman!”
The track fires out multiple puns on the Chinese word for dragon, “龙 lóng,” taking aim at those who further the aims of the authoritarian government, despite not wanting to live under its rule.
“There’s a group of people from the East,” Namewee raps, “who love their motherland but live in London, Cambodia, Northern Myanmar and Thailand … everywhere, from NYC to LA, chain-smoking, talking on the phone all day, to their cousins and their nephews, calling all their fellow villagers to come and join them.”
“Hating on Japan and dissing the U.S. is our duty … flooding YouTube, criticizing and spreading fake news — FALSE!” it says.
“His Majesty dons the Dragon Robe,” Namewee raps, while dancing alongside “Emperor Poo.” “Together, we learn to roar like a dragon.”
A Chinese person who recently emigrated to Australia and gave only the nickname Liga for fears of reprisals said anti-communist culture is now hip, with the potential to reach large global audiences.
“This is a new trend, the attractiveness of anti-communist creative content, which can be monetized,” Liga said. “It shows that people who are dissatisfied with the Chinese Communist Party are now a political force that cannot be ignored, despite not having the right to vote.”
“Their influence is pretty formidable, with the help of the internet,” they said.
3. “Qincheng Prison Welcomes You” by RutersXiaoFanQi
Chinese censors have gone to considerable lengths to have the channel silenced, filing takedown requests that YouTube has complied with despite growing concerns over Beijing’s “long-arm” overseas law enforcement.
The channel’s song “Qincheng Prison Welcomes You” opens with the face of Winnie-the-Pooh shining down as the sun, and warns that anyone found insulting Xi will find themselves welcome at Beijing’s notorious Qincheng Prison.
YouTuber @RutersXiaoFanQi puts out a steady stream of spoof videos and satirical content targeting Xi Jinping, in what has become a sub-genre using the hashtag #InsultTheBun.
“Insult Winnie, commit thought crimes, the trail to jail is your fate,” sing the robotic synthesized voices. “Make yourselves at home, fellow inmates, old and new alike.”
“You may laugh, but you’re on the list — can’t you see?”
“The monarchy’s no longer a dream,” sings a female robotic voice similar to the singers who once lauded late supreme leader Mao Zedong. “Endless term implies endless memes,” replies the male voice in a reference to Xi’s approval for an unprecedented third term in office after removing presidential term limits in March 2018.
“Welcome to the next term … the protagonist of the joke is the same — it’s still Winnie-the-Pooh,” they sing.
Liga said he is a fan of the channel, in particular because it uses old revolutionary era songs to satirize Xi.
“It’s still the same melody but it has a completely different meaning because the lyrics have been changed,” Liga said. “It allows people to let off steam, vent their dissatisfaction, and could have an impact on political reform in China.”
“If that wasn’t the case, the government wouldn’t need to block the internet,” he said, in a reference to the Great Firewall of government censorship.
4. “Luocha Kingdom” by Dao Lang
A classic Chinese folk song against a jaunty reggae backing complete with horn section, Dao Lang’s song depicts the fictional kingdom of Luocha from a novel by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer Pu Songling, who is also credited with the “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” ghost stories.
Depicting a topsy-turvy world in which beauty and ugliness, right and wrong, good and evil are reversed, the song is widely seen as a biting satire against contemporary China.
Possibly due to an allegorical format that evades censorship, the song has gone viral on Chinese social media, and has been featured by bloggers and online media, where one blogger described it as a “rant without swear words.”
“As the lyrics suggest, the whole of mainland Chinese society has become a cesspit of dogs and flies, and anyone in a position of power is tarred with that brush,” Tang Jingyuan commented on the song.
“It’s about an absurd, yet evil, environment.”
A mashup of the song has also gone viral in recent months, with lyrics reflecting the roller-coaster that has been the Chinese stock market. It has since been blocked by internet censors.
“Stock investors can hear the heartache, blood and tears in this,” said one social media comment on the “A-share” version of the song. “The more we listen, the more enjoyable it becomes.”
5. “Children of the West Tower” by Yue Yunpeng
This song by Yue Yunpeng, who made his name in China as a crosstalk comedian, is a cover of a song penned by Hailai Amu in 2022, and has dominated music charts in the run-up to the Lunar New Year due to its nostalgia for a lost past, which reflects the feelings of many in the economic downturn, commentators said.
“I had a dream many years ago, that I would go back to my hometown with full honors,” the lyrics go. “But the begonias were broken in the wild winds.”
“Now my eyes fill with tears when we talk of old friends, and my heart breaks to remember old loves and hates.”
A Shanghai resident who gave only the nickname Ray for fear of reprisals said the song’s sadness resonates with many in today’s China.
“I feel quite sad listening to it,” he said. “Maybe there are a lot more people who aren’t making any money, or haven’t had successful careers.”
“They feel lost and a little frustrated — that’s the feeling I get [from the song],” Ray said, adding that most people he knows are feeling pretty depressed and pessimistic.
“It’s so 2023,” he said. “I’m not doing well now — I’m unemployed, and I really resonate with this song.”
6. “The Big Dream” by Wayna Band and Ren Suxi
A phone-waving folk anthem for a lost generation, the song’s mesmerizing refrain “What to do?” lists a series of personal disasters and uncertainties that can befall a person in contemporary China.
“I’m going to middle school, dozens of miles away from home,” the lyrics say. “What to do if I get sick or lose my money?”
“I’m 18 years old, and didn’t get into college,” runs the song. “What should I do? Keep going, or get a manual job?”
Even moving around the country in search of work doesn’t help.
“I came to Shenzhen and wandered around for a while, but I haven’t found a job and my money is almost spent,” the band sings, in a lament for youth unemployment and the “lying flat” movement among younger people in China.
Even growing up and finding work doesn’t bring the promised “Big Dream,” however.
“I am 38 and my child is very obedient,” the lyrics run, in the nine-minute track that has become wildly popular. “I want to spend more time with them, but I have to work overtime.”
“Can’t make more money by running around like mad,” they say, before depicting older people with dying parents and caring responsibilities, eventual old age, sickness, and a life “flickering like a candle flame.”
7. “We are the Last Generation” by Er Mao
Penned in the wake of the grueling Shanghai COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2022, the song tells people not to forget their suffering, not to celebrate the end of restrictions, and not to listen to the government’s propaganda.
“Don’t let go of unrequited revenge,” a male voice identified only as Er Mao on YouTube sings.
“In today’s blooming flowers, do not forgive the sins of last night.”
“Don’t wash the blood from the corners of your mouth, do not heal the wounds of the shackles, don’t touch the sugar they feed you,” it goes. “Don’t tear out your diary pages.”
“Sorry, but we are the last generation,” the songs says, against a black background and an ironic jaunty whistle, in a reference to a viral video from the Shanghai lockdown in which a young man tells the authorities they can’t bring down retribution on his kids, because he won’t be having any.
“Sorry, but I’m the last of my line,” the man says.
Ray said he was moved by the song.
“All that stuff was happening right around me,” he said. “It’s quite sad.”
8. “Red Boy’s 18 Wins” by Slap
This witty folk-rock rant by veteran act Slap highlights the dark side of the news as released in January 2023, with lyrics detailing the exploits of a fictitious hero – Red Boy – and a series of challenges he encounters.
It refers to a woman found chained by the neck, the breakout by employees at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory during the COVID-19 restrictions, the death of high-schooler Hu Xinyu and attacks on women eating at a restaurant in the northern city of Tangshan.
“A mother of eight children with a chain around her neck,” the lyrics read. “Vicious scum who burned his wife is sentenced to death.”
“Don’t tell me Tangshan is just like Gotham City, which at least had Batman,” the song says, picking up on several scandals of the three-year “zero-COVID” policy, where “everyone is obsessed with negative and positive [tests].”
The band has a huge following among young people today due to their songs’ criticism of the political system, and of society as a whole.
Delivered in the style of a Chinese folk opera ballad, the 14-minute song has a laid-back accompaniment from a regular rock band, with Red Boy generally understood to represent the Chinese Communist Party, and is now banned in China.
The lyrics and saga-like quality of the track, which is still available on YouTube, recall a classic of Chinese literature as Red Boy goes to war against Sun Wukong the Monkey King from “Journey to the West,” yet their gritty and often horrific content is drawn straight from recent headlines.
“We’re lucky to be born in the New Era,” it concludes in a reference to the political ideology of President Xi Jinping, after commenting that “everyone’s got Stockholm Syndrome.”
“Hard work will win out in the end,” says the last line, referencing a 1980s TV theme tune from the now-democratic island of Taiwan, which was under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang and its hereditary leader Chiang Ching-kuo at the time the song was released.
Akio Yaita, Taipei bureau chief for Japan’s Sankei Shimbun and an expert on China, paid tribute to the band in a Facebook post at the time of its release, saying it had “boldly crossed into restricted areas,” and became hugely popular online as a result.
“A lot of people online commented that they feared for the safety of the band,” he wrote. “This is the first time I heard of them … Founded in Baoding, Hebei in 1998, they have five members and … use very down-to-earth language to comment on the topics of the day.”
While the band may have flown under the radar until now, “Red Boys 18 Wins” had overstepped a red line, he said.
“I think there will be a ban on performances coming soon, and maybe someone will go to jail,” Yaita wrote.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.