The Other China
In February 2023, Teacher Grey 格雷老師 Géléi lǎoshī, an American musician with fluent Chinese and a winsome manner, released ‘Chinese Boys, Don’t Masturbate Anymore’, a humorous song with a political punch. He might as well have called it ‘Stop Jerking Off and Save the Nation!’
Teacher Grey’s country of origin, boyish looks and fluent Chinese would, even in these strained times, make him the kind of Friend of China that a Party Secretary might want to introduce to their family. (For a model ‘good caucasian’, see Kumbaya China, 1 September 2020.) However, as the Chinese expression puts it: 人不可貌相 rén bù kě mào xiàng — looks can be deceptive. And so, created with a knowing smile, an affable comedic style and topical lyrics, Teacher Grey’s growing œuvre has seen him banned in the Official China of the People’s Republic even as he has been embraced by The Other China, be it in the PRC, Taiwan or globally.
One of the commonplace truisms about Chinese culture is that it is vast and profound 博大精深 bó dà jīng shēn. Such is its breadth and complexity that it has for millennia embraced and been enriched by people, ideas, practices and cultures that have originated beyond the Central Plains 中原 zhōng yuán, or ‘China Proper’. In the present age of Chinese wealth and power, it is inevitable that hybrids of all kinds will flourish. They do so for cultural, commercial, political and complex human reasons.
In a speech addressed to Australian high school teachers in 2008, I observed that:
China is a global presence. Through its history, its peoples, its trade, languages, ways of thinking and, now, as a result of its further economic and diplomatic reach, China (including the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) features in powerful and complex new ways. …
We understand other language-realms (with all that that entails) to enrich ourselves. It is this self-enrichment that we seek to impart to our students and our fellow-citizens. More importantly, in this process, we will also cultivate empathy for truly different ways of being in the world today an enterprise that does, in turn, broaden the possibilities of our own humanity.
The first decade of Xi Jinping’s rule has seen a new era of ‘Chinese escapism’, colloquially referred to as ‘The Art of Running’ 潤學 rùn xué. Many people of means, along with countless others with few means, have decided that of all the ways to cope with troubled times ‘flight is the best strategy’ 走為上策 zǒu wéi shàng cè. ‘To rùn 潤’ is to get out while the going is good, to establish a safe haven and create a life that is not subject to the vicissitudes of China’s mercurial and harsh party-state. In an earlier age, it was known as ‘fleeing the Qin’ 避秦 bì Qín, an expression that dates back to the fourth century CE. The multitudes who ‘fled from the Qin’ — that is escaped from Mao Zedong’s China — created the cultural and commercial miracle of Hong Kong.
[Note: See The Double Ninth in 2019 — Settling Scores, Fleeing The Qin and Eating Crabs, 7 October 2019.]
As was the case in earlier moments of stress in modern Chinese history — during the late-Qing period, the 1930s of the Republic of China, during the Japanese War, in the early 1950s, in the early as well as the late 1980s — yet again China is ‘incarnating out’. That is, individuals and families relocate. The reasons for doing so are multifarious — to safeguard wealth, ensure peace of mind, ‘future-proof’ one’s family, pursue individual goals, and so on — and in the process the world is further enriched.
Some people who went to China to study, work and make a future are also practitioners of ‘The Art of Running’ 潤學. After all, as we noted in You Should Look Back, the introduction to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:
No matter how grandiloquent the claims or bombastic the pronouncements issuing out of Beijing, a dolorous reality is undeniable: as the country enjoys levels of wealth and achievement unique in the history of the People’s Republic, a cabal of Party leaders and their intellectual courtiers assert that it is their prerogative to determine and define what China is, what being Chinese means (and can mean), as well as what the legitimate aspirations, languages, thoughts and the state of being of all Chinese peoples should be.
For those who live in a global Chinese world long nurtured by the riches of Taiwan and Hong Kong, a Mainland revived during the decades of economic reform and the creativity of a plethora of Chinese diasporic communities, it is a tragedy of immense proportions that a clutch of rigid, nay-saying bureaucrats thus holds sway, that it arrogates to itself the power to legislate and police the borders of what by all rights should be a cacophonous multiverse of Chinese possibility. By imposing an educational regime that, to quote Xi Jinping, ‘grabs them in the cradle’, by creating a censorious media monolith that spews forth a carefully curated ‘China Story’ and by pursuing a ‘chilly war’ internationally with the encouragement of battalions of online vigilantes, the Party continues to terraform China and create a monotone landscape. All of this is aided and abetted by a sharp-edged new phase in a century-long contestation with the United States and the Western world. Although Xi Jinping’s enterprise builds on the twisted legacy of the Mao era and the darkest aspirations of the Deng-Jiang-Hu reform decades, it is obvious that his Empire of Tedium is also the handiwork of willing multitudes who travail at the behest of one man and the party-state-army that he dominates.
We suggest that readers pay attention to independent-minded young people who live in the Chinese-language world and are not bound by ‘The China Story’ of Official China.
In the preface to Simon Leys’s Chinese Shadows (1978), the philosopher Jean-François Revel wrote:
Let’s keep reading these works, so that we may see that in the age of the lie, the truth sometimes throws its head back and bursts out laughing. (See also It’s Time for Another Serving of Peking Duck Soup.)
In his music, Teacher Grey teaches this old lesson anew and with an endearingly light touch.
This chapter of The Other China features another episode of ‘Who Gets It?’不明白播客, a podcast series created by Li Yuan 袁莉, a noted New York Times columnist whose reporting work focuses on the intersection of technology, business and politics in China and across Asia. Her podcast, the full title of which is Who Gets It — Searching for the Truth and Answers Together 不明白播客：一起探尋真理與答案, presents conversations with a diverse range of people both in- and outside of China.
In the episode A Long Arm — China attempts to be a global censor長臂審查：中國如何影響在海外的藝術家, released on 12 March 2023, Li Yuan spoke with He Huang 黃鶴, a stand up comic, Badiucao 巴丟草, a noted political cartoonist, both of whom are based in Australia, and Teacher Grey 格雷老師, an American musician who is on the road in Taiwan.
We are grateful to Li Yuan for permission to translate this material, to Teacher Grey for going over the draft translation and to our tireless Reader #1 for their close reading and timely corrections. The title ‘Hands off Snakey’ comes from the saying ‘Wakey wakey hands off snakey’, an order that often appears in military-themed films in which the drill sergeant screams the line to wake up his cadets.
In keeping with the typographical style of China Heritage, the ‘Crippled Characters’ 殘體字 (aka Simplified Chinese Characters 簡體字) of the transcription of Li Yuan’s interview have been converted to Traditional or Full-form Chinese Characters 正體字.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 March 2023
Listening to Teacher Grey, Remembering Wu Zuguang
In 1977, not long after I met the playwright Wu Zuguang (吳祖光, 1917-2003) in Beijing, he told me that, apart from the crime of hosting his own literary salon, he had been condemned as an ‘Anti-Party Rightist’ for comments he had made during the Hundred Flowers movement two decades earlier. After lambasting the Communists for their increasingly stifling control over culture and the arts in an article published in a 1957 issue of the professional journal Theatre 《戲劇》 titled ‘On the Theatre and Party Leadership’ 談戲劇工作的領導問題, Zuguang asked:
‘Why do people in the arts need your “leadership” anyway? Who among you can tell me the Party Secretary who provided leadership to Qu Yuan? Or, for that matter, Li Bo, Du Fu, Guan Hanqing, Cao Xueqin or Lu Xun? And what about Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Beethoven and Molière?…
(Among those who denounced these comments the cruelest barbs were launched by Zuguang’s old friend Lao She 老舍, a man now regarded as some kind of martyred cultural saint. Lao She had only just denounced the need for ‘so-called creative freedom’ so now, in an article titled ‘Why is Wu Zuguang’s Fury so Dramatic?’ published in People’s Daily — 老舍,《吴祖光为什么怨气冲天》, 1957年8月20日 — he declared that ‘I feel even to have known someone like Wu Zuguang is like a stain on my character’.)
In August 2018, I dedicated my translation of Xu Zhangrun’s essay ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待 to the memory of Wu Zuguang. He was an outspoken man of principle who, even in the darkling years after 4 June 1989, never abandoned his independent critical stance.
Despite China’s relative openness over the past four decades, many other writers, thinkers, public activists and common citizens have been silenced. We will never know what China could have been, or might still become, if this countless multitude was able to speak out, debate and fearlessly participate in that country’s hamstrung public life.
— G.R. Barmé, Poetic Justice — a protest in verse, 5 April 2019
Teacher Grey’s ‘Socials’:
- YouTube: @geleilaoshi
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/geleilaoshi/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/geleilaoshi
More on Teacher Grey:
- 悉尼女乃爸 Sydney DaDDy, 獨家專訪格雷老師：不讓中國男生打飛機，因為我是中國人的真朋友, 油管, 2023年3月7日
- 外國Youtuber創作歌曲嘲諷中國 網讚太有才、極致辱華，自由时报，2023年2月23日
Also from Li Yuan’s Podcast series:
- Awakenings — a Voice from Young China on the Duty to Rebel, 14 November 2022; and,
- A Ray of Light, A Glimmer of Hope — Li Yuan talks to Jeremy Goldkorn & to a Shanghai protester, 10 December 2022
- 英語老師 Austin, YouTube
- 鴨架湯 — It’s Time for Another Serving of Peking Duck Soup, 12 March 2023
- 禽獸食祿 — Craven, Servile Knaves Hold Office, 7 March 2023
- Jianying Zha 查建英 & Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一, ‘Adieu, China! — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell’, China Heritage, 10 November 2020
- Namewee 黃明志 et al, ‘The Right to Know & the Need to Lampoon’, 18 October 2021
- Contentious Friendship — Watching China Watching (XXI), 29 April 2018
- ‘The Graying of Chinese Culture’, Chapter Five in Geremie R. Barmé, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp.99-144.
The Long Reach of China’s Cultural Censors
Li Yuan in conversation with Teacher Grey
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Li Yuan’s Introduction
Chinese censorship has become increasingly intrusive over the past decade. Books go unpublished, films are denied distribution rights and some artists are refused opportunities to exhibit their work. Established writers and artists feel constrained, unable to express themselves freely, while younger aspiring creators are forced into an accommodation with the upbeat demands of official ‘Keynote Culture’.
Powerful artistic voices are individualistic and unique. In a country that doesn’t tolerate any form of criticism, let alone satire or lampooning, artists who want to express themselves unhindered have limited options: be quiet, be persecuted, or go into exile. Many often have no say as to which of these fates will be theirs. Some cultural creators have chosen to ‘rùn 潤’, or decamp, overseas. Even then, although they are in a freer environment, they often realise that they’re living in the shadow of the censoring state. Some choose to hide, but others decided to confront their oppressors head-on.
In this episode of ‘Who Gets It?’不明白播客 we speak to three artists about their experiences:
- He Huang is a stand-up comic who performs in English. She has been attacked by ‘Little Pinks’ [online pro-Party zealots] for pandering to foreign audiences and ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people’;
- Badiucao is a political cartoonist who has been harassed and forced to cancel exhibitions. Galleries that want to show his work have even come under pressure from the Chinese authorities; and,
- Teacher Grey, an American musician who, after having released a number of Chinese songs, was forced to take down two works that mentioned Xi Jinping because his family was concerned by the blowback.
Those interested in learning more about Chinese cultural censorship are strongly encouraged to listen to ‘End of the Beginning’, three episodes in the podcast series ‘Film Criticism Gone Rogue’.
[Note: The three episodes in ‘Film Criticism Gone Rogue’ 反派影評 to which Li Yuan refers are:
Li Yuan: My third guest in this episode is ‘Teacher Grey’, a Chinese-speaking American who also writes and sings in Chinese. ‘Chinese Men Should Stop Masturbating’, one of his works recently released online has garnered a lot of attention, though his overnight fame on social media has also caused him some grief, so much so that he took down two other songs that the had posted because of the controversial nature of their lyrics.
Teacher Grey, could you say a few words of self-introduction, such as where you are from, what you thought of China when you were young and why you decided to study Chinese?
Teacher Grey: I grew up near Boston and it never occurred to me that I’d end up studying Chinese. I got interested in learning the language for one very specific reason — a girl. But, she disappeared when I was only three weeks into the language.
Li Yuan: What images did you have of China as a child?
Teacher Grey: I’ve always been pretty much all about enjoying freedom but growing up, I mostly disliked the American government. Some Americans have only the most superficial understanding of China, or it’s simply made no impression, though that was not true in my case. I think I was pretty much aware of the nature of the Chinese system from the start and I knew that things were heavily censored, too. I actually felt really uncomfortable on my first trip to China.
Li Yuan: When did you first go to China? Was it like what you had expected?
Teacher Grey: What really struck me was the pollution. Whenever you go to a new country or engage with a new culture you inevitably have to put your prejudices to one side. I found average Chinese people to be quite friendly, though I got a very strong sense that they were not aware that they were living under a totalitarian system. Since the system didn’t impinge on them directly they thought that they were pretty free.
Li Yuan: Did you get the feeling that it was a totalitarian environment?
Teacher Grey: I was always testing things out. One of the main reasons that I persisted with Chinese was that I was really interested in understanding what the people whose culture I was studying really thought about things. I remember a discussion I had with an elderly person about Mao Zedong. As someone who grew up in the West, what I had heard was that Mao was a genocidal ruler who had murdered people on an unprecedented scale. That’s all I knew. What surprised me was that many Chinese felt that, although Mao had made some mistakes, overall he was a good leader. It really shocked me.
Li Yuan: I get it. The Communists evaluate him as having been ’70 percent good and 30 percent flawed’. But, to change the subject, it looks as though you have over 100,000 followers on Bilibili as well as on YouTube, where you’ve posted videos of you teaching guitar. You’re known for guitar tutorials which have no political content or anything to do with current affairs. You were a musician, pure and simple. When did you take this political turn?
Teacher Grey: A good question. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally censored myself. When you learn Simplified Chinese characters as part of the process of studying Chinese you are in effect absorbing a form of propaganda. I have a strongly antipathy to anyone or anything that tries to infiltrate my mind. Since I like to be able to think things through for myself, it means that I end up objecting to lots of things. Though, as you said, I’m a musician first and foremost and that’s why, when I first set up my Bilibili account, I did so because I wanted to share my knowledge of music.
Initially, I was probably also thinking that it might lead to some money-making opportunities, but that end of things never came to anything. Since I didn’t see much good coming from platforms like that, added to the fact that China was moving in a very particular direction, I gave up any thought that I might make anything from my account. I knew that to make money I’d have to give up my freedom [to do as I pleased]. If you’re making money from something, profiting from it, you’ll always end up being compromised, or you lose your neutrality.
Actually, I’d devoted a considerable amount of resources to putting things online and my reward was the followers that I attracted. I really do appreciate my followers and I enjoyed making content for them. If you want to know if it led to some practical, real-world results, I’d say there was because maybe someone would search me out in Boston to take classes with me, but they were few and far between. The choices I made might not have led to any profitable outcome, but still I really felt proud of what I was doing.
Later, when the social media response to what I was doing went south I started wondering whether I was somehow complicit [in the system] simply by being online in the way I was, or that I’d end up being used: ‘See how foreigners like Teacher Grey are publishing with us. China’s a normal country like everywhere else and our online platforms are the same as those overseas.’
But I don’t think China is a ‘normal country’, nor do I think that online platforms in China are ‘normal’ at all. That’s why I ended up feeling really conflicted.
Li Yuan: So, although posting videos of guitar lessons on Bilibili seemed normal enough, to you China was simply not a ‘normal country’ and that left you feeling as though you were part of a large propaganda operation and your participation contributed to normalising the site. Was that your sense of things?
Teacher Grey: That’s right: my collaboration helped normalise things. I feel that after you’ve been unduly pressured and pushed into a corner, you really have to take a stand, one that reflects your principles. It was the beginning of the ‘Wolf Warrior’ era [around 2018-2019] and I was feeling pretty hopeless about things,. That’s why I felt that I had to come out in public and express my stance. I had to let my followers know that this teacher couldn’t support a site that tolerated censorship. So I wanted to out myself.
I struggled with it: because I have a lot of followers I agonised over what I should do. I really was conflicted. Some of my friends were willing to adapt, even if they were pretty rebellious [in private]. So, when I told them about my inner conflict, they just told me to chill out, but that was because they’d come to an accommodation. I kept mulling things over for a couple of years before I really settled on my position. That was about 18 months ago. I realised that my personal journey was about finding ways for me to use my talents to express myself. Here was what I was working with: I knew Chinese, which is interesting, and I was a musician. I thought maybe the way to go was to write some Chinese songs. Given my background and my particular perspective, I hoped to create things people would find interesting.
I say all of this while knowing full well that, of course, I’m not Asian and Chinese is not my mother tongue. Initially it didn’t occur to me to write satirical songs and the first thing I composed was pretty mainstream. And, to be frank, learning how to write lyrics in Chinese was a really slow process. It took me about an hour or so to write the first line of that first song of mine, even then I sought advice and guidance from a pile of people. Now I can pretty much draft a whole song before I check it with anyone else. Then, after I’ve tweaked it a bit, it’ll be pretty much good to go. Now I can say my songs really are all my own work. One example is ‘Chinese Boys, Don’t XXX Anymore’…
Li Yuan: Don’t worry, you can say ‘jerking off’ in this podcast.
Teacher Grey: Cool. That song only took me ten or so minutes to write.
Li Yuan: Wow, that’s really fast. What was your inspiration?
Teacher Grey: Maybe the truth is not so interesting. At the time, I was still feeling my way and hadn’t posted that many songs. Nor had I given up on my other pursuits but I knew full well [that after I posted it] I’d be banned, but I hadn’t given up. So I was experimenting with various kinds of content and one of the things I came up with related to the colloquial expression for ‘to masturbate’ in Chinese — that is, ‘take potshots at airplanes’. I’d decided the melody would be my starting point and though I hadn’t made a video to go with it, the idea of a big airplane was very much in my thoughts. Anyway, I thought ‘potshots at planes’ was a pretty funny expression, what was that all about? Sure, it was a bit on the smutty-side of things, but not so much. Everyone did it whenever they had a chance. Starting with this funny idea I had to see how I could work it into a song. Then I thought that I could associate it with China’s aging population and the falling birthrate. I just sat down and came up with a draft. I showed it to a few people and continued revising it until in just over a week I had a final version.
Li Yuan: You posted another song titled ‘Let’s Say Goodbye, Zhao Lijian’. Was that the first song you put up? It meant that you’d been paying attention to the Wolf Warriors for a while. When did you write it?
Teacher Grey: Some time this February. The day I posted that song my life changed.
Li Yuan: What kind of reactions did you get?
Teacher Grey: ‘NMSL’ [你媽死了 nǐ mā sǐle] — your mother is dead meat!
Li Yuan: In other words, abuse from Little Pinks [that is, patriotic zealots].
Teacher Grey: I treated those attacks as being bots. The messages were all in the same stilted style and didn’t sound the way people really speak. After all, I know quite a few Chinese people and that’s simply not the way anyone expresses themselves. Why was some machine talking to me like that?
Li Yuan: So, what you’re telling me is that you’d been thinking about writing political songs for about 18 months, and then you worked out how to combine the Chinese lyrics you wrote with your own music. Then, all of a sudden, in February this year, you decided to write a whole pile of songs.
Teacher Grey: A few things happened that really inspired me to act, including a vigil here in Boston. People gathered to commemorate and mourn the Urumqi apartment fire and I was one of the speakers. [Before] I addressed the crowd I was thinking, what do I as a foreigner have to say that could be useful here? . So I addressed the issue of what I call ‘fake Chinese friends’ and ‘real Chinese friends’.
[Note: See Fear, Fury & Protest — three years of viral alarm, 27 November 2022; and, Yangyang Cheng, In China’s Diaspora, Visions of a Different Homeland, ChinaFile, 12 December 2022.]
At first I was shaking from nerves. That’s because I was saying out loud things that I had been mulling over for ages. I was really worked up, angry. Since I was crying behind my mask I just pulled it off. I was saying in effect that I’m not afraid. I’m an American, after all, what did I have to fear? I took off my mask to demonstrate my position, it was my way of saying to everyone: there is no reason to be that afraid. From then, no matter what I did, I kept thinking to myself: I will no longer remain silent; I will no longer censor myself. I will no longer be a false friend of China.
Li Yuan: Why do use the expression ‘a false friend of China’? Do you mean that if you don’t tell the truth then you are a false friend?
Teacher Grey: Why not be truthful — people want to be able to make a buck, but how exactly are they making their money? By collaborating with the Communist Party. I mean, they are playing by the Party’s rules and everyone knows that if you say something inappropriate you’ll lose your source of income. At the same time, you also know full well that people are suffering, but you make no effort to speak out on their behalf.
I remember how many videos were posted online about what had happened in Urumqi, so many of them were put up by enthusiastic online friends, but the censors kept on deleting them. I remember one piece in particular. It was an article consisting of just one word: ‘Correct’ [對 duì]. ‘Correct, correct, correct, correct, correct…’
[Note: For a calligraphic compilation of the word 對 duì, see A Protection Mantra for the Year of the Rabbit, 22 January 2023.]
Li Yuan: Whatever you [the authorities] say is correct, ‘everything you say is right’.
Teacher Grey: I shared it with my circle of friends because I didn’t think it’d be deleted. But, within ten or so minutes, even ‘correct’ had been scrubbed. It was absolutely ridiculous.
Li Yuan: Black humour.
Teacher Grey: Even when we use one simple word to show you up for what you are, you can’t cope.
Li Yuan: So, for you, a ‘false friend’ is someone who doesn’t tell the truth. Though if you go onto Chinese social media sites you can’t say anything negative about China. Is that the sense you have?
Teacher Grey: That’s right. Actually, it was a slow process, like becoming addicted to a kind of drug. At first, you’re not really conscious of what’s happening to you. I just kept posting things and talking about stuff in China with friends on Facebook. Then, after a few years, I realised that I didn’t even dare do that. Later, when I started thinking about going to Taiwan, I was even afraid of mentioning the word ‘Taiwan’.
Li Yuan: Really? You mean on WeChat?
Teacher Grey: Yeah. I didn’t dare use the word. In reality, it was no big deal talking about things like that with friends, but some of the groups I was in — some followers and fans — and places online where you can interact with your followers, I became worried that something I said would trigger a ban. I finally embraced the idea that I’d be cancelled one way or another so I made a point of doing stuff that would get me banned. Then I didn’t have to worry any more.
Li Yuan: Have you been completely barred from Chinese sites.
Teacher Grey: I sure have been.
Remembering Every Sperm is Sacred
It is forty years since the musical sketch Every Sperm is Sacred featured in The Meaning of Life, a cinematic sketch comedy released by Monty Python in 1983. The song mocked Catholic teachings about sex, masturbation and contraception. As the most famous line in the spoof put it:
Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.
(See YouTube for the full song. Also, for the lead in to the sketch, see here.)
For some people in the English-speaking world, Every Sperm is Sacred was a landmark moment. A pop culture sensation, the song further legitimated criticisms of Catholicism and religious dogma that had flourished since the 1960s. In The God Delusion the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins used the song to highlight the ‘surreal idiocy’ of pro-religion, anti-abortion arguments. Today, the barbs of Every Sperm is Sacred hit the mark just as hard as they did forty years ago.
Li Yuan: After you released ‘Chinese Boys, Don’t Masturbate Anymore’ you no longer self-censored — you were going to say whatever you wanted — and that song certainly had a considerable impact. Even so, you still ended up taking two other songs that you’d posted down from the web. Can you tell me about that?
Teacher Grey: Sure. It’s been the source of a lot of inner conflict since, as you said, I was determined not to censor myself anymore but here I was self-censoring again. I think that the point is, I no longer wish to self-censor the topics and ideas I discuss, but I still can be mindful about exactly how I choose to discuss them. In particular when it might result in some kind of physical danger for me. The two songs I took down could have resulted in me being physically harmed, but that was because they touched on the most sensitive topic of all.
Li Yuan: Both songs mentioned Xi Jinping by name. One had a very suggestive title — ‘Uncle Xi, I wanna make love with you’, which was translated from English. I was pretty taken aback when I saw it and thought to myself: Only an American could possibly come up with something like that. No Chinese would dare. Can you tell me who or what sounded the alarm?
[Note: The title of the second song is ‘Xi Jinping, Some Day You’ll Die’ 習近平將來你會死去.]
Teacher Grey: I’d just set up a Twitter account and already had 12,000 followers. That’s just crazy. I felt immense pressure from the day after I posted them. I’d been wanting to do something like that for ages, but there’s no way I could guess what the repercussions might be. Such instant popularity in and of itself made me feel pretty anxious, in particular because some media outlets got in touch. Of course, there were people attacking me online too. It all happened at once: the good, the bad and the ugly.
That morning my dad rang me to cuss me out: ‘Don’t you realise that you’re going to get yourself killed?’ He was furious and he ordered me to take those two songs down immediately. I wanted to ignore him and, although I didn’t delete them entirely, I did make them invisible. That’s to say, I can always re-post them if I want to. By removing them I could have a bit of a cooling off period.
Li Yuan: How much does your father know about China? I can’t imagine anyone would actually murder you for those songs. [Laughs.]
Teacher Grey: I know. The Chinese government wouldn’t order a hit job lightly, though it’d be different if it was Russia.
Li Yuan: Don’t you think you were overreacting?
Teacher Grey: Sure, I didn’t think I’d be murdered, but the anger was palpable and I felt real pressure. I needed a little breathing space, both for the sake of my family and for myself. Recently I haven’t enjoyed the best psychological health, anyway, and I was in therapy. I was completely caught off guard when all the reactions flooded in. I really felt as thought I was on the verge. In fact, I broke down sobbing about once a day every day for the following week.
Li Yuan: That’s to say that you were overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the response to your songs and the pressure that you felt as a result. People were being hypercritical, even though you felt that some of the reactions were computer-generated bots, or the work of paid online vigilantes. Others were participating in the mob to make some money out of the furore, since being an online vigilante is an easy way to generate income these days. Added to that was your determination not to self-censor any more, even though in the event you felt compelled to take those two songs down. At that moment, which of all of these factors was the most important?
Teacher Grey: I don’t want to say too much about my personal situation, though my actions really had a negative impact on my family. I felt devastated. Having said that, I still didn’t feel that I’d done anything wrong, so the contrast between what I had done and what was going on at home was something that was pretty much beyond repair.
Li Yuan: From a certain perspective this goes back to the pressure brought to bear on you by the Chinese authorities, even if that pressure expressed itself in this indirect way.
Teacher Grey: That was definitely a factor. In a society with legal protections you wouldn’t be impacted so badly for having said something like that. But we all know that’s not the situation when it comes to China. It doesn’t respect the rule of law. What I’d done wasn’t a criminal offense, but if they want to, they have other means at their disposal to threaten me, or make trouble. That was a real pressure.
Li Yuan: I understand how you might have feel that you were being treated unfairly, Some people attacked you for using art to make political statements. Others claimed that you were composing dissident songs because you couldn’t make money in China any more. Then there was the line that you had got yourself involved in anti-China activities so you could curry favour in the US.
Teacher Grey: Of course, I want to be able to make money. I’m a musician; what’s wrong with making a living from my music? For me, that was never an issue. As individuals we also have complex motivations, and why should we judge people entirely on the basis of their motives? If I really wanted to make money, why had I chosen to do it like this? That kind of logic made no sense to me.
Li Yuan: There are some foreigners who work for Chinese state media. They post or write things on YouTube or in the international media and create videos which essentially parrot the official Chinese line. What do you think of that kind of work and the foreigners who participate in it?
Teacher Grey: I have absolutely no respect for them. They’re trash. I guess that you’re talking about ‘Foreign Fifty-centers’, right? I don’t think any Chinese person should have any doubt that people like that are hypocrites. If you’re born and raised in a free country you don’t learn how to behave like that, unless there is something seriously wrong with you. But there’s no lack of people like that. Furthermore, they really are in it for the money.
Li Yuan: So, you’ve written a few songs, been confronted by many people who have attacked you and, on top of that, you’ve had problems at home. How then do you regard the situation of Chinese artists? They don’t even have the freedom to say what they want to.
A while back there was a stand-up comedian by the name of Chizi who performed during a trip to North America. His set couldn’t even be posted on the Chinese internet and he even forbade people from recording his show. Every Chinese creator faces the same situation that you’ve had a taste of, though things are worse for them. How do you see it?
[Note: See on The ‘Social Death’ of Chizi.]
Teacher Grey: We are all victims of the system, and as such I don’t feel that I’m in the position to criticise or even comment on others. If a person chooses to remain silent and just goes about their business making money then I have no right to criticise them. However, if you are really an artist who wants to actually create something meaningful I think you have to do your utmost to do so. If you can’t, then you still have to try. We shouldn’t be critical of our friends, we need to understand their circumstances, understand the root cause of the problem.
For me, what’s more serious is that [given this state of affairs] China is incapable of producing any truly meaningful art: Chinese films are garbage, so is the music scene. It’s simply not popular. Meanwhile, much smaller places like Taiwan, Japan and Korea produce cultural work that is vastly superior to that of China. You have to ask, why is this so? It’s no accident. If every artistic form is under such immense pressure then of course you’re not going to see any real talent flourish.
Li Yuan: Too true. Censorship really is a killer for creative people.
[Note: See Less Velvet, More Prison, 26 June, 2017.]
When were you last in China and do you plan to go again in the future?
Teacher Grey: I was last in China in late 2018. As for going back, I don’t see that happening, unless there are some pretty major changes.
Li Yuan: Such as?
Teacher Grey: Like if the Communist Party quits the scene.
Li Yuan: [Laughs] Sure.
Teacher Grey: There’ve been a few minor changes lately, but maybe that’s been more in tone than in substance. But we’ve seen it all before; the main hope lies in fundamental change.
Li Yuan: Is there anything more you’d like to add?
Teacher Grey: I’ve posted these more political things because I felt I had to be open about my stance. I willingly outed myself and that led to me being censored. But that allowed me peace of mind and the freedom to write my music. In future, I might continue creating more comical songs like the ones I’ve released lately. Whatever. At least now I’m free to write whatever I want.
Anyone who wishes to see what comes next should keep an eye on Teacher Grey and subscribe to my Instagram account and my YouTube channel.
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袁莉：你創作了這幾首歌，然後就面臨了很多的這種網絡上的攻擊，還有你的家庭各方面的這種的壓力。那你怎麼看一些中國的藝術家是吧，他們就不能夠說話，前一陣子一個人叫池子的stand up comdedian，他到了美國去開脫口秀，說的話完全不能放到中國的互聯網上，但是他不允許別人去錄音。你面臨的這個困境，是普通的任何一個中國的藝術家都在面臨的，他們的困境比你還要大一些。你怎麼看這個呢？