A man spends decades working a monotonous factory job. His wife grows increasingly insecure about the future. Their son is withdrawn, seemingly struggling at school. Then a building collapses, and their world comes crashing down. It was a story of disillusionment and hopelessness in the industrial city of Shijiazhuang, and it was one of China’s most influential indie rock songs.
Then a local Communist Party group decided to rewrite it.
China’s government has long used censorship to control expression. But sometimes, instead of outright erasing a form or message it doesn’t like, it co-opts it instead, transforming it to spread what the government calls “positive energy.” (Beijing has also promoted patriotic hip-hop.)
The party rewrote nearly the entire song. But can it write lyrics?
Spreading ‘Positive Energy’
Released in 2010, “Kill That One from Shijiazhuang,” the original song, has been widely interpreted as elegizing the painful side effects of China’s modernization. As the Communist Party embraced market reforms in the 1990s, workers at state-run companies in Shijiazhuang, in northern China, faced mass layoffs. Many people’s expectations of a lifelong paycheck, known as the “iron rice bowl,” were shattered. The city, once an economic powerhouse, declined.
The band, Omnipotent Youth Society, is from Shijiazhuang. Ji Geng, the band’s lyricist and bass player, has said the song is about the “the erosion of enthusiasm and self-esteem” in one family. The singer’s plaintive vocals, set at first against a simple backdrop of harmonica and strings, build to a soaring guitar solo.
The revamped song largely keeps the musical structure. But its lyrics couldn’t be more different.
It is the work of the Communist Youth League in Hebei Province, where Shijiazhuang is the capital. Though the rewrite first appeared in 2021, it gained new attention last month, when the Shijiazhuang government, trying to lure visitors and reinvigorate its economy, announced a campaign to rebrand itself as China’s capital of rock ‘n’ roll. Its slogan: “The Unkillable Shijiazhuang.”
Erasing a Personal Narrative
At first, the new version appears fairly similar to the original. Both open with the city’s blue-collar roots, painting a picture of a factory worker’s daily routine.
But quickly, the narratives diverge.
In the original, the second verse transitions from the worker to his wife. She is desperate to protect her old way of life, though she seems powerless to do so.
In the new version, the intimacy of personal narrative disappears.
And with it goes her despair, replaced by inspiring images of a new day. Gone is her shattered sense of security, replaced by generic slogans about marching forward.
The same happens in the third verse.
In the original, the story of the family continues, shifting to the couple’s teenage son. He seems standoffish, and like his mother, pessimistic about the future. The new song flips the sentiment of moody adolescence entirely, instead exalting a city working hard and “living up to its prime years.”
Out With Uncertainty, in With Confidence
Perhaps the biggest departure from the original, at least for longtime fans, is in the chorus. The new version almost completely omits the central lyrical motif, about the building collapsing. That building has commonly been interpreted as a metaphor for people’s worldviews, undermined by rapid change. The lyricist once said: “There are all kinds of buildings: buildings of our families, of our work, of our illusions. Buildings can all collapse.”
In the original song, the line about a building collapsing appears five times, creating a foreboding, mournful atmosphere throughout.
In the new song, it appears just once at the beginning. Then the song moves on to the joyful celebration of what comes after.
It’s little surprise, then, that the two versions end in completely different places. One is bleak and despondent. The other, overflowing with optimism.
A music video that the Communist Youth League made to accompany the new song features glossy shots of saluting schoolchildren and smiling workers.
Still, as musicians the world over have long known, putting out a song is one thing. Making people actually listen to and resonate with it is another.
And so far, on Chinese social media, the reaction to the revised effort has been decidedly unimpressed. “Somehow this version is even more depressing,” one of the most popular comments read.