Can China stop the Back-Dorm Boys?

No more unapproved online lip-syncing, declares the Ministry of Culture. Good luck with that.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 22, 2007 7:03PM (EST)

In between alarming the rest of the world by shooting down weather satellites with missiles, and making vague promises to allow its currency to appreciate further, China's government hasn't been ignoring the really important things -- like putting a stop to wild-eyed revolutionaries who want to upload lip-synced parodies of Backstreet Boy songs to YouTube. A thoroughly engrossing story in China Daily, "E'gao: Art criticism or evil?" informs us that in December, the Ministry of Culture released a new regulation declaring that "all music that has been modified from its original form, including those for non-profit purposes, must first be submitted to the ministry, before being uploaded online." (Thanks to China Digital Times for the link.)

Never mind that China's record at enforcing intellectual property laws is less than stellar. Even though China Daily asserts that online music in China generated $360 million in revenue last year, this new move may be more about attempting to squelch a consumerist cultural uprising. China's youth are engaged in a rampage that, according to China Daily, "has no agenda or logic." What could possibly be scarier to the commissars?

The regulation targets what the China Daily describes as a new form of art -- "e'gao," a combination of the Chinese characters for "evil" and "make fun of" -- that is sweeping Chinese pop culture. You can't find better exemplars of the genre than the Back-Dorm Boys, a pair of talented jokesters recently graduated from the Guangzhou Art Institute. If you haven't yet marveled at their lip-synced versions of "I Want It That Way," or Trio's "Da Da Da," the next time you have some spare time in which you want to divert yourself with some utterly unredeemable and yet strikingly compelling pop art, give 'em a whirl.

The Back-Dorm Boys may be the most famous practitioners of e'gao, but they are hardly alone. According to China Daily, "'The Bloody Case Caused By A Steamed Bun,' an Internet parody of the mega-budget film 'The Promise' [directed by legendary Chinese director Chen Kaige] enabled its creator Hu Ge to immediately become an e'gao luminary early last year." There's also the terribly distressing saga of "Fatty" -- a somehat chubby Chinese youngster whose visage has become the favorite of cruel Chinese Photoshoppers across the globe.

What is e'gao, really? China Daily says:

The word e'gao is so new it is not even listed in Chinese dictionaries.

However, it can be traced to the Japanese word "kuso", the definition of an Internet subculture that deconstructs serious literature or artistic materials to entertain people.

Of course, Kuso has many meanings, depending on the context: "Damned", "funny", "nonsense", "idiocy", "feces" and "mischievous tricks" are just some of them.

In Taiwan's Internet subculture and video gamers' communities, Kuso has evolved into a new attitude towards life that suggests "making fun of everything and playing practical jokes". It has no agenda or logic.

In other words: e'gao is Dada! (Which makes the Trio satire pure genius, even if unintentional.)

China's love-hate relationship with the Internet has been well documented. On the one hand, China has encouraged the upgrading of the country's telecommunications and computer networking infrastructure as essential to the nation's modernization efforts. But at the same time it has engaged in a more vigorous effort than any other nation to censor Internet content. China's efforts at squashing political dissent are also well known -- and any time you get two China experts together, the question inevitably comes up: Can China modernize and keep the lid on simultaneously? Or will the civil society birthed by economic affluence demand more liberty?

The edict against e'gao, which, as any casual Internet surfer soon understands, is a form of popular expression that flows naturally from the intersection of teenagers with digital technologies, is just another attempt to keep the pot from boiling over. But after watching the Back-Dorm Boys romp through "Da Da Da," the message is clear: The Chinese Communist Party might as well call it a day and go home. It has no chance. This new generation will not be denied. It might take a few decades, but it's coming.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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