Notes from a pilot's kid

Kill the man from Shijiazhuang (杀死那个石家庄人) - Political Chinese Rock

Here is a version on Youku in case, like me, YouTube is blocked where you’re viewing this.

傍晚六點下班 換掉藥廠的衣裳 妻子在熬粥 我去喝幾瓶啤酒 如此生活三十年 直到大廈崩塌 雲層深處的黑暗啊 淹沒心底的景觀

在八角櫃檯 瘋狂的人民商場 用一張假鈔 買一把假槍 保衛她的生活 直到大廈崩塌 夜幕覆蓋華北平原 憂傷浸透她的臉

河北師大附中 乒乓少年背向我 沉默的注視 無法離開的教室 生活在經驗裡 直到大廈崩塌 一萬匹脫韁的馬 在他腦海中奔跑

如此生活三十年 直到大廈崩塌 一萬匹脫韁的馬 在他腦海中奔跑

如此生活三十年 直到大廈崩塌 雲層深處的黑暗啊 淹沒心底的景觀

Translation:

At nightfall, 6pm, I get off work, take off my factory uniform. Wife’s cooking porridge, I go have a few beers. Been like this for 30 years, until the building fell down, A thick, dark blanket of clouds Has drowned out my heart.

At the bar counter, the mad men’s meeting point. Using some fake money, buy a black market gun. Protected her life until the building fell down. Darkness covers the North China Plain Her face covered in sadness and grief.

In the hebei middle school, Kids play ping pong, facing away from me. Silently staring at them, No way for them to get out. Life is here, being lived until the building fell down. A million wild thoughts Are running through his brain.

Been like this for 30 years, until the building fell down, A thick, dark blanket of clouds Has drowned out my heart.

Kill the man from Shijiazhuang (杀死那个石家庄人) is an emotional, bleak song from the Chinese rock group Omnipotent Youth Society (万能青年旅店). It’s a song with a story, one that is dark and vague, focusing more on feelings than actions. The lyrics are structured so that pieces of the story alternate with reflections on life from the story’s main character. Both the story and these reflections are surely relatable, either personally or politically, to many Chinese and especially those who were in the workforce before China’s economy opened to the world. Though the lyricist has (reluctantly) provided an official explanation of the meaning of the song in an interview, I think the lyrics were written vaguely so that they could be interpreted freely and thus more relatable. First I’ll share my interpretation of the song, perhaps taking the lyrics more literally than intended: I see it as a message about the false hope and security offered by a trust in authoritarianism. Then I’ll compare this interpretation to the lyricist’s official interpretation at the end.

The lyrics describe a man with an ordinary life reciting his afternoon routine: the sun goes down, he leaves work, changes, sees his wife cooking, and goes for some drinks down the street before dinner. The song’s first moment of reflection indicates that his life has been this way for three decades, hinting that this stability and regularity has brought him and his family some happiness. But something catastrophic has just happened: a building fell down, which brought feelings of grief and sadness to his wife and caused him to go crazy, buying a gun on the black market at the local bar. The story ends as this man with his newly-purchased gun has approached a middle school classroom where kids are playing ping-pong, thinking about what he could do to them with the power and control he holds in his hands.

It is unclear from the lyrics which building has fallen down. Perhaps the man’s factory was closed and demolished after a decision by the company or government that runs it, causing him to lose his employment of 30 years. The building could also be his apartment: demolition and forced relocation of residential property is not uncommon in China and could have also brought such feelings of grief and anguish to the man and his wife. But ultimately the emotions that the collapse created are more important to the song than specifics about what really happened: the destruction has made the man feel like there’s nothing left for him and his family in spite of his thirty years of commitment to his job.

Beyond the story’s content illustrating despair and ruin, the tone in which it is told is even more grim. In one moment of reflection, colorful lyrics describe clouds numbing hearts with their darkness and depth. The repeated line in the song “been like this for 30 years, untill the building fell down” emphasizes the feelings associated with a lack of control of the situation. “Life is here, being lived” is chillingly sung in the highest pitch of the song and seems like a cry of madness at the realization that there are still ways to decide one’s own fate.

Many Chinese surely have memory of a time when they (or their parents) were assigned work at a government factory like the that of the man in the story. For anyone in this position, it may have brought stability to what was previously a poor and uncertain time in China. But fate at a government factory is still out of the hands of the individual: at the flick of a wrist, a provincial government leader could move or close factories without the obligation to protect the futures of the factories’ workers, leading to thousands of people in the same position as this man from Shijiazhuang in the song’s story. This sentiment is also brought to life through film: director Jia Zhangke’s quasi-documentary “24 City (二十四成记)” covers a similar story of a factory shutdown in Sichuan province, focusing on the reflections and emotions of the group of people who had spent most of their lives working at the factory together as they watch it be shut down for good.

Even for those with different backgrounds, the song is figuratively relatable. Anyone who has committed over time to an objective or goal only to have its prospects squashed by authorities or something else out of their control could understand the hopelessness, dark clouds, and grief described by the song. The song’s vagueness aids its relatability; a building collapse can serve as a metaphor for collapsed opportunity or a broken promise, and a middle school shooting, perhaps on the classrom where the factory owner or government official’s child attends, is a dark, extreme metaphor for seeking revenge as a crazed last resort.

The official interpretation (official in the sense that someone from Zhihu, the Chinese Quora, quoted an interview with the lyricist) is less cohesive but equally depressing:

很多人都没看明白——这歌就是写一个家庭嘛,第一段父亲,第二段母亲,第三段孩子。作为一个非常偏执的中年妇女,就是他妈的认为自己手里有一把枪,天天特别紧张地想去保卫生活。这个假枪你在那儿都买得到,或者你买不到手里也有一把无形的。这就是个典型的一家三口,虚假的中产阶级温馨,结果全他妈是扯淡,杀,都杀掉!小孩背叛,父母绝望,最后全鸡吧完蛋。

“Many people don’t get it – this song is about a family: the first part is the father, second part is the mother, and third part is their child. The messed-up middle-aged woman thinks she has a fucking gun in her hand, always walking around nervously trying to protect herself. You could buy this kind of gun anywhere…perhaps it’s best considered as something figurative. It’s just a model three-person family with this fake, distorted sense of middle-class comfort and security. The result is complete fucking nonsense: kill, kill them all! The kid is trapped, parents are hopeless, and everything’s fucked.

Considering the lyrics this way, the story is not sequential but instead three brief segments from different points of view in one middle-class family. The same sense of hopelessness is evident in the lyricist’s official explanation, but a metaphorical gun is far less violent than the school shooting I envisioned. In the interview segment, the lyricist does not reference possible sources of the hopelessness expressed in the song, political or not, so one can still only consider that part for themselves.