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Yaogun – Beijing’s Best Rock n Roll Dives

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When you think of Beijing you probably imagine fantastical Ming palaces, the austere edifices of socialism or the vast Great Wall meandering its way over forested hills. You might conjure to mind the scholars and scribes, the courtiers, artisans, eunuch and royal concubines who once inhabited the imperial citadel. Or perhaps you think of contemporary China – crowded highways, a festering high-tech industry, malls decorated with the plastic trappings of consumerism. Rock music is seldom what comes immediately to mind when one thinks of the Chinese capital.

Yet since economic reforms were introduced in the 1980s Beijing has been at the centre a rock n roll culture that helped transform the mind-set of generations of disenfranchised youths. The story began when a classically trained trumpet player named Cui Jian took up the guitar and performed Yi Wu Suo You (Nothing to my Name) on a televised talent show filmed in the People’s Workers Stadium. The song captured the zeitgeist and introduced a new word to the Chinese lexicon – “yaogun” literally “shake-roll”.

By the early 1990s a golden generation of musicians had emerged that included Dou Wei, Tang Dynasty, He Yong and others. The first wave, following Cui’s lead, fused traditional Chinese music styles like folk and opera with influences introduced from the West. 

Within a decade the scene had diversified to include punk, heavy metal and host of subgenres and hybrid versions of the basic rock n roll formula. Longhaired, leather jacketed yaoguners were a regular sight on the capital’s streets. Word of mouth gigs had given way to a nascent bar scene where local and expat bands toured the Beijing circuit. And underground festival organizations like Midi emerged as sophisticated concert promoters, hosting large-scale rock n roll gatherings in Beijing and beyond.

Nowadays, alas, yaogun is no longer the youth culture force it once was in Beijing. High rents have put a lot of venues out of business. The emergence of live houses nationwide means that many bands prefer to tour the country, not just do the capital circuit. And consumerism has lured many would-be-rockers to bling malls and fine food franchises.

Yet while jazz, folk and electronic alternatives have all chipped away at Beijing’s rock n roll architecture, the temple hasn’t caved in yet and it remains the city for any aspiring rocker to grab their axe and cut their teeth. A large expat community and China’s biggest student population ensures there’s always an audience for a good show, while the labyrinth of hutongs (alleyways) that snake through the city provide ample spaces for dive bars. The only question is selecting the grungy venue that’s right for you. The following, in no particular order, are the head-banger friendly hangouts of the day.


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A slightly westernized venue above Dada Club in Guluo, with a large cocktail selection, Temple is one of the wildest rocker haunts in Beijing these days. Bands are often free and after gigs, DJs play classic tracks into the wee hours. Expect metal, punk and getting very drunk.


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A backdoor joint on Wudaoying Hutong near the Lama Temple, School is (as its name suggests) popular with the student crowd. Touring bands from Taiwan and Mainland China give this grungy venue an underground vibe while inexpensive drinks ensure a salubrious ambience.

Jianghu Bar

An easy-to-miss hutong venue, Jianghu, on Jiangmianhua Hutong, is very much a music-orientated bar with all attention directed at the stage. Over pints of delicious craft beer audiences can check out nightly shows. The joint plays host to everything from the latest avant-garde jazz band to Chicago blues, and anything between.   

Dusk 'till Dawn Club

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Another quintessentially Beijing-style bar, with classical décor converted to meet contemporary needs, DDC is one of the most art-orientated venues in Beijing. To this end expect film nights, jam sessions as well as weird and wonderful bands from China and overseas.

Hot Cat

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Located in a cosmopolitan hutong close to where many westerner teachers and creative live, Hot Cat is real good time venue. Due to the large international crowd it remains a favourite with expat bands like the Beijing Beatles. In addition to regular bands Hot Cat also plays hosts comedy and open-mic nights.

Yugong Yishan

A place of legend in the hallowed halls of Beijing rock history, Yugong Yishan (named after a Chinese proverb about a foolish man who wants to move a mountain and succeeds) is still going strong after many years, location changes and transformations. A larger venue than most, Yugong Yishan is place to see well know touring bands and mini-festivals as door tickets can set you back a bit.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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