Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

How a rocker became a GQ hero

IT'S always been a rocky road for rockers and alternative artists in China. But weird and way-out Left-hand Little Curses has just been named GQ China's Pop Musician of the Year. Yao Minji explores his rise.

Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou (left-hand little curses), a rock singer and contemporary artist, has always been better known to other artists than the general public.

In fact, his work has been and remains jarring and provocative, and the lyrics often tantalizingly (some say absurdly) obscure. He deliberately sings off-key.

"I'm a bowl of kung pao chicken," goes a signature song by the man who calls his notions the "aesthetics of ugliness" and says he strives for the jumbled "beauty of noises."

Recording companies used to ask him to tone it down. He objected but conformed a bit. Today he doesn't have to. He's holding a concert on Monday.

The 40-year-old singer, songwriter and "behavior artist," commonly called Zu Zhou, has collaborated with contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei and composed scores for art-house film makers like Jia Zhangke and Zhu Wen.

For years, Zu Zhou (birth name Wu Hongjin) had a cult following as an artist for artists, musicians and writers - not an artist for the public.

Most people have never heard his strange stage name, for which he has given a variety of explanations. One being that he is the youngest (little) among the group of artists he hangs out with, a mischief or trouble maker (left hand suggests provocative) and that he is always angry and cursing.

Cool off-key

But all that has changed and now Little Left-hand Curses is quite famous, with a post-1990s generation following that thinks he's cool. In September he was named China GQ's Pop Musician of the Year - a big jump to fashion status from scruffy alternative gigs of the past.

An intriguing combination of factors took him to the top last year, the breakthrough year for the kid who sold smuggled cassettes after middle school in Beijing and hung around the alternative art and music world in the 1980s.

He doesn't seem as weird as before; tastes have changed. Even last year's Super Girl talent show winner Zeng Yike sings off-key (Zu Zhou has been doing it for 15 years) and she was a guest performer at one of his concerts.

Also, his network of famous (and now very wealthy) contemporary artists has come through for him and he is said to have his own "backbone boss," a wealthy businessman who funds him.

Canadian band Cowboy Junkies collaborated with him last year and covered one of his old songs, "I Cannot Sit Sadly By You," in English in their new release.

"I'm not underground anymore. The reason I can sit here as a star today is because I've become mainstream - you have made me mainstream," the Nanjing native announced at a fans' meeting late September at Pudong's Jinqiao International Plaza.

The reality, however, is that he hasn't changed his music much but tastes have changed and he is now above ground. He has done the things and received all the awards befitting an emerging pop star.

He has been interviewed by the country's biggest newspapers, magazines and TV stations. He held a sold-out concert in Beijing in April, his first in eight years, and tickets sold out instantly.

On Monday, he will hold a live show at Jinqiao International Plaza. He will perform after two other pop/rock/folk singers, Shino Lin tomorrow and Su Yang on Sunday.

It's the kind of commercial performance Zu Zhou would never have been invited to give just a couple of years ago.

He has even written a book, "The Sad Boss" published this year, neither a novel nor a biography. He calls it "an encouraging book to let young people know you can still make achievements even if you haven't graduated from a university and don't have rich or connected parents."

"Actually, I really want to write some mainstream songs soon," he tells Shanghai Daily.

You have to take Zu Zhou's words with a grain of salt as he's a teller of personal fables. He has a record of making people wonder whether he is being literal or ironic. Like his lyrics, which have listeners wondering whether they are poems or jokes.

Kung pao chicken

"I'm a bowl of kung pao chicken, fleeing and chasing in the empire of freedom, roasted to dance on the dark banquet table where countless ancestors danced," he sings in a track from his first album (1998). It's about reality and traditions.

His songs, with delicate folk melodies and electronic beats, often contain poetic lyrics and black humor about politics, daily life, friendship, love, sex and social phenomena, like high housing prices and materialistic women who sell themselves to rich men.

"Every single song has a story and I tell the stories through music," he says. "I have my own aesthetics that people don't understand. It's the 'aesthetics of ugliness.' It's the beauty of noises."

This is perhaps why Zu Zhou hasn't achieved widespread recognition until recently - the "aesthetics of ugliness."

He deliberately sings off-key and with odd, rambling rhythms - to achieve "the beauty of noises." The first time they hear him, most people raise their eyebrows and ask "what on earth is this?" and then check to see if something is wrong with their player or battery.

He has been asked by recording companies to modify his lyrics (change "sex organs" to "life habits," for example), to lower his voice to make the suspect lyrics less audible and to sing on key.

Dug out

But through this convergence of factors, the media and the public dug him out from the counterculture and made him a star.

"They dug me out without realizing that I'm a digger too," he says. "I don't think about being mainstream or not, or getting commercialized. We Chinese often think too much before acting."

The married artist, with a three-year-old daughter, now lives in a large house with garden in the Beijing suburbs, drives a car and doesn't worry about money.

His latest album, "Social Affairs" (December 2009), is described by critics as "better" than his usual difficult fare, even "too nice." It contains "Beijing Pictorial," a 15-minute narrative "song" about how a newcomer to Beijng degenerates into a "cold-blooded bastard" because of the wealth gap and scramble for money.

Zu Zhou knows what it means to scramble for money and he used to constantly worry.

He was one of first residents of Beijing East Village, a landmark of Chinese contemporary arts inspired by New York's East Village.

That was when he adopted his stage name Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou. He and 10 other village artists created "Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain" (1995), a landmark in Chinese behavior art that was exhibited at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. It includes a large stunning photograph of naked men and women in a pyramid and video about how it was created.

In the photo, nine men and two women pack themselves atop each other, face down, in a pyramid on a mountain top. Among other things, it's about relations between the sexes and harmony between man and nature. The nude women were shocking at the time.

"It was a great work, like a lot of my early songs and paintings, but it was too advanced and ahead of its time for the public to accept," he says. "So I'm quite glad the times have finally caught up with me."


In 2008, Zu Zhou released a remixed version of the toned-down album "The Lost Master" (1998) considered a classic by some critics. He said the first album was "complete rubbish because of all the compromises I made to satisfy the recording company."

Critics had mixed reviews, some loving it, some hating it, saying the original was better.

"He is just like a wild dog who's cruel to everyone including himself, since lyrics even included self-castration," said noted music critic Chen Ha about the remix. "He's very harsh on all the ugly things in the world, pointing them out and cursing them with his unique aesthetics.

"The wild dog hasn't changed much in the past 10 years, neither his personality nor his aesthetic, which is really rare and precious."


October 2 - Shino Lin October 3 - Su Yang

October 4 - Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou

Address: Jinqiao International Plaza, 3611 Zhangyang Rd

Get free tickets at


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend