How a Phenomenal Rap Song Reflects the Economic Woes of Northeastern China’s History

Rapper Dong Baoshi performing his famous ‘Wild Wolf Disco’ at a nightclub (Dong Baoshi’s weibo)

Featuring broken Cantonese with a strong Mandarin accent and what seems to be rather arbitrary lyrics and unrelated themes, it is extremely difficult to tell why Wild Wolf Disco is becoming the hottest trend in China.

The Beijing News describes the song Wild Wolf Disco as brainwashing with some of its repetitive interactive lines: “Draw a dragon on the left, then saw a rainbow on the right. Now draw a rainbow on the left, and then a dragon on the right.” With the help of short video platforms and the numerous parody dances and remix versions, the song quickly grabbed the attention of the general public, and climbed to the top of the charts.

Short videos from TikTok and Kwai are now often the reason behind songs going viral. The 15 to 30 second-long videos often feature a short but noticeable and catchy section of the song. Wild Wolf Disco is certainly not the first rap song to benefit from the rise of short videos, and it will certainly not be the last song to become popular through such means.

Similar to most rap music around the world, Wild Wolf Disco does not attempt to hide from its nature. The original version of the song has some vulgar lines, including some obscene words criticizing the privileged and the rich. Wild Wolf Disco tells a story of an individual in a night club. From entering the club, to what happens in the club, and then a failed effort to ask for a date, the song portrays a vivid scene that most people can relate to.

Huge mobile phones and beer bottles were common sights in a night club in China during the 1990s. All these elements created a common ground for many of the fans listening to the music: They could all find a part of themselves in the rap song. In fact, a deeper analysis of the song uncovers many of the well-thought details and the notable cultural context of the music: These are not just some random attention-seeking lines. These lines have underlying implications that many from the rapper Dong’s hometown shared growing up.

The awkward lines at the very beginning of the song is the part that baffles most people: The thick Mandarin accent butchering the Cantonese words puts a lot of listeners off at first. But on the other hand, it is that part that reveals the influx of Cantonese culture in the predominantly Mandarin speaking northern China. As China started its economic reforms in 1978, music, books, and art from Hong Kong, which was mostly in Cantonese, flooded into the cities of mainland China.

With the absence of local pop music, the Cantonese songs became the songs associated with disco bars. It is obvious that Dong does not have the perfect Cantonese accent, but the weird accent is also part of the music: That is exactly the way many people remember the pop culture from Hong Kong, and how their lives were impacted by it.

After China’s economic reforms, residents in Northern China, especially the ones from the Northeastern Manchuria region, experienced significant changes in their way of life. With the rise of private-owned companies in the eastern coastal regions, state-owned firms and residents from Northern China started to suffer from the rather chaotic and rapid restructuring of state-own enterprises and the economy generally, which led to massive unemployment and social instability.

Economic and social changes brought more people into the disco clubs. It became a way to temporarily escape from reality, and indulge in the simple pleasure of dancing in the club. “Everyone doing the same dance”, “drawing rainbows and dragons”, and “the proud fur jackets” are just the signs that reveal the laughable scenes that people witnessed in those moments of uncertainty.

Yet the second part of the song drastically dragged people back into reality. While making an effort to try to talk to a girl in the club, the person got immediately rejected: “Go find a mirror and look at yourself.” The lyrics then transition into an illusional experience. People pretend that everything is fine, and try not to ponder the uncertain future.

With very limited economic growth and employment opportunities, many former state-owned enterprise employees decided to take their fates into their own hands. They fled the region, and started to seek economic opportunities elsewhere: Not only in different regions in China but also in places around the world.

As more and more people are leaving the once-glorious economic hub in the planned economy days, Northeastern China is struggling to maintain its economic growth or garner the confidence of potential investors. In 2019, the city of Changchun reported 0% growth in its economy. This was the home of China’s First Automobile Workshop and the famous movie production center. The province of Liaoning, one of the richest provinces among the region, was caught lying about its GDP numbers in 2017.

While on the other side of the country, people are celebrating economic miracles from Alibaba, e-commerce, and the rapidly developing innovations in the Internet industry, in the northeastern part of the country, people seem to have been forgotten and left in the corner of the middle kingdom. With no significant economic growth, no clear path forward, it seems like for those who are born and raised in Manchuria, leaving their birthplace for better opportunities is becoming the only option, regardless of their reluctance to leave home.