Gritty Rap Hit “Factory” puts China’s Smaller Cities on the Map

The track by Zhang Fangzhao, repping his hometown of Jiaozuo, Henan province, has resonated with many listeners from less developed parts of the country

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11:05 AM HKT, Thu May 23, 2024 1 mins read

When was the last time you cried because of a song? For many young Chinese music fans, the answer would be the beginning of May, when a 27-year-old rapper named Zhang Fangzhao sang a song titled “Factory” on the rap competition show The Rap of China.

The song chronicles decades of changes in his hometown of Jiaozuo in Henan province. Though rich in natural resources such as coal, the central Chinese province is underdeveloped compared to its coastal neighbors — and its residents are often mocked for a supposed lack of sophistication. In the past century Jiaozuo has gone through industrialization, which was accompanied by pollution, and then followed by mass layoffs. A lack of opportunities in Jiaozuo and other similar small cities has led youth like Zhang to head to big cities. Yet despite their families’ high expectations, once they venture out of their hometowns, they can find themselves discriminated against as “farmers” and country bumpkins, wracked with self-doubt, and facing poverty.

These themes all went into “Factory.” When Zhang performed the song on The Rap of China reception was mixed at first. While some praised his poetic style and emotional depth, others criticized his acapella vocals as being out of tune.

However, the official music video for song, released shortly after the show, silenced doubters with its bleak visuals and sorrowful melody, resonating with many who appreciated its depth and authenticity. Erdi, a Mandarin music influencer, reposted the video, and commented: “A lot of people complained about this song in the show. Listen to this studio version: how beautiful and sad, this sparkling guitar, this dreamy and deep synth, you will understand that he has built his own moving vision in the rough countryside and the harsh factory. If you can’t escape the characteristics and feelings of your origins and roots in your native place, then use art and creativity to set off fireworks there.”

By May 12, the video had garnered 4 million views on Weibo, striking a chord with listeners who shared similar experiences and emotions. Many expressed shame in revealing their Henanese backgrounds due to stigma and stereotypes. Others were also moved by its focus on real life in China, particularly how it draws attention to farmers’ lives. As one listener expressed, “[It] made me cry... Nowadays many songs tend to tell beautiful stories of life, which sound cheesy and empty sometimes. Especially rappers who love showing off houses, watches, and cars. This song sheds light on a marginalized group — farmers — who are the most neglected but essential.”

Zhang’s conflicted attitude towards his hometown — between shame and pride — may be the key to decoding the song. Zhang and others with similar backgrounds are attached to their hometowns, but also yearn to get away. Zhang has now dubbed himself “The God of Henan Rap,” to let everyone know where he came from and dispel misunderstandings about Jiaozuo and his home province.

In his words, “My roots are here, no matter where I go, I will always belong here, so I need to protect it in my own way. Deep down, I still hope it can be better.”

Banner image via Dingxingwen.

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