hen Cui Jian, then aged 25, jumped on the stage of the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing with a broken guitar on his back and performed Nothing to My Name, it was May 9, 1986, and few Chinese people knew what rock ’n’ roll was. His husky voice, energetic performance, and penetrating lyrics shocked the audience by voicing people’s realization that they were among the global poor when China opened up, and the song immediately became a hit, ushering in the golden era of Chinese rock music. Since then, Cui Jian, in his trademark white baseball cap with its red star, has become a symbol of the late 1980s and 1990s.
On September 30, 2016, three decades later and at the same venue where he first started, the pioneering rock musician put on a concert entitled Rolling 30 as a retrospective of his 30-year career. He invited guest performers from home and abroad, including Stewart Copeland, the drummer of rock band The Police, whose solo album The Rhythmatist is one of Cui’s favorites.
Cui’s impact swept the nation in the late 1980s and early 90s, as he became an idol for Chinese youths. He has sold more than ten million albums in Asia - not to mention the number of pirate copies. His songs usually evoke a craving for independence, personal freedom and passion, and offer pointed commentary on sensitive political and social issues.
The heyday of Chinese rock has inevitably given way to today’s highly commercialized entertainment environment, but the 55-year-old veteran rocker still hopes to deliver a message in his music, and holds on to the spirit of rock ’n’ roll. “I cannot change the world, but I have a chance to change the person who happens to hear my songs,” Cui told NewsChina.
Nothing to My Name
“I have asked endlessly, / when will you go with me? / But you always laugh at me, / for having nothing to my name. / I want to give you my dreams, / and my freedom, / but you always laugh at me, for having nothing.”
No lover of Chinese rock will forget the legendary day when Cui Jian, clad in a long Mandarin gown, performed Nothing to My Name on the stage of the “100-Singer Concert” commemorating the UN’s Year of International Peace in 1986. The song shocked Chinese society at the time, when people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else.
Rock musician Hou Muren, among the first generation of Chinese rock artists, described the cultural environment of the era to NewsChina: “In the 1980s, I clearly remembered one time I watched a soccer game at the Worker’s Stadium. Everyone got extremely excited when the Chinese team won a beautiful match - people rushed to Tiananmen Square, embraced each other, and passionately sang songs. But after they sang two revolutionary songs Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman and The East is Red, they couldn’t find another song to sing! Had Chinese composers died out? I wanted to find a kind of music that people could sing in the square on such occasions.
“At first I didn’t know what that kind of music was called. I was certain that it existed. Something had already emerged from my heart, and later I knew, that thing was called ‘rock’,” Hou said.
While Cui Jian’s 1986 performance of Nothing to My Name sparked the flame of Chinese rock, that very night some conservative officials walked out of the stadium right after Cui’s performance, indignant in their complaints that the host had “let a demon play on the stage.”
“Cui Jian’s songs could be heard in every corner of Beijing,” recalled Zhang Baoquan in an interview with NewsChina. Zhang came to Beijing in 1988 to study film and, 26 years later, became an investor in Cui’s first self-directed feature film, Blue Sky Bones. “He was like a god. His voice and his music can evoke the most sincere and honest emotions and feelings deep within your soul. You suddenly start to have your own self-awareness,” said Zhang.
Cui’s music not only encouraged a sense of self-awareness among the urban youth, but struck a chord with the spiritual disenchantment that Chinese youth experienced in the era of Reform and Opening Up in the 1980s as they came to realize their state of dispossession - their lack of individuality, belongings and freedom.
“Chinese people once believed that people throughout the world were so poor that they called on us for salvation and liberation. But after Reform and Opening Up, people suddenly realized that it was us that really lived in poverty, and we were the ones “with nothing to our names,” said Zhang Baoquan.
Born to ethnic Korean parents, Cui learned the trumpet at 14 from his father, a professional trumpet player. In 1981, at the age of 20, he joined the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. He began learning the guitar, inspired by Simon and Garfunkel and John Denver.
He formed his first band, Qi He Ban, also called “Seven-Player Band” with six other musicians in 1984. The band was heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads. They performed Western and Japanese pop rock as well as their own material in local hotels and bars. Cui’s band released their first album Vagabond’s Return that same year.
Western rock music had entered and been embraced by the Mainland by the late 1970s as the Reform and Opening Up policy took hold. Since holding parties was becoming popular in Beijing and playing rock guitar music was in vogue, urban youth were keen to hold parties in bars to play music and have a good time. “It was all about music and alcohol, exactly the same as today’s rock culture,” recalled Wen Bo, a member of Cui’s band and former lute player in the Philharmonic Orchestra, in an interview with
In the 1990s, many rock fans in China adopted a certain lifestyle, with an emphasis on sex, alcohol, long hair, leather jackets, nose rings and Harley Davidson motorcycles. But for Cui, these were all fake rock.
Cui does not smoke and seldom drinks. He never copies styles from Western rock, but mixes his music with punk, jazz and dance. His music, he emphasizes, is “totally Chinese.” He used a lot of Chinese instruments and drew inspiration from Chinese folk music such as the “Northwest Wind” (Xibeifeng) peasant songs of Shaanxi, and also from revolutionary songs with political sayings and proverbs.
In 1990, on his nationwide tour Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March, Cui donned a red blindfold and sang the political anthem A Piece of Red Cloth. His bold behavior and evocative lyrics made him an uncomfortable figure in the eyes of the authorities.
From 1992 to 2005, Cui was unofficially banned from playing major venues in Beijing or appearing on TV. Through the 1990s, he continued his career by staging a number of underground concerts in Beijing, organizing festivals, composing movie soundtracks and occasionally touring elsewhere in China. Not until 24 September 2005 was he finally granted permission to stage his own show at the Beijing Capital Stadium, signifying the end of the ban on his performance in the capital.
After Cui stepped out from the shadows and returned to the public, he found it difficult to cope with today’s highly commercialized music industry. As a pioneering rocker, he has always believed he has the responsibility to save Chinese rock from being marginalized and forgotten in the contemporary local music scene, which is dominated by the “pop idol” talent contest model.
“If we [Chinese rock musicians] don’t take the responsibility to change it, no one will,” the rocker told NewsChina.
Stubborn, serious, anti-authority and anti-entertainment - this is the public’s impression of Cui Jian. When he announced that he would be involved with the music reality show The Star of China in 2015, many fans felt let down, believing that Cui was “betraying rock” and “betraying himself.”
Cui himself did not think so. He saw it as a chance to revive Chinese rock. “Do you still do rock? Do you still love rock? Then you have the responsibility,” Cui told his old friend Qui Ye, using his “responsibility” theory to persuade his friends in rock circles to join the show.
But it turned out that Cui was too idealistic. This time underestimating the “power of editing,” as Cui put it.
“When I was young, I thought the cruelest people in the world were Japanese and German fascists. But now I consider TV editors to be the cruelest. They cut and edited my words and gave them totally different meanings,” Cui said.
He described his TV show experience as “losing control.” Many of his opinions and messages on social and political issues, including the Cultural Revolution and political investigations, were completely cut. He thought he had “been repressed.”
“It is an elaborately arranged entertainment show. No doubt it essentially contradicts with rock music. […] TV makers will edit the materials to create a conflicting effect. Even though Cui Jian hopes he can help rock music win back public attention, it is the TV makers who are in control,” said Zhang Tiezhi, a Taiwanese music commentator commenting on Cui Jian’s debut on the reality show.
The heyday of Chinese rock has inevitably gone. “Nowadays, people’s cultural taste has become highly diversified. In any field of pop culture, a star can only grasp a small part of population. Thus it’s incredibly difficult for a musician to have the power to charm everyone and became a symbol of an era,” Zhang added.
In 2014, the year before Cui’s appearance on the reality show, the rocker had another disheartening experience during his attempt to rejuvenate rock culture. In that year, Cui made his directorial debut with the film Blue Sky Bones paying homage to his beloved rock music. The story looks at the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a young rocker and computer hacker.
“In his original screenplay, Cui made rock music his heroine. He uses a poetic way to describe the desperate and hopeless situation that rock faced in reality. He fully expressed his desperation as a rock musician,” the movie’s investor Zhang Baoquan told NewsChina.
Cui Jian once deemed the film a new outlet for delivering his message and ideas. Nevertheless, out of consideration of the box office, Cui had to make many compromises and sacrifices in the course of making the film. In the end, the final version of the movie had nothing to do with his original story.
The film, which received investment of over 20 million yuan (US$3 million), ended in a box-office fiasco as it only grossed 3.3 million yuan (US$0.49 million). “It hurt him greatly,” Zhang said. “It means his attempt failed. Audiences cannot find any trace of the Cui Jian they are familiar with in the movie. He made a lot of compromises and still believed that his message could be delivered. But he failed. It pained him greatly when he realized all the sacrifices he made were pointless.”
“Rock music is an impulse of youth,” said commentator Zhang Tiezhi. “For a rock singer, how to grow old gracefully is an extremely difficult question. There are two ways for a rocker to deal with the problem of ageing: one is to continuously experiment and change, while the other is to continuously sing old songs to make money.”
Cui, as a 55-year-old veteran rocker, never stops experimenting and expects these attempts to be accepted and recognized.
Fans roughly divide Cui’s music into two categories: old songs and new songs. Cui’s old songs refer to those written during the golden days of Chinese rock and collected in three albums released between 1989 and 1994: Rock ’N’ Roll on the New Long March, Solution and Balls Under the Red Flag. These earlier albums are deeply cherished by fans and deemed as “classics.”
Fans are less generous in their praise when it comes to Cui’s new songs. In 2015, Cui released his sixth album, Frozen Light, his first album since 2005, to mixed reviews.
“It [Frozen Light] can’t hit my heart the way his old songs did. I can’t evaluate whether his new songs are good or not. I can only say I cannot fully understand them. I know Cui has ideas and energy in this album, but the message he wants to deliver in new works struggles to strike a chord with today’s audience,” said Zhang Baoquan.
“I discover that people’s ears are always nostalgic, whereas their eyes always chase after the new,” Cui once told the Beijing News. “I cannot write a song the same as Nothing to My Name. Even if I write a similar song, others would think I’m copying myself. I’m always looking for changes. […] If I worry too much about the market while making music, I will lose the ability to think. I see every attempt of mine as a way of expressing myself,” Cui told NewsChina.
Throughout his 30-year career, free and independent expression is what Cui Jian has kept pursuing. For him, free self-expression is “an attitude towards life” and “a way of living.”
Musicians in his circle, as Cui told NewsChina, are people who insist on free self-expression and follow their own principles, especially when balancing the relationship between creation and capitalism.
“Rock music as a genre is not as important as many people believe. What is more important and more valuable is artists’ independence – independence in terms of content and freedom of creation. As long as musicians are courageously, creatively and freely expressing themselves, it does not matter whether their music is rock or not,” concluded Cui.