From the soundtrack to Tiananmen, to headlining at the Beijing Workers Stadium: the story of the man who invented Chinese rock 'n' roll.
‘Some Chinese are slaves to Western culture, others look East. I say f--- all of them and be yourself. That’s what I like about rock ‘n’ roll. You can talk straight.’ That was Cui Jian, China’s first bona fide rock star, writing in Time Magazine in 1999.
He’s still talking straight – as the defiantly uncompromising judge on a 2015 national TV talent show, as a spokesman for China’s Live Vocals movement denouncing lip-synching and other fakery in Chinese popular music, and as an advocate of free expression in a country where the punishment for speaking out of line can be severe.
At 54, Cui is no longer the mop-haired young rebel in army fatigues who exploded into China’s cultural scene in 1986 with such force that he was nicknamed the ‘atom bomb of Chinese rock ’n’ roll’. But he’s still making waves – and he’s still making music.
He played the Beijing Workers Stadium in Beijing in November last year and frequently headlines Chinese music festivals. His iconic status is such that international acts ranging from Public Enemy to Paul Simon to the Rolling Stones have all invited him to share the stage. Meanwhile Cui’s newest album Frozen Light, his first in a decade, went on sale in December in China and over a hundred other countries worldwide.
If reviews for Frozen Light have been mixed, Cui shrugs it off. He told reporters at the end of 2015 that people view him as an ‘old man’. The popular music scene, he said, is one of pretty faces: “a lot of actors and actresses, but not too many musicians”. He still examines questions about ‘personal freedom’ in his songs, but Chinese music fans these days, he says, prefer to be pandered to than to have to think about anything ‘serious’.
He is fascinated by modern dance, and has done several collaborations in recent years with choreographers in Hong Kong and Beijing. He tells me he considers modern dance “a free and expressive form, a kind of language, and very close to music”.
He is also mad about film, even directing one of his own music videos, a short film released online for one of the songs on the new album: ‘Outside Girl’. He starred in China’s first indie feature, director Zhang Yuan’s 1993 film Beijing Bastards, in which he plays close to type as a banned and restless rocker with a pregnant girlfriend. He also appears in the 2001 Hong Kong-produced film Roots and Branches and actor-director Jiang Wen’s 2007 film The Sun Also Rises.
Cui recently directed (and wrote) his own first feature film, Blue Sky Bones, in which a character, a dancer, expresses his forbidden love for another man through dance. He tells me how, after 30 years in the spotlight for his music, “it all got a bit exhausting”.
“To be the person stand behind the camera observing other people is really interesting, it gives me a great sense of freedom,” he says.
But to most people who know his name, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that there are about a billion of those, it is Cui Jian’s music that defines him.
I was lucky enough to catch some of Cui’s earliest gigs in the mid-to-late 1980s in Beijing. He would bounce on his heels as though about to launch himself into the sky, kick, stride the stage and slice the air with the neck of his guitar while belting out original songs, which were unlike anything else going. His lyrics evoked alienation, a craving for personal freedom and sexual desire.
Below the stage, his fans jumped, danced, screamed and literally turned cartwheels. China was only 10 years free of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, an ultra-violent, decade-long experiment in cultural, political and social totalitarianism. Cui’s music detonated a kind of convulsive, feral chain reaction in his audience that was like nothing I’d ever seen before (and I’d been to New York’s CBGB) – it was the whistling steam from a pressure cooker.
When I read Jonathan Campbell’s Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, I instantly understood what he was talking about when he described how, in the footage he’d viewed of Cui’s concerts (in this case from the ‘90s onwards), ‘the audience seems to be literally going insane… whirling-dervish-snake-kisser-tongues-speaker wacky’. Cui tells me, “I think it’s in my blood, in my marrow, to make music with energy, that’s active” and, he adds, “danceable”.
I’ve now known Cui for almost 30 years, and am still struck by the contrast between the coiled-spring energy of his public performances and the almost Zen-like concentration he brings to both his creative work and private conversation. On the night I speak to him for this article we are sitting around the small dining table in the Beijing duplex apartment that serves as his studio, office and second home. An old, framed poster showing him as young rocker leans against the wall, a scatter of books lays across the furniture. A young sound engineer is hard at work in the professionally equipped recording studio upstairs. Cui’s manager, Yoyo, who runs Cui Jian Inc. with cheerful efficiency, is absent tonight, at home with her young child.
At other times when I’ve visited, the place has been abuzz with activity. Sometimes Cui’s collaborators, including the legendary Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle, who shot both Blue Sky Bones and the video short of 'Outside Girl', are deep in discussion about projects. Other times, fellow musicians, artists and friends pop by to chat or just share a homestyle meal cooked by Cui’s part-time ayi. On this evening we were joined for dinner by his daughter, a personable and intelligent young woman in her early twenties who recently graduated university in Scotland. I say ‘dinner’ but for Cui himself, it was probably more like lunch – or perhaps breakfast, I’m not exactly sure – Cui still keeps rock ’n’ roll hours. If he ever contacts me bright and early Beijing time, say 8am, I can safely assume he hasn’t yet gone to bed.
But call Cui a ‘rock star’ and he grimaces. He far prefers ‘musician’. He’s certainly no stereotypical old rocker: he barely drinks and doesn’t smoke. He’s admirably trim and fit. His dress remains rock-casual: t-shirt, cargo pants. The skin around his pouched eyes looks a little tired, but the eyes themselves still sparkle and the old impish smile lights his face when he is amused. Although he has informed me that he needs to get back to it all before long – Frozen Light is still in production, and there are videos to make and edit, that television show to deal with and hundreds of other demands on his time – for now, he is as calm and focused as a yogi.
Our conversation turns to the current music scene. Nearly four decades of economic reforms, global exchanges and relaxation of social controls have allowed a new and expansive rock subculture to flourish in China with the full tasting menu of punk, metal, trance, thrash, hip-hop and you-name-it. Cui has always been interested in the latest trends, and is an enthusiastic promoter of new talent. When people invoke the nickname ‘father of Chinese rock’ he responds that he prefers to think of himself as the son, learning not lecturing.
And yet sometimes, he just can’t help himself. Today, he tells me, rock is in danger of becoming merely “a kind of fashion and a way of making money”. Back in the day, he says, it really meant something. Rock wasn’t so much a ‘lifestyle’ as we understand the word today as “a means for carving out a kind of freedom, a liberation”. The market has all but sucked the life out of it.
In fact, making the new album in the context of a changing society was a bit of a struggle: “It’s a return to melody. I had to force myself to some extent. It took a while” – Frozen Light was some five years in production – “because I was trying out a style of rock ’n’ roll that is popular here but I soon realised it didn’t seem like me. I’m more about rhythm, and experimentation.”
If Cui likes going out on limbs, in the beginning, he pretty much had to plant the tree as well. He was around 20, a trumpeter with the Beijing Philharmonic in 1981, and, like most young Chinese at the time, deeply curious about the world beyond China’s borders, when he first encountered popular music from the West, and at first, he tells me, this was simply in the form of lyrics that he studied to learn English.
Deng Xiaoping had come to power three years earlier, launching the economic reforms that would ultimately transform China into the global player and economic superpower it is today. Deng had also announced an ‘open door’ policy to the outside world. Yet the Communist Party considered itself pretty damn progressive just for endorsing the kind of Western classical music that Cui played with the symphony. It did its (occasionally hilarious) best, meanwhile, to stamp out the advancing tides of popular music from abroad, oscillating between high dudgeon and moral panic. An official publication from 1982 described rock and jazz as ‘pornographic’, and warned that such music could cause one’s feet to tap and hips to sway against one’s will.
If there has ever been a better way to promote a cultural trend than banning it, it has yet to be discovered.
Rock – messy, exuberant, raw and expressive – could not have been further from the state-approved, politically inspirational warble produced, typically, by singers standing with hands clasped firmly at their diaphragms, over-stretched smiles on their over-rouged faces.
Like many other young people in Beijing, Cui set about collecting the music cassette tapes smuggled in by foreign diplomats, journalists and students. He burned through John Denver, Kenny Rogers and the Carpenters to discover the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and Sting. He learned to play guitar and formed a band. He began writing his own songs. In 1985, Chinese authorities took a deep breath and permitted the first-ever foreign ‘rock’ band to play in China: Wham! at Beijing’s Workers Stadium. People jumped up and danced, police told them to sit back down, they jumped up again: crowd control as a kind of whack-a-mole.
In 1986, organisers of a nationally televised concert at the Workers Stadium that was intended to be China’s answer to Band-Aid invited Cui to take part. The other neatly-dressed performers spooned up the sort of anodyne pap that the Party now considered digestible. Then it was Cui’s turn. The 24-year-old stepped onto the stage with his band wearing a peasant-style shirt and army pants. One trouser leg was rolled up – anarchy in the PRC! The audience sat in stunned silence as he launched into the song that would overnight become the anthem of a generation: ‘Nothing to My Name’. His voice was a deep bass growl, the likes of which few outside the tiny, nascent Beijing rock scene had ever heard (and never from a Chinese singer). The music combined Chinese folk elements with rock riffs, the lyrics spoke of alienation and restlessness:
In Red Rock, Campbell quotes the keyboard player Liang Heping, who was in Cui’s band, as saying: ‘As he sang that first line, my hair stood straight on end. Every other member of the band said they had the same feeling…’ The audience erupted with visceral excitement. By the time it ended kids were out playing air guitar on the streets. But a member of Beijing’s Municipal Party Committee reportedly exploded: ‘How can a young person sing about having nothing to his name? That’s ridiculous! He has socialism!’
The following year, the Party launched an ideological campaign against ‘bourgeois liberalisation’. The Beijing Philharmonic parted company with Cui, whom they nonetheless graciously described as a ‘good comrade’. He was banned from performance at state-run venues such as stadiums and theatres. But he and his new band, ADO, found plenty of places to gig, at private restaurants like Pierre Cardin’s Maxim’s, which had opened several years before, for example, embassies and universities. It was not long before more kids began picking up guitars. Soon the scene was expansive enough that there were heavy metal bands and even punk. By 1988, the anti-bourgelib drive had fizzled like a damp firework and Cui and ADO played official venues like the Workers’ Cultural Palace before becoming the first Chinese rock act to perform overseas, including at the Seoul Olympics. (Cui is ethnically Korean.)
At the beginning of 1989, when Cui released his album Rock and Roll on the New Long March through a state-owned music publisher, even the People’s Daily had got in the groove, praising ‘Nothing to My Name’ (‘that melancholy, heavy-hearted tune’) as expressing ‘the feelings of a whole generation’. On a high, Cui went to London to perform at the Royal Albert Hall at the First Asian Pop Music Awards. By the time he returned, the biggest street party in history was happening in Beijing: the pro-democracy student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Cui played for the students. They enthusiastically chorused along with ‘Nothing to my Name’ and Cui’s more incendiary ‘A Piece of Red Cloth’. He sang the latter after tying on a red cloth blindfold – a gesture that both suggested being blinded by ideology (red being the colour of Communism) and summoned up an image of execution. The act made for a chillingly prescient image that few who were there have forgotten.
On 3-4 June, the army moved in, leaving about a thousand dead on the streets approaching the square – no one is exactly sure how many, and even the number of wounded remains a state secret. Cui went back on the banned list. He wrote a song, ‘The Last Shot’ (‘A stray bullet hit my chest…’) that remained so sensitive that it had to be excised from the 2012 3D concert film Transcendence, which documented a 2010 concert at the Workers Stadium in which Cui was accompanied by his old employer, the Beijing Philharmonic.
I ask Cui if it ever scared him, the unpredictability and the ferocity with which the authorities responded to his music, especially in those early years. “No,” he says. “It was fun.” He chuckles.
“We were constantly testing to see how far we could go, testing the aesthetic limits of society, and those of the old cadres too,” he replies. “We felt that if we couldn’t upset them, we weren’t doing it right. We’d be like, really? You’re upset at such a little thing?” On the other hand, he recalls, “Every so often, we didn’t get a reaction and we’d be surprised at our luck.”
I admit that I was a bit surprised when the film Blue Sky Bones sailed past the censors to achieve a public release in 2014. The film deals with such sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, internet censorship and surveillance as well as corruption in the Chinese entertainment media, not to mention the selection of pretty young women as ‘companions’ for the leadership. In the movie, the leader who gets the girl has a son who introduces the girl to the ultimate cultural contraband: Western rock music. He may or may not be based on Lin Liguo, the son of Mao’s ‘closest comrade-in-arms’ and later would-be assassin. Lin Liguo enjoys a kind of cult status among Chinese rockers for having liked the Beatles. But the main thing is: the music blows her mind – much as it blew Cui’s all those years ago.
Today, Cui’s music may or may not be blowing minds – as he himself acknowledges, he may simply be too old in the eyes of China’s new and novelty-seeking generation. What’s more,thanks to a pervasive censorship of history, younger people have only the haziest idea of the political events – from the Cultural Revolution through to 1989 – that shaped Cui’s life and artistic vision. They take for granted the social freedoms and musical diversity for which Cui and his peers had to fight. You can’t blame them if they occasionally display the natural condescension of youth. Still, as I’ve seen myself, when he enters a restaurant or avenue, it’s not long before a current of excitement runs through the room, smartphones rise into the air, and demands are made for selfies and autographs.
Cui handles it with a kind of enervated grace, though he tells me: “I already feel that I’ve got to the point where I need to refuse sometimes. It’s destroying the way of life that I need to have. Of course, when people want your autograph, it’s nice, it’s a kind of encouragement. You do things and people like it, identify with it. But I want to live in a way that I can encounter new things, do new things. I don’t not do things or go places because of that. If I’m really interested in going somewhere, hearing a concert or whatever, I’ll still go. But when it’s a situation where I’m less keen, then I may not go because it’s too much trouble. So there are some things I miss. But if I want to do something I do it. Similarly, I don’t have any qualms about turning things down that don’t interest me. If I’m listening to music, I’ll say, please don’t disturb me now.”