Dennis Rea about Cui Jian

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Dennis Rea about Cui Jian is an excerpt article from the forthcoming book Live at the Forbidden City by Dennis Rea

The following article by Dennis Rea was published originally at http://www.dennisrea.com/chinatour.html and at rockinchina.com with kind permission of Dennis Rea. We hereby like to point out that this is just an excerpt of his forthcoming book.

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Cui Jian playing the trumpet

In post-Mao China, Cui Jian was Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain all rolled into one, a one-man rock and roll revolution whose poignant songs of alienation spoke volumes to a generation searching for meaning in a rapidly changing and increasingly globalized China. As the reluctant spokesperson for China's disenfranchised youth, Cui Jian is inseparably linked in the minds of many to the democracy movement that was crushed by the tanks at Tiananmen. The image of the rocker defiantly rallying hunger strikers in the square with his stirring outsider anthems symbolized a generation's struggles and aspirations.

I first became aware of Cui Jian and his music in the summer of 1989, when my teenage hipster friend Xiao Fei loaned me his copy of the cassette Rock and Roll on the New Long March. My guitar students had been raving about the Chinese rocker for some time, but I hadn't given their recommendations much credence, for I didn't care for much rock music to begin with and the Chinese bands I'd heard up to that time were disappointingly lightweight. But the moment I listened to Cui Jian's music I became an instant fan. His songs possessed an undeniable gravitas that made a mockery of the flaccid pop tunes of the day, and the musicianship was thoroughly contemporary and top-notch. I went right out and bought my own copy of Rock and Roll on the New Long March and soon wore it out on the borrowed boom box in our apartment.

Born in 1961 to musically inclined parents of ethnic Korean descent, Cui Jian soon revealed a gift for music and by age 20 had landed a job playing trumpet with the prestigious Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. Most Chinese musicians would have given their eyeteeth for such an opportunity, with its promise of stable lifetime employment, but Cui Jian had already been smitten by the rock and roll that he was hearing on tapes spirited into the country by Western tourists and students. Inspired by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and by the rough-hewn "Northwest Wind" genre of Chinese folk music, he learned to play guitar and began singing in public, at first covering tunes by other singers but soon writing his own material.

Like Zhang Xing, the young singer first attracted attention with an appearance on a TV talent contest, in 1985. His impact on viewers was similar to that of seeing Elvis Presley gyrating on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1950s America. Even at this early stage in his career, Cui Jian's songs showed a preoccupation with weightier issues than the usual gauzy romantic fantasies, dealing with such sensitive topics as individualism, sexuality, and, by inference, the integrity of the Chinese Communist Party. To a generation numbed by propaganda, the honesty and realism of Cui Jian's lyrics was like a clarion call. Equally important, his tunes rocked with an authenticity that earlier Chinese rockers never successfully internalized.

Before long young people all over China were banging out their hero's tunes on beat-up guitars in campus dormitories and coffeehouses. The rebel rocker's growing popularity naturally set him on a collision course with the Chinese government, who painted him as a bad element. He was expelled from the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra for his dalliance with rock and roll, and soon afterward was forbidden to perform in public for a year after angering a high military official with his irreverent rendition of the hallowed revolutionary paean "Nanniwan."

Where Zhang Xing represented the attainment of a fairy-tale wealth and glamour unimaginable to generations of Chinese accustomed to drabness and poverty, Cui Jian couldn't have been more different. With his deliberately unglamorous appearance and rough, untrained voice, he personified the emerging liumang ("punk") generation of alienated urban youth. Frustrated by lack of opportunity and weary of the Party's increasingly bankrupt ideology, the liumang eschewed the glossy escapism of Zhang Xing and his ilk in favor of a gritty urban realism.

After early stints with prototypical Chinese rock groups like the Building Blocks, Cui Jian started working with ADO, an innovative Beijing band that included two renegade foreign embassy employees, Hungarian bassist Kassai Balasz and Madagascan guitarist Eddie Randriama Pionona. These and other foreign musicians were introducing Beijing musicians to unfamiliar musical styles such as reggae, blues, and jazz, and their participation brought a rhythmic dynamism to Cui Jian's rough-hewn tunes that lifted them above mere folk songs. With ADO, Cui Jian released Rock and Roll on the New Long March, the defining statement of China's new lost generation. The album provided a potent anthem in Cui Jian's best-known and most beloved song, "Yi Wu Suo You" ("Nothing to My Name").


Yi Wu Suo You

How long have I been asking you

When will you come with me?

But you always laugh at me

For I have nothing to my name.


I want to give you my hope

I want to help make you free

But you always laugh at me

For I have nothing to my name.


Oh, oh... when will you come with me?

Oh, oh... when will you come with me?


The earth is turning under your feet

The waters of life are flowing free

But you always laugh at me

For I have nothing to my name.


Why do you laugh at the pack on my back?

Why do I always keep on going?

The old horse stands before you

With nothing to my name.


Oh, oh... when will you come with me?

Oh, oh... when will you come with me?


I tell you I've been waiting a long time

I tell you, here's my final plea

I want to grab you by the hands

And take you away with me.


Your hands, they are trembling

Your eyes, they overflow with tears

Do you really mean to tell me

You love me as I am?


Oh, oh... when will you come with me?

Oh, oh... then you will come with me.


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Cui Jian


"Yi Wu Suo You" resonated deeply with a youth culture grasping for meaning in a China afflicted by institutionalized corruption, rampant materialism, widening social stratification, and an increasingly out-of-touch socialist ideology. Like Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and a handful of others, Cui Jian distilled a generation's fears and longings into a simple four-minute song. It's no wonder that "Yi Wu Suo You" was spontaneously adopted as the unofficial anthem of the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

Although he is frequently identified with the 1989 student movement, Cui Jian's involvement was in fact limited to a single concert with ADO in Tiananmen Square. His reputation as a rebel is deceptive, for he has always taken pains not to make direct political statements in his songs, instead employing suggestive imagery and double entendres that are wide open to interpretation. A good example is his early 1990s tune "The Last Shot," a mournful ballad written from a soldier's perspective and peppered with recorded gunshots all too reminiscent of Tiananmen; when asked if the song was about the events of June 4, Cui Jian insisted that it was really about the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border clash, neatly shifting its focus from protest to patriotism, though it can be interpreted either way. He invariably shies away from discussing politics and maintains that his songs are concerned only with universal human issues. He has complained that foreign journalists only increase his woes by trying to politicize his music, and it clearly bothers him that the political dimension of his stardom deflects attention from the music itself.

And what of Cui Jian's music? Apart from the Mandarin lyrics and occasional use of traditional Chinese instruments for coloristic effect, his songs tend to borrow heavily from American and European rock, pop, and funk. In his earlier work, the influence of reggae, the Police, Talking Heads, and other music then circulating in Beijing's foreign community is evident, and the contributions of foreign collaborators Eddie and Balasz loom large. Indeed, many non-Chinese listeners are disappointed to find that Cui Jian's music is not as "Chinese" as they'd expected. It can be argued that his most distinctive songs are the ones that incorporate Chinese elements such as the dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and guzheng (an ancient Chinese zither). However, Cui Jian does not view his music as representing a narrow cultural continuum, but rather sees himself as part of the global rock-and-roll revolution. The best of his songs genuinely rock, and unlike many Chinese rockers who followed in his wake, he has continued to grow and experiment musically into the twenty-first century.

Cui Jian managed to escape punishment in the aftermath of Tiananmen, doubtless owing to his widespread popularity among young Chinese. But like most of his peers in China's contemporary arts scene, he was forced to keep a low profile in the wake of the government's crackdown on dissidents, and found even fewer opportunities to perform than before June 4.

Chafing against enforced idleness, in 1990 Cui Jian made a clever proposition to the government: If he were allowed to make a concert tour of China, he would donate all profits to the upcoming Asian Games, to be held in Beijing. It was no secret that Deng's beleaguered regime desperately wanted to use the Asian Games as an opportunity to restore its international image after the Tiananmen disgrace. Cui Jian's ploy worked, and he was granted official permission to undertake a tour that took him to arenas throughout the country. Huge crowds attended the concerts and responded with an intensity that alarmed the authorities, dancing in the aisles and provocatively flashing "V for Victory" signs. Fearing an outbreak of public disorder, nervous officials in Beijing abruptly canceled the singer's remaining tour dates after an especially rousing concert in Chengdu, still recovering from its own bloody crackdown in June 1989. Cui Jian's road trip was nevertheless significant for inspiring the formation of dozens of grass roots rock bands in China's hinterlands.

For the next few years Cui Jian had to content himself with surreptitious gigs at private gatherings in Beijing. He was expressly banned from any university campus, and his notoriety ensured that organized concerts were out of the question. But the undaunted musician continued to develop his music in relative isolation, waiting for his next opportunity to galvanize China's alienated youth.

Shortly after Cui Jian's aborted 1990 concert tour, Tang Lei sent him a tape of my music through a mutual friend in Beijing. Impressed by what he heard and by what I had managed to accomplish in faraway Chengdu, Cui Jian asked Tang Lei to invite me to the Chinese capital for some underground concerts with my band Identity Crisis. We jumped on this remarkable opportunity without a moment's hesitation.

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Rock in China is a mainly free community project documenting the Chinese underground music scene. Though some of the content hosted is copyrighted and published with specific permission by the original works' author. This article is one of these and it has been protected / restricted and thereby excluded from the provisions in the General Disclaimer regarding its copyright. The applicable terms are stated below.

Published with Permission, Full Copyright remains with Dennis Rea/Nunatak (© 2003)



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