asia pacific arts has an interview with Cui Jian, the ‘father of Chinese rock n roll’, who started out playing trumpet in the Beijing Philharmonic in the early 80s before the opening up of China took him off in a totally different , more political direction.
Musically, Cui Jian’s music is an amalgamation of ’80s rock and traditional Chinese music, employing both western instruments and traditional Chinese flutes and horns. Lyrically, his work is reminiscent of the political songs of the ’60s. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, Cui Jian incorporated social themes about liberation and individualism in his lyrics. Contending with the highly restrictive Chinese cultural industry censors, these themes were often thinly veiled through analogies and symbolism.
Despite this, Cui Jian’s following increased because fans identified with his lyrics and longings for political freedoms in the wake of the new economic boom. This culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement in which Cui Jian performed at the protest in support of the students. His song, “Nothing to my Name” was hailed as the movement’s anthem. Since the protest and its subsequent crackdown, Cui Jian was co-opted by the party media apparatus, with his songs produced by the official record label, and pop music artists recording official covers. Though the pop music scene retook its place in the mainstream after rock’s demise, Cui Jian is still responsible for influencing the current generation of Chinese underground youth culture. Cui Jian is still an active musician, writing and recording new albums, but his voice is now one among many in the Chinese rock scene and its newer sub-genre branches.
APA: What are some of the more interesting youth cultures and sub-genres that you think are better?
Cui Jian: For the next generation, I think there is a lot of good stuff in the art. But what is good art? I’m sure it means freedom and creativity. I think the next generation has a lot of chances to go abroad because the earlier generations are richer. I don’t want to see another place like Southeast Asia; they just copy and listen to Western music and play the same style, same everything, even the same language. I want Chinese people to have a chance to create and explain themselves more and see what is the difference.
APA: Do you think that is happening today?
Cui Jian: No. I think mainstream and commercial entertainment are like a package. All the artists listen to the seller. They don’t listen to their managers or the producers. They don’t listen to themselves. They listen to the seller. They are controlled by the sellers. That’s why we have this [points to the “Live Vocals” logo on shirt]. It gives something real.
APA: Do you think trying to record and produce is easier today in terms of recoding labels and manufacturing and selling in China?
Cui Jian: No. I think the manufacturers are very destroyed by piracy and the government is not really trying to control and stop this The other thing is lip synching It’s like the real musicians have no royalty and don’t have a chance to play. Actually, it’s changing now, but it’s pretty slow.
APA: What do you think is the future of Chinese music?
Cui Jian: I think that music festivals, clubs, and record companies can really change the Chinese music scene, but I believe there is no festival or record company doing a good job in China. I think the Chinese listening culture is more viewing-like. Everybody takes care of how he/she looks like. They don’t care about what they sound like. It could be pretty bad, but there is hope.