Why Cui Jian is still important to China?
With thoughts on Rock Music in post-communist countries
Cui Jian, the legendary ‘Godfather of Chinese Rock n’ Roll, had irreplaceable cultural significance to China. From 1984 to now, no one had truly surpassed his giant influence in China’s music industry, but the appealing question of ‘Who is the next Cui Jian’? always waited for answers.
In the current transition stage of Chinese cultural industry, Cui’s peak-time has been forgotten and redefined, new market structures are bringing new idols. His 2013 Music Film , turns out hardly a market success within the bridging of two eras. On June 2nd, 2018, another night in the sultry summer of Guangzhou, I rushed into the huge event venue with a spirit of a pilgrim, unsettled, I sat on one of the VIP chairs, which was normally used for observing national-sponsored sports-show. Happiness overcame me: I’m waiting for my hero to light up the crowds’ thirst. Yes, the hero who taught me how to communicate with the power of cultural capital in a non-fully open music market, who taught me how to ‘intervene’ socio-politico aspects of authentic Chinese life through musical lyrics and cultural philosophy (to approach all problems as universal problems by some poetic proses of wit).
A discrepancy in all post-communist society, past or now, is that the rebellious artists have a large probability of being born into the so-called ‘red bourgeoisie’ family. One good example is the Belgradian band Idoli, consisted of talented young fellas unexceptionably cultivated by privileged ‘civil servant’ family, busted as the brilliant power of Serbian new wave rock, the fellas somehow later went back to their traditional life-track.
Art as a form of expression for individual uniqueness, has long be alienated as a scarce resource in a collective economic society, with the ‘everyman’, who were struggling for climbing up social ladders, and suffering from great information asymmetry; kids from a well-off background were exempted from that struggle, with enormous arts-related education information, as a result, they have the freedom to squander as well as the emboldened resources to support art adventure. And Cui Jian, who was born into a family of artists in Beijing, whose parents were both trained artists, he differed from other ‘kids from official-artist family’ by the fact that both of his parents were born on the Korean Peninsula. Such ‘cross-cultural background’ is something less likely to be addressed in the mainstream entertainment press in China, but nonetheless, I view this information of his as one of the fundamental sources for his social criticality. He was raised here in China, he self-identified as Chinese and received the full system of compulsory education, but his political socialization was more multi-dimensional than his Beijing local peers. Family history naturally provided him with a peak of doubt: Who am I? To answer that, Cui had to experience more in terms of ‘my identification’ than simply ‘accept what life endows me’. This possible doubt of ‘world-hood’ prevails into a universal sympathy of Cui’s music: his later work ‘Dancing on the MDL 舞动三八线’ shows a helpless but powerful folk-ballad, with an appeal of peace and communication: between the South and North of Korea. The better mutual understanding is the thing that he always endeavored to accomplish through music, with himself, with the audience and with the cultural authority.
Language barriers make appreciating Cui’s music by western listeners hard, which keeps him from making an international name, but I think his poetic words are worth being translated to. Cui appeals to himself and to the people: but the regime of literacy had evolved, and reached a balance of ambiguity and distinct.
In his earlier works ‘No More Hesitation 不再 犹豫’, ‘Going Out 出走’ and his not-known Debut, his singing presented heart-broken heroism, politics in any senses is not involved. In his later work ‘Slackers’混子，his ‘sympathy of double identify’ came to a peak:
’ Can’t eat off the official welfare like our daddies,
don’t wanna be taken care of like lads on the street.
We are the slackers of our time…. Anyway, it’s all fine!’
Cui is so descriptive about the psychology of loss of young people after reform and opening that listeners almost ignore that Cui himself is nowhere near the ‘slacker lifestyle’. Cui appeals to cultural authority, in an extremely smart way, in his famous ‘a piece of red cloth 一块红布’, people found it hard to tell if it’s a love song or a patriotic questioning. For example, in his famous lyrics:
‘I feel like you’re not the steel,
but you’re stronger and harder than the steel I feel the blood from your body,
because your hand is warmly folded.
I want to be there with you forever because I understand the depth of your pain.’
The word YOU plays the role as a dangerously beautiful metaphore, referring to either the motherland or the lover. Cui’s voice is always showing anger, a somehow humanistic anger. He has the critical mind unrestricted. He is talented enough to surpass the boundary of aesthetic appreciation in experimental music and pop spirits, bringing every audience together. He is cautious enough to ‘walk on the wild side’ between honesty and tolerance. Of the current ecosystem of entertainment industry of China, the audience needs, manipulated by mass-consumption had brought together a products, a mix of Western, South Korean and Japanese entertaining ethos, the major cultural capitals, somehow learnt from these three sources and induced the unique ‘tittytainment’ to the young public, the cultural engagement is never more diverse, and never more scarily monotonous.
Cui, as an old man now, he travelled across China, touring in different cities, shouting out, or say, consuming the last bits of the zeal for Rock and Roll critics from a distinctly far old days that no longer matter to the young audience. He commented on the mainstream TV talent shows but only get condemned by the young social-network users. But amazingly, he is still selling out. Why is he still on stage? What makes him still sell out a concert? I believe he is singing for the distant stories belonged to the people that came off the spotlight for long, Vis Idoli, album of Serbian Rock band Idoli Yes, Cui is still important. But Cui is no longer ‘feeling important’. The new time is calling for another hero to sing, to compose, to perform, to create, to express a brand-new type of anger, because the content of the anger had passed. I believe that China’s music industry, especially in our current time, needs someone who is only averagely daring enough to be the second Cui. We need someone who is voluntarily aware of her/his responsibility to the country, to the people, to the society. To speak out with honesty.