Cui Jian: Father of Chinese Rock 'N' Roll

Photo for Cui Jian: Father of Chinese

China's most influential rock 'n' roller, Cui Jian. Courtesy of

Political rocker and forerunner of China's underground youth culture, Cui Jian, heads a new movement called “Live Vocals” without abandoning his classical roots.

Cui Jian is largely known in China as the father of Chinese rock 'n' roll because of his prominence in the music scene and the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement. His rise as a musician parallels the opening of China to the outside world in the era of Deng Xiaoping and market reforms. Ethnically Korean, Cui Jian was brought up in a musical family - his father is a professional trumpet player, and his mother is involved with a traditional Korean dance troupe. In 1981, Cui Jian followed in his father's footsteps and became a classically trained trumpet player in the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. But as the reforms of the 1980s opened China up to commerce, cultural influences also entered the Chinese markets. Western music from across the spectrum infiltrated the country, from the The Beatles in the '60s to contemporary bands like TheTalking Heads and The Police. 

By listening to western style popular music, Cui Jian left the traditional classical music world to pursue a different path. Cui Jian incorporated these new styles into his own songs and began playing with his band in 1984. 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. 

Cui Jian has also toned down the political fire in his songs, still hoping for change for the better and more expressive rights, but choosing smaller battles instead. One of his current pieces, "Live Vocals," addresses the issue of censorship, lip synching, and the lack of live performances on Chinese television, state-run or otherwise. Cui Jian is often compared to, depending on the referenced cultural historian, as the Chinese equivalent of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Kurt Cobain, among others; given his central influential role in the startup of China's rock scene, these comparisons are apt. Cui Jian has had a profound impact on the incorporation of styles and the decentralization of current youth culture, and is simply known as the father of Chinese rock 'n' roll.


Interview with Cui Jian
April 28, 2004
Profile article and interviewed by Larry Kao
Transcribed by Jennifer Chong

APA: Please introduce yourself.

Cui Jian: I am Cui Jian from Beijing. I started playing music when I was fourteen, and then I started playing rock and roll music almost twenty years ago.

APA: People consider you the John Lennon, Bob Dylan, or Kirk Cobain of Chinese Rock. What do you think about this?

Cui Jian:  It is a great honor. Actually we are proud of them in China but actually if I say that, I don't want people to think that I am too proud of myself but if I have to say, Chinese is a bit different from America. There are a lot of things that we have to make different because they are two different countries.

APA:  Do you think your influence is still held in present music (like current music) in China?  Do you think you still have an influence there?

Ciu Jian: Yes. I think Western music is very strong in the big Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, so we were pretty lucky that we got a chance to listen to Western music when we were young, like twenty years ago.

APA:  You were forbidden to perform in China after you angered the military because of your rendition of "Nanniwan." So, what did you do for the year?

Cui Jian:  Oh, yes. Someone said that but I don't actually know because maybe it's the truth, but maybe it's not. I don't think people talk about it. It's like rock and roll music in China is kind of like the trouble maker so they find some different reasons, so this is probably one of them.

APA:  What did you do that year when you were prevented from playing?

Cui Jian:  There's no big difference. Actually we had concerts wherever, whether it was a small venue or big venue. We had like twenty shows a year. We survived ourselves, so it never changed for the worse actually.

APA:  People like to associate your music with 1989 and the Tianamen Square movement.  Do you not discuss politics explicitly in your music, and is this done on purpose?  Do you want to stay away from the mainstream?

Cui Jian:   I think it's [the mainstream] something good and something bad, but I want to keep the good part of mainstream. For example, with mainstream, people can really get your message. In China, there are two mainstreams called er zhu and zhu xue liu -- mainstream and main melody. Main melody is from the government. The sounds and the entertainment is controlled by the government. Mainstream is actually pretty commercial. I don't want the commercial part of the mainstream; I want to be another sound that can make some other noise so people can really get the message.

APA: You don't explicitly talk about political issues?

Cui Jian: Yes, but we don't hide away or escape from the politics. I think we're doing something for fun and entertainment. With music, we're not only poets or politicians, we have a lot of fun when we play music too. 

APA: What do you think about the Chinese political situation today?

Cui Jian: It's not black or white. There's some color in between, like gray. I think there's nothing you can do, but there's nothing you cannot do. There's a lot of freedom there too, but if you really want to show art to the public, that is hard. If you create and write at home, I don't think you'll have any problems with that; you can talk to friends and write anything you want to write and nobody will bother you.

APA: You also use to play the trumpet in the Symphony. Any regrets on choosing rock versus classical?

Cui Jian:  I think rock music is more personal for me. I have more freedom. I can show more of my personal emotions in rock and roll music. With classical music, I can only play something that is written already.

APA:  What do you think about the current trends in Chinese music?

Cui Jian:  This is the movement called "Live Vocals" [points to logo on shirt].  There is something that I don't like in mainstream music scenes; there's a lot of fake singing or lip synching on television music programs. Even on stage, a lot of people don't sing because there are a lot of producers, directors and sound engineers. They [singers] don't really work. They just show their face in front of the audience and don't really play music, so I think it's going to hurt music.

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.

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Published: Friday, June 3, 2005