Chinese rock star Cui Jian begins his song “The 90s” with the line: “Words are not precise already—can’t express this world clearly.” And in the clarity of that expression, he voices the sentiment of a generation of Chinese youth: China’s inexorable lurch into the twenty-first century made language as dizzying as change itself. No vocabulary existed to describe the fast-forward motion of China’s modernization. Language that had once rooted every Chinese citizen to a shared tradition and connected Cui Jian to his parents’ generation all but evaporated. While political discourse shifted from an enforced discussion of making sacrifices to that of making money, Chinese expressions for age-old concepts such as model workers, marriage prospects, and exemplary behavior became antique. Socialist slogans and little red book lyrics were suddenly just kitsch, and pop transliterations shot up like skyscrapers, stretching Chinese stroke marks: Kekou Kele, Coca-Cola, contains in four syllables both a mimic of the original and a meaning that the sound doesn’t have in English. Chinese Kekou Kele is palatable and pleasurable; its homonyms suggest thirst, delight, and quenching. It’s a richer word than its English original, flaunting the power of the Chinese language to contain multiple meanings in single syllables, even when the syllables are foreign. Every sound in Chinese has numerous inescapable and often clashing meanings. And Cui Jian uses that flexibility to compress contradictions into his lyrics. His lyrics are vague enough that they can be defended as lonely love songs, and yet precise enough to be bone-cuttingly stark political anthems. It is partially Cui’s ability to voice this combination that has made him an icon for alienated Chinese since their collective youth both began and ended during the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.
When he created Chinese rock in the 1980s, Cui Jian changed the landscape of youth culture forever, and inspired a new Chinese conversation. The vocabulary for that conversation is like Cui Jian: simultaneously subtle and laceratingly direct. His art comes out of an eclectic collage of traditions: classical music, gauzy Chinese pop ballads, Western rock, and most recently rap and hip-hop. His lyrics come from language that spans a wide band: Cultural Revolution slogans, modern propaganda, the jingles of commercialization, and rough-hewn Beijing street slang.
Born in 1961 to ethnic Korean parents, Cui Jian grew up surrounded by music: his father was a professional trumpet player and his mother a dancer in a professional minority troupe. Cui Jian learned to play classical trumpet at age fourteen, and had secured a prestigious position in Beijing’s philharmonic orchestra by the time he was twenty. But the iron rice bowl stable job did not hold him long. In the early eighties he became increasingly passionate about Western rock music, which was seeping through China’s slightly open door, usually in the backpacks of foreign students and tourists. Cui Jian spent the eighties listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Talking Heads. He learned to play guitar and began writing music, which he played in cafés and dormitories. Through its influence on him, Cui Jian brought Western rock to the attention of Chinese audiences.
In May of 1986, in a televised pop music competition, Cui Jian performed what would turn out to be the biggest hit in Chinese history: “Nothing to My Name.” At the otherwise pastel, romantic balladfest, he wore army fatigues and a green Communist Party of China tee shirt, sang in a gravelly voice, and ground his hips. The appearance had an Elvis Presley effect; Cui’s rock sent shock waves across the country. By the following day, Chinese youth all over China were singing “Nothing to my Name”; by 1989 in Tiananmen Square, it had become their battle song. Standing in the square, Cui Jian tied a red bandana over his eyes and sang to millions of Chinese who felt like they had nothing to their names; with his words, he implied that the Chinese nation itself had nothing. No one had ever dared put it the way he did: “I keep asking endlessly/ When will you go with me?/ But you just laugh at me/ I’ve nothing to my name./I’ll give you my dreams,/and give you my freedom./But you just laugh at me/I’ve nothing to my name.” His music was both the most commercially popular and politically contentious in China.
Perhaps because officials didn’t understand or know how to stop it yet, popular music fanned into a fire; it was one of the few areas in which young Chinese remained able to send radio waves to each other and the outside world. Cui Jian was banned from performing, but his music bubbled over the edges of his underground existence, and the demand for him remained intense enough to keep fans raging, even after years without performances.
Cui Jian reemerged in the mid 1990s from the post-1989 underground. His gigs were often canceled, and were never fully approved, official, or held in glorified venues. When he did play, it was in nightclubs and backstreet bars. He released an album in 1998 called Power of the Powerless.
The lyrics in “Power of the Powerless” reveal a direct parallel between the way Cui Jian’s work and China have both aged since the 1980s, with grace and hesitation. The lyrics are more mature than those from his first major album, Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March, and have a new hard edge, a cynicism borne out of the constant barrage of commercialism in China, its open door, and the nouveau glory associated with getting rich. At the same time, the songs are earnest and hopeful; they remain a direct reflection of the contemporary concerns of young Chinese.
In between “Nothing to my Name” and “Slackers,” the first song on Power of the Powerless, Cui Jian craftily places China’s recent shift from having nothing to having everything. In the tried and true manner of court poets and essayists from China’s imperial past, his songs appear to be about love, even when they are most clearly about history and contemporary China. And in keeping with Mao’s main tenet that art and literature should be used to educate the masses, Cui Jian speaks to his own masses in a language they know and love: one of now familiar rock and rebellion. He himself has stayed more familiar and beloved than any musician in China; Chinese all over the country now call him Lao Cui, or “Old Cui,” a Chinese nickname of respect and endearment.
Power of the Powerless is a technically masterful, metrical and flexible exploration of what Chinese are allowed and not allowed to say; in and between Cui Jian’s lines, it is always possible to hear both. In its opening song, “Slackers,” Cui’s is the voice of China’s ennui: “If I had to suffer, I’m sure I’d cry so/I could find a job, but I can’t sink that low/If I have to talk serious, I just beat around the bush./But when I do something serious, I save face first./ Don’t talk serious with me. Don’t get deep with me./What’s worth more than education now is money. Who says life is hard? Idiots only./Just think a bit, grease gears a bit, you can do anything smoothly./ Why worry what I eat or what I wear?/I’ll just live with my folks if I can’t go anywhere./I’ll work all day and wander all night/ Run into people, say ‘How’s it going? Hey, all right.'”
In that final rhyme, “Hey, all right” Cui Jian hurls back at the world the shallowness of the same slang he loves. Young people may end up powerless to overcome the restrictions that have hung over them forever. Armed only with new money and globalized goals, they will still have nothing to their names. And yet, in the album and its title is another potential truth: Chinese youth have language and music, and in those two things, genuine power.
In May of 1999, when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, violent protests erupted in the streets of Beijing, and raged on for several days before the Chinese government shut them down lest they spiral out of control or turn inward. Intense resentment against the United States in particular lingered for months after the incident, but Cui Jian, in a typically complicated move, played a concert at the U.S. Embassy’s Fourth of July party that July. It was a resonant gesture of reconciliation; when he climbed on stage in his signature army fatigues and an olive green, red-starred T-shirt and played “Power of the Powerless,” the song was inclusive. It was for everyone. And as always, contained in its hardest rock aspects, was a message about silence:
Power of the PowerlessSoon as you say do—you do.
than an angel flies, to
and fro. Your horizon’s wide;
mine’s narrow. See?
I can’t even tell if you’re into me.
I do it all and accomplish zero.
I’m not relaxed or free.
I still daydream of changing an era—
But I’m still powerless
and you must wait.
And if I fail, will you still want me?
You watch me silently.
Say nothing. Wordlessly
drop your hand to catch my hand
and hold it soft and tight.
Then you make it a fist,
raise it to your lips
In 1999, ten years after the democracy movement was crushed and less than six months after his Fourth of July concert, Cui Jian played a Christmas show in the Southern Chinese city of Kunming. The venue staff wore Santa hats. Silent police lined the stage and surrounded the audience, who danced and cheered crazily in spite of the daunting security. When Cui Jian played “Nothing to My Name,” his fans lit candles, sang and swayed. The police stood frozen in the flickering light while everyone remembered Tiananmen. After the show, when throngs of police gathered backstage, it appeared that they might personally carry Cui Jian back underground. But it turned out they wanted pictures with him. He obliged, smiling for forty-five minutes in one-by-one photos for the police force. “For my wife,” one policeman said, sheepishly, while he waited for his turn. “She wants a picture of Old Cui.”
View Cui Jian’s music video for “Flying” here.
Copyright 2004 by Rachel DeWoskin. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.