Cui Jian, "father of Chinese rock," has shouldered a lot of cultural significance in China.
Born in the 1960s, Cui's music was seen as the soundtrack to rebellion in the 1980s, with lyrics mirroring a young generation's anxiety and bewilderment after Mao Zedong's death. Therefore, many were surprised by earlier reports that Cui would be onstage at Chunwan, CCTV's Spring Festival Gala, this year. They were then relieved to hear Cui quit the show this weekend after he refused to revise lyrics of his 1986 hit song "Nothing to My Name."
All the necessary elements seem to be there for people to interpret this as the story of a rebel rocker resisting authority. Cui's initial acceptance of CCTV's invitation was seen by some as indicating an epoch-changing shift for Chunwan, while his denial was then explained as "saving the dignity of Chinese rock." Behind these interpretations is a rigid, black-or-white mentality, which continues to permeate this society.
Chunwan itself is no longer the vane it was in the 1980s. It was once the stage that introduced many fresh pop elements from overseas to a country that had closed itself for decades. Entertainers, if they featured in Chunwan, were guaranteed to become national celebrities overnight.
The era in which Chunwan sets the tone for the nation's cultural industry is long gone. This is the biggest headache for CCTV nowadays - in a society that gets irreversibly diversified, how can you expect to produce a gala that pleases every one of the 1.3 billion population?
It is no big surprise that Cui joined hands with CCTV in the first place, as Chunwan seeks to integrate all possible, attractive elements. Some see the TV gala as a cultural touchstone, testing to what extent rebellion music like Cui's rock could be tolerated by the mainstream media. But if that's the case, it should primarily be noticed that Cui has repeatedly appeared on CCTV's music programs and talk shows over the years.
The break-up of a rebel rocker with a mainstream gala is not surprising either - after all, the two do not suit each other at all. It is way more important that outside Chunwan, Cui can continue to have his stage and continue to play the role he wants to play. There are media reports about Cui's concerts, a new music film and preparation of a new album. Whether his role continues is the real touchstone of China's tolerance.