Cui Jian’s 30th anniversary: A time to reflect on the evolution of rock music in China

By Kyle Nowak Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/10 20:08:39

A time to reflect on the evolution of rock music in China

Cui Jian performs at the Workers' Stadium on September 30 in Beijing. Photo: CFP

The Rolling 30 concert held on the last day of September marked the return of Cui Jian to Workers' Stadium, exactly 30 years following the original performance of his classic hit "Nothing to My Name." 

At the age of 25, Cui single-handedly opened Chinese audiences to the genre of rock'n'roll music, unknowingly creating the benchmarks for what has become a modern artistic tradition that continues to evolve and build upon the foundation set by the legendary rocker. "Nothing to My Name" set a precedent for Chinese rock music, inciting political symbolism in the form of youth rebellion.

Cui's performance at the concert, unlike 30 years ago, cannot be viewed in isolation; it now must be seen in the context of a music scene that has evolved beyond the formulaic construction of its origins. In the wake of Cui's return to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, the underground live-halls and smoky hutong bars of Beijing have reignited discussion about Chinese rock, its history and future potential.

Ideological split

A once uniform community, the rock scene has disseminated into a variety of subgenres, many of which have risen beyond the status of underground and have even expanded internationally, touring in the US and Europe. Foreign run organizations such as Maybe Mars, an independent label and now a veteran of Beijing rock, has fostered contemporary idols that have catapulted Beijing's underground scene to international recognition from media, musicians and enthusiasts alike.

Carsick Cars, a leading band of Chinese nouveau-punk fostered by Maybe Mars, returned to the stage for their 10 year anniversary performance in mid-August. Although heavily influenced by their British predecessors, Sonic Youth, Carsick Cars mirrors the ambiguity and dissonance of Cui's lyrical verse, opening their songs to varied interpretation, both political and benign.

A fan favorite, "Zhongnan Hai," is a song that echoes Cui's ability to incorporate political undertones in mundane lyrics that often reflected the dislocation of a disillusioned youth culture.

It was in Cui's uncanny ability to unite youth communities in the 1980s that made his rise so compelling; through his music he presented and continues to present an idyllic alternative to the present reality. His visions of plurality, equality, romance and the absence of material distraction - while arguably naive - stand as a rebuttal to the industrial concerns that overshadow any dialogue of ideological progression in a developing nation.

Contemporary Chinese musicians of the genre are, however, shifting from the discussion of an ideal society to embrace the grit, chaos and ambiguity of their identity and existence. Hence, where Cui would focus on the satisfaction of a minimalist lifestyle, a band like Carsick Cars would focus on the altruism of smoking a cigarette, the Aristotelian response to Cui's Plato.

However, this is only one of many subcategories that have since branched from Cui's introduction of rock'n'roll into China. Heavy metal, techno-rock, punk, alternative, post-modern rock, pop-rock and other subgenres have all made an appearance.

Entertainment trend

Commenting on this split, Chang Liu, a former officer of musical affairs at the French Embassy in Beijing, once said, "Chinese rock music itself has developed into various scenes, and each of them may have their own agendas... I would suggest, there is a shift towards entertainment in Chinese rock music. Even Cui Jian himself has been tellingly devoted to televised singing competitions."

Chang may have a point. Cui made an appearance at the Beijing Pop Festival in 2007 and more recently appeared on China Star, a reality show that allows famous musicians to showcase lesser-known musicians. Moreover, as popular content continues to grow, entertainment value will be a major factor in the survival of Chinese rock.

In recent years, localization of the genre by artists such as Cui, Hanggai and Second Hand Rose has created somewhat of a binary in rock music. One side believing in the sinification, or the addition of an ethnic filter for Chinese audiences, while the other side remains loyal to US or British traditions of rock music with the incorporation of personal style.

This trend follows a wider attempt at many in China to maintain an independent identity in the midst of globalization and international exchange. The coexistence or conflict between these two groups will perhaps determine the future of rock music in China.

Regardless, Cui's 30th anniversary is a time where we can all come together to celebrate the mere existence of a rock music scene in China. Whether one admires him or not, or refuses to follow in his tradition is irrelevant. Rock music in China would not have evolved to the internationally recognized status it holds today if not for Cui. 

So the next time you stand amongst the abandoned cigarette butts and spilled beer that reflects the image of a young band, remember your entire experience is in part, thanks to a 20-something college student.
Newspaper headline: Rolling on 30

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