A fascinating interview with China’s biggest rock star

January 3, 2013

Cui Jian would probably be the first person to lament that he, at 51, is still the biggest name in Chinese rock music, and that his music last occupied the cultural zeitgeist in a dramatic 1990 concert tour. That's the impression he gives in this revealing interview with Vice, anyway. Whether you think Cui's cynicism is misplaced or not, his thoughts on the state of Chinese are revealing.

Cui, often called the father or grandfather of Chinese rock, is careful when discussing the Chinese government, with which he has a complicated history. Cui's song, "Nothing to My Name" (video of which is embedded below), about the disaffection of youth, became an unofficial anthem of the 1989 protest movement that culminated in the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The rock star, who had appeared with the student protesters, subtly criticized the crackdown during his 1990 tour by wearing a red blindfold when he performed his song, "A Red Piece of Cloth." Those were his last major performances in mainland China.

A scholar of Chinese pop music, Jonathan Campbell, has said, "I can't think of someone who has ever been more worthy than Cui Jian for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Campbell explained of Cui, "He's Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen, whose songs made people suddenly realize that there are things going on about which we don't know and ought to, and singing with the voice of the people not often represented in popular culture."

In this interview, Cui says that he's tried and failed many times to secure permission for another big show, but he stops short of complaining or criticizing. When he interview presses him, saying that he found success "without playing any games," he interjects, "I did. I play a lot of games. I'm a good player in some ways. That's why I've learned how to answer questions. I'm playing a game now, actually."

He's much tougher on young Chinese people today, asking, "Why China has such huge history and culture, and then [Chinese people] just want to leave [that Chinese culture] alone and listen to the Western music or culture?" He is far from alone in accusing today's Chinese youth of superficiality and Westernization, although his connection to the heavily political 1980s youth movement makes the contrast that much starker. 

He beams about playing in New York City, where he says his performances attract more Chinese fans that they do in Beijing. Shows in China, he says, tend to attract a lot of foreigners. 

When Vice's interview asks Cui how he "make sense" of the government restrictions that have kept him out of major Chinese venues for over 20 years, he answers, "You don't have to make sense. This is China."

Here are, in order, "A Piece of Red Cloth," "Nothing to My Name," and my favorite, "Fake Monk":

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Olga Khazan | January 3, 2013