Cui Jian: a clash of icons

Cui Jian: a clash of icons

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Rumours emerged last week that Cui Jian, known as the father of Chinese rock, was to play on Chunwan, the annual CCTV Chinese New Year’s Eve extravaganza. For fans of contemporary music, for students and especially for those who participated in the protests of the 1980s, Cui was a hero, with a number of his hits becoming anthems for student protesters in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. The news that Cui was to perform on Chunwan was met with dismay, as the show is often derided for its cringe-inducing staging and cheesy performances. As Offbeat China reported, some rock fans in China even responded by saying that, “to see Cui Jian perform at the New Year gala is like to hear that your first love has become a prostitute.” On Saturday, following negotiations between Cui’s representatives and CCTV organisers, it emerged that the rocker would not be allowed to play his hit song “Nothing to my name”. Shortly thereafter, Cui’s agent announced that he would not be playing on Chunwan at all, preventing what some thought represented a turning point for cultural openness in China but equally obstructing what others worried would be the unfortunate tarring of one of contemporary China’s greatest cultural icons with the brush of the Communist Party.  

Arguably Cui Jian’s most famous hit, “Nothing to my name” was released in 1986, at the height of the 1980s protest movement. With a head of unkempt hair and a rebellious streak, Cui himself came to be an icon for protesters, who took Nothing to my name to be their anthem. His music in general invigorated them. As Cui himself said, “Few Chinese, myself included, really knew what rock ‘n’ roll was about back then. But we knew it was something that gave out energy. It was music with a message.” This message took on new connotations when Cui performed live in Tiananmen Square. The song, which is essentially a ballad of the disenfranchised, served to coalesce and even create a sense of enfranchisement among those who took it as their anthem. While Cui’s stock and the song’s fame have fallen somewhat in the post-80s generation, the dismay reported by Offbeat China is hardly surprising, revealing the longstanding importance of Cui Jian and Nothing to my name for the post-Tiananmen generation. A post published on Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media’s blogging portal echoed this sentiment, saying that Chunwan is a show for “bootlickers” who “sing the praises” of the Party. According to the post, it would not be “suitable” for Cui Jian to play Nothing to my Name on the set of Chunwan.

Fears of the popular importance of Cui Jian and Nothing to my Name losing its lustre were allayed with the announcement that Cui actually would not be performing in Chunwan. But for some, this is the inevitable conclusion to an unlikely story. The Global Times, a newspaper with a reputation for toeing the Party line, says “The break-up of a rebel rocker with a mainstream gala is not surprising… after all, the two do not suit each other at all.” Interestingly, the Global Times concurs with the opinion put forth on the Phoenix blog, recognising Cui’s significance to broader society: “It is more important that outside Chunwan, Cui can continue to have his stage and continue to play the role he wants to play.” Cui’s ability to continue in this role has been of great relief to many of his fans. The singer Daiqing Tana, from the group Haya Band, wrote on Weibo: “You are still so proud. You are the backbone and gall of this land.”

But while Cui is the hero of the Tiananmen generation, there are indications that the Chunwan debacle is only the latest step in a continuing effort by the central government in Beijing to neuter the popular persona of this icon. Over the years, he has been refused permission for concerts, faced with a blanket ban in performances in Beijing from the 1990s until 2004, when he returned to warm up for Deep Purple in Beijing. Even now, songs that he has released in the mainland have been subject to censorship.  While Cui has been allowed a longer leash in recent years, this has not halted his transformation from father to grandfather of the Chinese rock scene. Cui, with ever-growing waistline, has not released any new records since 2005 and seldom plays live shows. The Global Times holds Cui’s decline over him, commenting that rather than the line-up of Chunwan serving as a compass on the level of cultural openness in China, the popular stock of Cui “is the real touchstone of China’s tolerance.”

For the Beijing News, the potential appearance of Cui Jian on Chunwan should not command “excessive fanfare”, as this was not even the biggest story in the run-up to CCTV’s annual Chinese New Year’s Eve gala. That honour, according to the journalist Han Haoyue, is reserved to the director Feng Xiaogang, who was drafted in to produce the Year of Horse edition after year upon year of flagging viewership and intensifying criticism. According to Han, the debacle over Cui was only whipped up when Gao Xiaosong, former judge of China’s Got Talent, revealed that Cui would make an appearance on Chunwan. Cui’s agent You You then sought to ratchet up attention by talking to media organisations such as the New York Times about Cui’s appearance, while the organisers of Chunwan remained silent. According to Han, the intrigue regarding Cui’s potential appearance on Chunwan has become nothing more than a “farce”.

But while Han argues that the debacle is a false revival for Cui, he remains a hero for the Tiananmen generation, who appear prepared to stand ardently by their man. The Phoenix blog concludes, “Yesterday, Premier Li Keqiang said, “I want to hear the true voice of the common people”, but the critical issue is that when you want to listen, some people can block the true voice of the people. What can we do about that? Even such pompous offerings as Chunwan won’t include Nothing to my name, so how can the common people possibly show their naked, bleeding voice? My generation can only sigh, “Premier Li, you want to hear the real voice of the people, I fear that you might not like it.”  Han, writing in what is usually a fairly independent publication, argued that the case of Cui Jian and Chunwan is not deserving of wide attention. But as the Phoenix blog has shown, Cui’s hero status is far from exhausted. Despite the efforts of the central government, he remains a hugely important cultural icon, his song Nothing to my name still echoing in the ears of the Tiananmen generation.

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