CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The legend of the birth of rock 'n' roll in China, if there were one, would go something like this:
In May 1986, a year of great student uprisings, Cui Jian - a young trumpeter for the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra - took the stage in the nation's capital, with guitar in hand, and sang a song that resonated with young people all across the land. Since that singular performance, music in China has never been the same.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and poet Cui Jian (pronounced Tsway Jen) has been given many labels - "rebel rocker," "dissident rocker," "defiant rocker."
However he's labeled, Cui is one of the most popular, influential, and important rock musicians China has ever seen. The analogies to Western musicians abound, from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, to John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. Yet to understand Cui and the trail he has blazed, one needs to examine how rock 'n' roll fits into China's history.
"To have rock music at all in China is an incredible anomaly," says Steven Schwankert, editor of the Beijing-based entertainment Web site www.chinabuzz.com. "Where people go from singing propagandist Mao songs to creating very deep, personal music in such a short time is quite amazing."
Opening the door to rock
China's entry into the world of rock 'n' roll has been relatively recent - a boom that started in the mid-to-late '80s with groups such as Black Panther and Tang Dynasty.
Cui remains the pioneer that set the ship sailing.
"Cui Jian opened the doors for all rock 'n' roll bands in China," says Heidi Chang, a marketing agent for Rock Records in Taipei, Taiwan. "You could call him the forefather of Chinese rock music."
Cui has not always lived in a world of rock 'n' roll. Born in 1961 in the middle of Mao Zedong's tragic "Great Leap Forward" (where 30 million died of famine), Cui spent his formative years among the chaos of some of China's most disastrous reforms - including the anarchic Cultural Revolution.
At 14, Cui began studying the trumpet, as his father had. Both Cui's mother and father were members of the Communist Party. At 20, he began his official career playing for the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, but left after six years. Why he left is still unclear, but most believe he was forced out after authorities learned he was dabbling in rock music.
Making a living as a serious rock musician in the mid-'80s in China was virtually impossible. Yet Cui succeeded at doing just that.
"Cui Jian was one of the first people to live outside the system," Mr. Schwankert says. "When he left the philharmonic, there was no real opportunity to make a living without the government lifeline of an apartment and a paycheck. It was incredibly courageous."
Song strikes a chord with Chinese fans
It was his courage, his innovation, and his authenticity as an artist that ultimately rocked China's leaders and inspired its youth.
The song Cui played that day in 1986 was "Nothing To My Name" - literally "one without anything." Although predominantly a love song that addresses themes like longing and rejection, "Nothing To My Name" struck a chord with Chinese fans. It spoke not only of love, but of the great heartache felt in daily life under Communist rule.
To Western ears "Nothing To My Name" may not sound like a ground-breaking proclamation. But within the context of the social unrest in Communist China in the 1980s, Cui's honest expression and shocking realism was unheard of.
Throughout his career, Cui has been unable to shake the stigma of being a "political" artist, partly because of a performance he gave during the tumultuous 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, and partly because of the boldness of his album titles - "Rock 'n' Roll on the New Long March," "Eggs Under a Red Flag," and "Power of the Powerless."
"We're not politicians, we fight for personal liberation," Cui once told an American reporter in Beijing. Even though Cui has reached an unprecedented level of stardom in China, he often pleads with reporters that he is not a rock star or a political dissident, but a composer.
Through all his work, Cui has started a new revolution, a contemporary "Long March" toward a new way of thinking for a new generation of Chinese.
Speaking of the passion of early Communist revolutionaries, Cui once said, "I want to study their spirit, so that perhaps I, too, can succeed in creating something rare in this world."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society