Beijing's Bruce has the blues

Rock writers around the world have raved over China's Cui Jian, comparing him to Bruce Springsteen. But few in China can make such calls; most have never heard this invisible rock star, since Beijing rarely allows him to play.

By Ron Gluckman/Beijing

HE'S CALLED THE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN OF CHINA, and itís well-earned praise. No musician in China has rocked harder, struggled longer or shown more commitment to the soul of rock-and-roll than Cui Jian.

And no one has risen to the heights of popularity against such a dramatic backdrop ó the Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989. But because of that background, Cui Jian has had perhaps that most difficult time moving on.

Cui Jian came of age with much of his generation at Beijingís Tiananmen Square, during the mass demonstrations of 1989. Until its tragic end, it was in many ways like a mainland Woodstock, a revolutionary few days that rocked a nation.

Tens of thousands of people, led by students, came out on the street to call for democracy, freedom of speech, lower prices, less corruption ó a myriad of causes. It was defiant and political, but it was also euphoric.

Cui Jian, sporting headband and strumming guitar, defined the spirit in the square. Even if you couldnít see him for the tanks or turmoil, you heard Cui Jian. His song, "Yi Wu Suo You" (Nothing to My Name)," became the movementís anthem, played over speakers, on tape players, and sung by others.

At the time, people compared Cui Jian to Bob Dylan, but comparisons to Springsteen stuck, perhaps because it made more sense in musical terms. With a raspy voice, Cui Jian belts out basic rock, spun around lyrical sax lines that recall Springsteenís funky early-version E-Street Band.

But the Bruce of Beijing is hardly known for the kind of marathon live shows that took Springsteen from cult status to super-stardom. Instead Cui Jianís concerts are legendary because there are so few of them.

Indeed, fame ó especially Cuiís association with Tiananmen ó has often been as much a hindrance as a help. While most of China, Cui Jian included, long ago moved beyond the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, Chinaís elderly leaders have not. And that makes eking out a living as a musician in Beijing even more difficult than it normally would be.

Cui Jian was all set to rock Beijing in late May 2000. Newspapers hailed his first stadium show in seven years. One headline in Beijing Scene summed up the excitement: "King Returns."

 Later came announcements that the show was cancelled. It wasnít, but Beijing had simply banned its native son from the line-up once again.

Itís a familiar story in China, where Cui Jian is the most famous Chinese rock star that few in his own country have ever actually seen. Last year, he played nine shows in the United States. Thatís about as many as he managed to play for the first half-year of the new millennium in China. And most of those appearances have been in small clubs, often unannounced.

"Still, itís been a good year so far," says the upbeat rocker. "Of course, I want to play more. Thatís the dream of all musicians. To be in the right place, with the right people. Performing not for money, but the feeling."

For the last decade though, Cui Jian has been nonetheless under a cloud. There has been no written edict against Cui Jian, no public ban. Nothing is China is that straightforward. In China, rock concerts must be approved by the Ministry of Culture. Promoters make the application.

"Pressure is applied," said Gary Ge Chen, president of Pulay Music, which recently signed Cui Jian to a recording contract, and plans a big international push on behalf of the Chinese rock star. Often there is no official rejection. There is no need. Papers are withdrawn, along with headline offers. "Itís really politics," he said.

In fact, when controversy surfaced before the May show, the reports were about a last-minute ban on Chang Hui-mei, or A-mei, called "the Madonna" of Taiwan. A-mei was dropped after singing at the inauguration of Taiwanís new president. The ban on Cui Jianís performance was so routine, it didnít rate a mention.

Cui Jian does perform on rare occasion, like when Beijing needs to raise cash for the Asian Games or an Olympics bid, and Cui Jianís bankable star status is required. Otherwise, his shows are simply not approved. And his music is rarely played on the state-run radio stations.

"There was never a direct ban on playing Cui Jian," says Zhang Youdai, 32, Chinaís most popular DJ. "There were never any rules. But you knew you could never play Cui Jian. It was impossible. His lyrics were considered too political."

Youdaiís popular New Rock Magazine show was launched in 1993, and is still running. Early on, it was called New Music Magazine. Back then, rock Ďní roll ó yao gun ó was a dirty term. "You couldnít even say the words in Chinese on the radio," says Youdai, chuckling at the memory.

But times have changed, at least for some in the mainland's problematic music business. Nowadays, Youdai ó his name is a clever play on the Chinese phrase "have tapes" ó travels abroad and spins discs in fashionable clubs in London. He makes appointments on a new mobile phone. On weekends, he joins friends for secret raves atop Chinaís Great Wall.

"China has opened up considerably," Youdai concedes. "But for Cui Jian, itís still the same."

The link between Cui Jian and the Tiananmen movement made him into an international celebrity. "The foreign press wrote about Cui Jian. They still do, and always about Tiananmen," said Youdai. "Itís an unshakable association."

As a result, the unofficial ban stands. "We still can do shows, but Beijing is tough," said Chen. To Beijingís staid officials, Cui Jian has too much baggage.


Not that things are all bad for Chinese rock star Cui Jian, now 39. Deprived of the opportunity to play live, he spends much of his time tinkering in his home studio. He records on state-of-the-art equipment that didnít exist in China when he started out. He listens to the latest tracks from Europe and America.

"Electronic music. Experimental stuff," he said. "Some of it is so new, there is really no name for the style." Access to this material is rather revolutionary. When Cui Jian first fell in love with rock, it was listening to illicit tapes that friends had copied in Hong Kong or Bangkok, and smuggled into China.

For generations, such subterfuge was a way of life. Cui Jian was born into a musical family. Among the large community of ethnic Koreans in China, his mother was a member of a Korean dance troupe, and his father was a professional trumpet player. "I grew up surrounded by music," says Cui Jian.

For years, during the many Chinaís political campaigns the entire repertoire of musical groups was limited to a few officially-sanctioned operas and classical works, plus marching music. Like many artists of the time, Cuiís father listened to illegal jazz on the sly.

Cui Jian started playing trumpet as a teen, and soon joined the local symphony. With some of the other young members, he formed Seven Ply Board, a seminal Beijing band that played local pubs in the 1980s. Listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, he started writing, mainly soft rock and love songs.


During a 1986 television talent show, he leaped on stage and sang his composition, "Nothing to My Name." Almost overnight, Cui Jian became a household name in China. And rock Ďní roll had finally arrived.

Cui Jianís first album, "Rock Ďní Roll on the New Long March" appeared in 1987, but it was years before a tour was put together. By then, Tiananmen protests put the lid on rock shows and a large number of other gatherings.

Cui Jianís New Long March tour finally got underway in 1990, in support of the Asian Games, but was abruptly cancelled mid-way through China.

In the politically oppressive years following Tiananmen Cui Jian and other bands played cat-and-mouse with the authorities, setting up private concerts catering to foreigners and well-off Chinese, only to be shut down before or during the show.

Yet Cui Jian kept plugging away, singing his increasingly more sophisticated songs. "Solution" was released in 1992, followed by "Balls Under the Red Flag" in 1994.

By then, music videos had arrived in China, and heavy play on Asiaís MTV brought Cui Jian regional fame. His fourth album, "The Power of the Powerless," came out in 1998, followed last year by a greatest hits collection.

In all, Cui Jian probably has sold 12-15 million copies, according to Chen. But most were pirated copies. In any case, the artist rarely sees royalties. With CDs of U2, REM, Sting, Moby and other western artists selling freely on the streets for under $1 per copy, mainland musicians have no chance to compete, and there is no incentive to invest in a music industry.

Musicians hustle for recording gigs, but often have to pay all recording and release costs themselves. Without much profit potential, most consider recording to be practically pointless. Thatís what makes the ban on Cui Jian so cruel.

"Nobody in China expects to make any money from albums," says Kaiser Kuo, 34, a Chinese-American from New York who played lead guitar for Tang Dynasty, among the mainlandís most successful hard-rock acts. During its heyday in the early 1990s, the band played sold-out stadium shows of 40,000 people, and sold millions of records.

Even as stars, Kuo says Tang Dynastyís final recording contract in 1998 gave the band just 20 cents per copy. Besides band members, the manager, roadies and all expenses were paid from that tiny sliver of royalties.

"Nobody in China makes money from record sales," says Kuo, who still wears his hair long, but now works in Beijing as an internet editor and incisive rock commentator. "You support yourself by playing."

Yet China's regularly undermined rock star has few regrets. In fact, heís busier than ever. Cui Jian is currently working on a score for a new ballet and this piece has a good chance of being performed. "Show Me Your True Colors" has been commissioned by a Hong Kong group to be staged in 2001 during the Chinese New Year.

Cui Jian is also working on a pair of book projects. And Pulay, which has put all his compositions on a Chinese-English web site (, plans to re-release his old discs next year. Not that Cui Jian wants to trade in past glory.

"With my last album, I was a little disappointed with the reaction," he says. "Even some of the journalists didnít like it. They seem to want the old Cui Jian, the old sound.

As for the Springsteen comparisons, he says, "Itís an honor, of course. But I want to try new things. I want to make people think. I put my soul in my music."

Actually, the times demand a new sound. Cui Jian has been criticized by some of his contemporaries for not moving on, for not changing, even for remaining too political at a time when many Chinese people are uninterested in politics. "Cui Jian is like Bob Dylan. But times are changing," said Youdai.

Cui remains surprisingly unfazed by the restrictions, even by the name-calling, with one exception. "I donít want to be known as the Ďgrandfather of rock in China.í That just makes me feel old," says Cui Jian. "I feel like Iím just starting."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter and former rock critic who has been based in Hong Kong since 1990, when he began visiting China for a wide variety of publications and media, such as MSNBC, which carried this story during the summer of 2000. 

PS: In September, Beijing held its largest stadium concert in 10 years, featuring "all of China's top bands," according to the promoter. But not Cui Jian, who originally had been announced, but then pulled from the billing. "Of course not," he told this reporter. "It's impossible to book Cui Jian. If we put him on the show, it's cancelled. There is no way for him to play Beijing. Not yet. Maybe not ever."

PPS: Ron did another story on rock 'n' roll and China\s Woodstock for the wall street journal in 2001.

PPPS: In the latest news, Cui Jian says he has three dreams, to perform in Beijing, to see the Rolling Stones perform, and to perform on the same stage with the Rolling Stones. In March 2003, the Rolling Stones announced plans for shows in Shanghai and Beijing, with Cui Jian on the billing! The bottom picture is of Cui Jian at the press conference for those shows. Check back to see whether Cui rocks Beijing with the Stones.

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