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Rocking Out in China (Part One) Posted by on Dec 7, 2020 in Culture

Recently, a friend sent me an article titled “Why Does China Have 1.4 Billion People and No Good Bands?” While it’s definitely an interesting question and a well-written article, I have to respectfully disagree with the premise. While I’ll admit that it’s not quite as cool as the scene up north in Mongolia, Chinese rock (中国摇滚 zhōng guó yáo gǔn) deserves some credit. I’ve had plenty of fun nights rocking out in China and wanted to share a bit of Chinese rock music with you in a new series. Just be warned – this blog post goes to 11! We’ll kick things off today with a little history lesson.

A Brief History of Chinese Rock

We actually don’t have to go back very far to get to the origins of rock music in China. During the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命 wén huà dà gé mìng), there was definitely no rocking out allowed. It wasn’t until the Reform and Opening Up (改革开放 gǎi gé kāi fàng) period under Deng Xiaoping that rock music started to trickle in.

I’m pretty sure this poster says “Chairman Mao does not approve of loud rock music.”
Image by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library from flickr.com

This new era in China’s history began in 1978, and the country had its first rock band the next year – a group of 老外 who called themselves the Peking All-Stars. They managed to line up a gig at a university and were asked to turn it down after just one song.

In a country that had been closed off to the rest of the world for so long, can you imagine the reaction the other students had to hearing the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the first time ever? What a gig to have been at!

They had several gigs around the capital for a couple of years but went their separate ways in 1984. You can read a more in-depth version of their story from founding member Graham Earnshaw on his website. In the story, he talks about meeting a local trumpet player and inviting him to jam with the band. They didn’t exactly vibe and he didn’t end up joining the band, but Cui Jian (崔健 cuī jiàn) would go on to become the “godfather of Chinese rock” anyways.

A Vice News special about Cui Jian.

Cui Jian and the Northwest Wind

Cui Jian was a pioneer of the new genre of music in China that came to be known as Northwest Wind (西北风 xī běi fēng). This new style drew on the folk traditions of northern Shaanxi province while adding in the fast tempo and heavy bass lines of western rock music.

You can see why Cui Jian has been deemed controversial by the Chinese gov’t. Image by keso s from flickr.com.

in 1989, Cui Jian released the album “Rock ‘N’ Roll on the New Long March” (新长征路上的摇滚 xīn cháng zhēng lù shàng de yáo gǔn) with the help of his band ADO. The album contained the powerful song “Nothing to My Name” (一无所有 yī wú suǒ yǒu), which became the de facto anthem of the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square.

Since it is considered one of the most influential songs in China’s history, I figured you should check it out and learn from the lyrics. Here’s a performance by Cui Jian of his famous song “Nothing to My Name” where you can follow along with the lyrics KTV-style:

As for the lyrics, they can be interpreted as a being either a love song or a political one. It could be a boy singing to his girlfriend, but it could just as easily be the people of China singing to their nation. Here are the lyrics in both Chinese characters and pinyin so you can make your own opinion:

我曾经问个不休
你何时跟我走
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
我要给你我的追求
还有我的自由
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
噢……你何时跟我走
噢……你何时跟我走
脚下的地在走
身边的水在流
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
为何你总笑个没够
为何我总要追求
难道在你面前
我永远是一无所有
噢……你何时跟我走
噢……你何时跟我走
脚下的地在走
身边的水在流
告诉你我等了很久
告诉你我最后的要求
我要抓起你的双手
你这就跟我走
这时你的手在颤抖
这时你的泪在流
莫非你是在告诉我
你爱我一无所有
噢……你这就跟我走
噢……你这就跟我走
噢……你这就跟我走

wǒ céngjīng wèn gè bùxiū
nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ
yīwúsuǒyǒu
wǒ yào gěi nǐ wǒ de zhuīqiú
hái yǒu wǒ de zìyóu
kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ
yīwúsuǒyǒu
ō……nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
ō……nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
jiǎoxià dì dì zài zǒu
shēnbiān de shuǐ zài liú
kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ
yīwúsuǒyǒu
wèihé nǐ zǒng xiào gè méi gòu
wèihé wǒ zǒng yào zhuīqiú
nándào zài nǐ miànqián
wǒ yǒngyuǎn shì yīwúsuǒyǒu
ō……nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
ō……nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
jiǎoxià dì dì zài zǒu
shēnbiān de shuǐ zài liú
gàosù nǐ wǒ děngle hěnjiǔ
gàosù nǐ wǒ zuìhòu de yāoqiú
wǒ yào zhuā qǐ nǐ de shuāngshǒu
nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
zhè shí nǐ de shǒu zài chàndǒu
zhè shí nǐ de lèi zài liú
mòfēi nǐ shì zài gàosù wǒ
nǐ ài wǒ yīwúsuǒyǒu
ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu

I have asked you endlessly, When will you go with me?
But you always laugh at me with, Nothing to my name
I want to give you my dreams, And give you my freedom.
But you always laugh at me with, Nothing to my name.
Ohhh…. When will you go with me?
The earth beneath my feet is moving. The river beside me is flowing.
But you always laugh at me with, Nothing to my name.
Why do you always laugh at me so? Why don’t I give up?
Why do you see me as, Forever having nothing to my name?
Ohhh…. Just go with me now!
Listen – I’ve waited so long, So I’ll make my final request.
I want to grab you by the hands, And take you with me.
Now your hands are trembling, Now your tears are falling.
Perhaps you are saying, You love me with nothing to my name
Ohhh…. Just go with me now.

English lyrics from: https://lyricstranslate.com

You can listen to Cui Jian’s entire album “Rock ‘N’ Roll on the New Long March” on YouTube, which makes for a pretty cool Chinese listening exercise!

After the violent crackdown on the protests, Cui and other rock musicians temporarily went into hiding. Just the next year, the government approved of his first rock tour as a fundraiser for the 1990 Asian games. That didn’t last long, though. During performances of one of his political anthems, Cui donned a red blindfold over his eyes. Not surprisingly, the tour was soon canceled.

Throughout the 90s, Cui Jian was officially banned from playing shows in Beijing and his music was also banned from state-controlled media broadcasts. That didn’t stop him from rocking out, though, as he continued to play shows across China and eventually internationally. He even put on a music festival (音乐节 yīn yuè jié) in Yunnan province that was dubbed the “Chinese Woodstock.”

The guy who made rock ‘n roll a part of Chinese culture by learning Rolling Stones songs on his guitar eventually had his dream come true when he got to play alongside the rock legends in Shanghai. He joined the band for their famous song “Wild Horses” in a huge moment in rock ‘n roll history. The Stones even put the video up on their official channel:

Cui Jian was also eventually welcomed back to Beijing for his own headlining show. Over the coming years, the rock scene in the capital and the rest of the country would continue to grow thanks in large part to Cui and his influence. In the next post, we’ll look at some of the Chinese rock bands who came after Cui Jian in the 1990s and beyond.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


Comments:

  1. Elizabeth:

    Hi Sasha, I really enjoyed this article and all the videos and links. It had a lot of insight into China then and now. Thank you.


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