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birth of a beijing music scene by Matthew Corbin Clark
A young American music producer describes how he came to know and work with the biggest rock star in China -- whose music appears througout FRONTLINE's "China in the Red" -- and how he immersed himself over the course of a decade in the sounds and sensibilities of a new generation of musicians. (Plus, listen to audio tracks, with lyrics, of five bands on the current Beijing scene.)

Feb. 13, 2003

The Father of Chinese Rock

My first encounter with Chinese rock music came in 1990 at Nanjing University, where I participated in what at the time was China's only program allowing foreign and Chinese students to study and live together in the same dormitory. My roommate, from rural Jiangsu province, was an English literature major on an army scholarship, but in other ways he was typical of Chinese university students that year. The previous spring he had felt both the infectious enthusiasm and the crushing defeat of the student protests in Tiananmen Square, and while he maintained a weighty faith in himself and his country, he also realized that his ideals did not square with the hard realization that both he and China remained comparatively poor. Such contradictory feelings were typical of the larger national reaction experienced by many Chinese people in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's reforms and China's opening to the outside world. And although these feelings found little public expression, one exception emerged in the late 1980s in the form of a raspy and emotional voice from Beijing: a rock singer by the name of Cui Jian.

My roommate was an avid fan of Cui Jian and knew all the lyrics to the songs on his first record, Rock 'N' Roll On The New Long March (1987). He even sang them quite well. In 1989 the students in Tiananmen Square had adopted as their rallying cry Cui Jian's "Nothing To My Name," a coded paean to love conquering all, after which students across China could at least sing the refrain, if not the entire album.

cui jian

Cui Jian (c. 1989)

I became intensely fascinated with Cui Jian, not only because he was a bona fide icon of a hitherto unseen Chinese counter-culture, but even more so for the integrity with which he had indigenized a Western musical form. By combining traditional Chinese instruments and melodic sensitivities with the rhythmic and harmonic cadences of Western rock, Cui Jian deserved the title "Father of Chinese Rock Music," as he had come to be known at home. Stories about his expulsion from the Beijing Symphony Orchestra for experimenting with Western "cultural pollution"; about his ongoing cat-and-mouse games with the Beijing authorities' continuing crackdown on unauthorized "underground" performances; and about the army general who mistakenly interpreted Cui Jian's version of "South Muddy Bay" as a mockery of the revered military song, subsequently banning airplay of Cui Jian songs anywhere in China -- all coalesced into what seemed a rock 'n' roll mythology worthy of any Western rock star.

So it was that in 1990 I discovered this Cui Jian: a bizarre concoction of post-Communist celebrity, cross-cultural artistic transfer, David & Goliath political dynamics, and inspired musicianship.

The Shape of Things to Come

I spent the next four years buying recording equipment and developing my skills as a music producer. Then, in 1994, while working for a Hong Kong company that distributed audio electronics in mainland China, I had my first chance to meet Cui Jian. I caught wind from a friend in New York City that Bill Laswell, the revolutionary American producer/bassist, would be performing in Beijing while I was there on business. After several phone calls I was able to set up a meeting in which I would introduce Laswell to Cui Jian.

The night before the meeting I was invited to join Cui Jian at a restaurant specializing in a Beijing specialty -- mutton hotpot. I arrived at the restaurant just behind Cui Jian's entourage of three cars and a dozen people. As we began dunking thinly sliced mutton and vegetables into a cauldron of boiling broth, then downing it with a rich sesame paste, beer was meted out and the group began to loosen up.

In gray authoritarian Beijing, I felt I had wandered into an oasis of culture and open-mindedness that I had experienced nowhere else in China.

Though I was seated next to Cui Jian, the first questions came from his friend Wang Di, who was also a pioneering record producer in Beijing. He asked what I was doing in Hong Kong and quizzed me about technical aspects of record production. I had the distinct sense of being evaluated, as though he were trying to see just how much I really knew about musical technology and whether I was of any value to Cui Jian. After half an hour of bantering about the technical details of computer-based digital audio workstations, it seemed my status was verified, and Cui Jian became more talkative. I asked Cui Jian about his own process of production, rehearsing a band, touring, his status as a rock musician in China, and even about his family. At the end of the meal, Cui Jian paid the bill, and we all said good night.

As America's most prolific producer of experimental world music, Bill Laswell was interested in meeting Cui Jian, and the next day the two of them had a good meeting, exchanging stories, phone numbers, and records. Ironically, Laswell had just released his production of Chinese avant-garde author/singer Liu Sola's Blues In The East, which seemed somehow auspicious to me. Cui Jian was also impressed and offered Laswell a copy of his latest record, Balls Under The Red Flag, which many considered his best record up to that time and a masterwork of the genre he created.

Cui Jian (with video)

Recognized as the father of rock-and-roll in China, Cui Jian (pronounced sway-jen) has been compared to Elvis, Dylan, and Springsteen by Western media. Born in 1961 into an ethnically Korean family, he joined the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra at age 20 playing classical trumpet. Smitten by Western rock, he took up the guitar and by the mid-1980s was playing Western pop songs in Beijing's small restaurants and hotels.

Cui Jian soon started drawing attention with his songs. In contrast to the gauzy romanticism of Chinese pop ballads, his dealt with individualism and sexuality. At a 1986 Beijing concert, he climbed onto stage in worn army fatigues and belted out the song that made him famous: "Nothing To My Name." At the end, a stunned audience erupted in a standing ovation and almost overnight China's youth were playing his songs on beat-up guitars in campus dormitories and sidewalk cafes. A few years later, "Nothing to My Name" became an anthem for the 1989 Tiananmen student movement.

More than six minutes of music from Cui Jian's album The Power of the Powerless appears in the soundtrack of FRONTLINE's "China in the Red." Read more about Cui Jian, and listen to samples of his music, on his web site, www.cuijian.com.

photo of cui jan from the video 'flying'

View Cui Jian's Music Video "Flying" (5:29)
Directed by undergound director Zhang Yuan, many fans consider it Cui Jian's best video.

As the meeting with Laswell ended and we parted company, Cui Jian looked at me and saw how overwhelmed I was. "You look like you just had a baby," he said. "Come on, let's go have some Peking Duck!" With typical Chinese hospitality, he plied me with roast duck and Maotai liquor until I was relaxed enough to accept an offer to visit his home studio with the self-respect of a colleague, rather than the giddy worship of a fan.

The next day Cui Jian picked me up in his second-hand Chinese-made VW Santana, playing Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet on the cassette deck. His apartment, in an unassuming 25-story apartment block typical of Beijing, was huge by Chinese standards: four bedrooms, a living/dining room, a kitchen, and the studio. If the apartment's size wasn't a clear enough indication of the wealth that Cui Jian's fame had brought him, then his recording studio, which was far beyond the norm of most home recording studios at that time even in the United States, certainly was.

Cui Jian had already begun working on his fourth album, The Power of the Powerless. He played me a new track called "Slackers," which was surprising in its use of electronica and rap. Clearly, Public Enemy's influence had rubbed off on Cui Jian as he belted out a lyrical depiction of the folly of a stock character in post-communist China -- the lazy good-for-nothing with an inflated sense of entitlement who thinks he can talk his way into success rather than actually working for it.

While we were in the studio, Cui Jian's American girlfriend and an African acquaintance came in, talking about an exhibition of underground art they had just seen. In gray authoritarian Beijing, I felt I had wandered into an oasis of culture and open-mindedness that I had experienced nowhere else in China. I had the sense that what I was seeing was not typical -- but that it might be the shape of things to come.

Rock Music Struggles

Over the next two years, I had many opportunities to meet Cui Jian and see him perform, such as in 1995 when he performed in the southern city of Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong. When I arrived at a disco bar called Solar System, Cui Jian had already taken the stage for a sound check during which local officials of the Ministry of Culture would see what the show looked liked and review the lyrics of songs on the evening's program. Because the city of Shenzhen came under direct control of the national government in Beijing, local officials were particularly wary of Cui Jian, who hadn't been allowed to perform in major venues since the rowdy behavior of the audiences at his post-Tiananmen Square tour of 1990 had unnerved authorities. Even at a little disco pub with a seating capacity of 450, Shenzhen officials were taking no chances. Following the sound check they submitted their conditions: the title song of Balls Under The Red Flag was not to be performed. As one expected from Cui Jian, that night's show featured a second encore of "Balls Under The Red Flag."

Apparently, Cui Jian's refusal to obey the Ministry of Culture's conditions resulted in a ban on his second performance at Solar System. In his hotel room after the show, Cui Jian looked glum, but his band members seemed to find the whole thing amusing. They had been through this many times before, and usually such circumstances could be overcome if the right things were said and Cui Jian demonstrated some sort of contrition. But the second show didn't happen, and it seems to me that this was the beginning of a new period for Cui Jian in which he put politics aside for the sake of musical imperatives. Years later I would find a changed Cui Jian who had learned how to be a shrewd yet cooperative collaborator with government agencies.

In the meantime, I was preparing to embark on a four-week tour of our Western retailers' shops. These road-show exhibitions gave me an opportunity to see many bands and musicians, and to witness the state of musicianship across China in 1995. Of course, there were many traditionally trained musicians who had graduated from top music academies and comprised China's traditional ensembles, Western-style orchestras, and the omnipresent classical duos and trios playing hotel lobbies everywhere. There was also a substantial corpus of pop-music players who could manage the guitar-keyboard-bass-drums format and play cover versions of pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The quality of these groups was light years beyond the same kind of groups I had seen in 1987 while traveling in southern China; I saw some truly horrendous playing in hotel lobbies at that time. But in 1995, nightclubs and discos featured house bands that did a better than good job of replicating the pop music from China's two southern satellites.

But what the culture really lacked was people like Cui Jian -- those with genuine artistic expression coupled with refined musical technique and dynamic knowledge of the electronics needed to realize it. Of course, there were a few others like Cui Jian: the heavy metal band, Tang Dynasty; the bad-boy punker, He Yong; the moody spacefruit warbler, Dou Wei. All of them were known nationally in China, had music videos featured on MTV Asia, and even performed at a landmark stadium show in Hong Kong that at the time was heralded as a turning point in Chinese pop culture. Yet the sad truth was that most of these units had only one or two good records in them.

With the exception of Dou Wei and Cui Jian, who have continued producing interesting records and live performances, none of the other "first generation" rockers had the combination of musical and artistic skills necessary to sustain an extended career. However, between 1994 and 1996, I saw a large and growing number of young people with an interest in creating electronically-driven music, and trying their best to acquire technical skill, earn money for instruments, and cultivate an artistic disposition.

When I returned to the United States in 1996, my company still hadn't sold many instruments, and it seemed that in spite of the phenomenal interest in rock music and the associated technology, young potential players simply didn't have the disposable income to buy the instruments they needed. When I returned to China in 1999, however, all that had changed.

An American Producer in Beijing

In 1999, some friends and I brought Cui Jian to the United States for a series of concerts in Seattle, New York, Boston, Dallas, and Atlanta. While he was here in the States, I expressed an interest in moving to Beijing and forming a production company with him. After the success of the American shows, Cui Jian was agreeable and, given that he was in the process of changing management, it seemed an opportune moment to bring an American into his mix.

When I arrived in Beijing in December of 1999, I was surprised to find a robust underground music scene -- something that simply did not exist in 1996, when I last visited Beijing. There were a dozen hole-in-the-wall venues where new underground bands played every week. By the spring of 2000, I had seen most of Beijing's new bands, and it seemed a good time to produce a series of showcase concerts.

Cui Jian's saxophone player, Liu Yuan, had opened his own club, CD Café -- a beautifully designed two-story concert space with a raised wooden stage and a top-notch professional sound and lighting system. It even featured an audio mixing console located in front of the stage, rather than behind it (which was the norm in every Chinese venue I'd ever seen). It was far and away the best place in Beijing to produce my underground rock pageant. China's only national music-video television station, Channel V, agreed to carry the shows under the banner Indie Zone, and the series ran weekly for three months in the autumn of 2000.

I hosted and engineered the show, and for most of the bands it was the first time they had played under such sonically pristine conditions. They had never known what it was to be mixed properly, or to hear their own voices over the din through a professional monitoring system. The Indie Zone shows at CD Café were widely attended and something of a watershed event since the venue presented a sonic tabula rasa upon which so many new bands' creativity and musicianship could be accurately compared.

The Making of "Beijing Band 2001"

The series was also an opportunity to choose 10 bands that I felt could produce a good compilation record. In my selections, I focused on groups with a charismatic leader. In most cases a lead singer/songwriter had to rely on some weak players, but I looked past that since my recording would correct poor performances and strive to convey the bandleader's original vision. I also sought singers who brought something new to the use of Chinese language in song. Finally, I considered rhythm and groove as a central criterion. I was actually very impressed by some of the young drummers I saw in China -- and what a huge change that was from a decade earlier, when syncopated rhythm was as alien a concept in China as McDonald's!

Today in China, with the proliferation of pirated CDs featuring even the most eclectic records from the West, young people can listen to virtually everything that has ever been produced. It's remarkable to see such a musical shift happening in so short a time. I felt lucky to be there in 2000 and to have a chance to bring these people into the controlled environment of my own recording studio, where I could capture a little of this evolution on hard disk.


photo of happy avenue

Listen to Happy Avenue's "Daughter."


The first band I recorded was Happy Avenue. Like most bands in Beijing, they were from the provinces and lived in Beijing illegally without a hukou, or Beijing residence permit. The drummer and lead guitarist were from western China, and they supported themselves on meager earnings as a nightclub house band. The only member of Happy Avenue in Beijing legally was the leader, Wu Hongfei. Originally from a poor mountain village in southwestern Guizhou province, Hongfei was a graduate student in literature at the renowned Qinghua University. She had already published two books of poetry and essays, and was a prolific writer by the time she started singing in bars in the Sanlitun nightlife district of Beijing. Soon she began writing songs and quickly formed a band.

When I presented Happy Avenue at Indie Zone, the audience reaction was strongly supportive of this young woman singing and screaming with so much pent-up frustration and unadorned melancholy. Wu Hongfei offered up psychedelia like "The Fish in Little Long's Room," "An Apple Who Wished to Be an Orange," and "Butterflies," which were way beyond the standard fare of any Chinese lyrical explorations theretofore. I was particularly taken by the lyrical rhythm of "Daughter," a tongue-in-cheek ode to motherhood, daughterhood, and divorce. It was the first song I chose to record because of its straight-ahead rock orchestration.

In 2003, Happy Avenue are still playing out in Beijing and have recently completed work on their first full album. Wu Hongfei has also completed her master's degree and is looking for a job so she can keep her Beijing hukou.


photo of Wood Pushing Melon

Listen to Wood Pushing Melon's "Look But Dare Not Look."


The second band I recorded was the cryptic Wood Pushing Melon, led by Song Yuzhe -- an exuberant, good-looking young poet with a mild manner that belied his penchant for on-stage histrionics and fisticuffs. Wood Pushing Melon came on the scene in the summer of 2000 and quickly rose to the top of the heap. Song Yuzhe's lyrics, like the name of the band, were elliptical and metaphoric, and he delivered them in a mock Beijing opera voice reeking of irony.

The band developed a following quickly and became a favorite of Cui Jian's. I got them into my studio as soon as I could. Thanks to the strong musicianship of this band, their recording session was one of the shortest and most true to the band's live sound. Unfortunately, the latest news is that the band broke up when Song Yuzhe took off for Tibet to do some soul-searching.


photo of yao

Listen to Yao's "Ping-Pong Party."


By November of 2000 the icy Beijing winter was settling in, and I began a collaborative effort with a fellow named Fang Ke and his project band, Yao. Fang Ke had studied at the prestigious Central Academy of Design in Beijing. But his skills were not limited to visual arts and soon after his studies, he picked up a guitar and began writing songs, finding some success in record releases from Beijing's Modern Sky records and Taiwan's China Fire mainland rock music series.

Yao's revolving door membership and ever-changing arrangements did not hinder Fang Ke from maintaining a religious schedule of daily rehearsals. The band's lyrics run the gamut from spoofs of Communist Party propaganda to quizzical ruminations on human existence. Songs like "The Diary of Lei Feng," "Take Off Your Clothes," and "One of the God-Blessed and Independently-Lifestyled, Beautiful and Regular-as-Clockwork Bowel-Movemented You," all took a backseat to my own favorite, "Ping-Pong Party," which we recorded over a three-week period. Fang Ke's approach to the studio was in keeping with his artistic philosophy, and he proved himself an open and willing collaborator. This same approach has driven him to New York City where he now owns his own digital recording studio and is hard at work bringing the skill of American musicians to bear on his unique form of rock'n' roll music with Chinese characteristics.

I continued to work through the winter and recorded 5 more bands: RUINS, a Chinese ambient rock correlate of Radiohead led by sensualist anti-bard Zhou Yunshan; GLORIOUS PHARMACY, a Dada-esque performance art-rock troupe led by ex-soldier and surrealist tattoo artist He Guofeng; SECOND HAND ROSE, a parody on "northeast"-style folk music featuring traditional Chinese instruments and fronted by flamboyant pseudo-transvestite Liang Long; PIONEER'S CLUB, a goofball ska unit under direct command of Beijing Film Academy graduate and Che Guevara buff Chen Ke; and RIVER, a one-hit-wonder save for the rhythmically idiosyncratic vocal stylings of lead singer Hong Guo.


photo of Tongue

Listen to Tongue's "The Painter."


By spring's arrival I had finally convinced Beijing's best underground art-rock troupe, Tongue, that they should be on my compilation. This was no small feat since the members of Tongue were famously aloof and deadly serious about music. They were a unique presence on the Beijing scene for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that they hailed from the western province of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur people -- Central Asian Muslims who speak a derivative of Turkish and whose culture more closely resembles that of the Middle East than Han China.

The band members were all children of Hans relocated to Xinjiang following the Communist liberation in 1949. As such they had grown up surrounded by a foreign musical culture that emphasized syncopated polyrhythms and complex tunings. This lay in stark contrast to the stilted martial and operatic sensitivities of traditional and revolutionary era Chinese music. The Uighur influence on Tongue was obvious in the vivid sonic counterpoint that its six members boiled down from their daily improvisation sessions. Layered over the band's technicolor audioscapes were the guttural musings of front man Wu Tun, who grunted out stream-of-consciousness hallucinations, invoking the morally decrepit world of Lu Xun and the weird circus of William S. Burroughs. No other band in Beijing approached music-making with such sophistication, or boasted a full complement of members with the inimitable character and skill to realize their imaginative visions.

In 2003, Tongue are still plugging away in Beijing and hoping that recent contacts with the European music industry will grant them a way out of the predicament faced by most Chinese bands: piracy and poverty. For the time being, Tongue remain a regular fixture on the Beijing scene.


photo of wild children

Listen to Wild Children's "Leave."


I felt a strong sense of musical camaraderie with Wild Children when we first met in 1995. At the time, I was on the road in western China giving seminars on digital audio products to local dealers. After wrapping up in the city of Lanzhou, our host took us for a meal at a restaurant specializing exclusively in mutton dishes and decorated in meticulously aligned goat skulls.

Joining us at the meal was the leader of Wild Children, Zhang Quan, who had just returned home to Lanzhou to research local folk music. He was living in the hills outside the city with his collaborator, Xiao Suo, in a shack without water or electricity. By day they labored with farmers for food and musical inspiration, and at night they worked by candlelight on their guitar and vocal arrangements. Zhang Quan was no stranger to this kind of Spartan living: coming from a family he describes as "part farmer, part worker, and part hobo," he left home at age 14 to go on walkabout for 13 years. By the age of 27, Zhang Quan saw most of his country and developed a passion for Chinese folk music.

After our nothing-but-mutton dinner, Quan and Suo pulled out their guitars and played us some of their material. I was totally blown away by what I heard: an infective mixture of romantic folk, minimalism, and Chinese tradition -- like Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Reich, and a chorus of Buddhist monks all thrown together in a very gentle blender. Unfortunately, I had to leave Lanzhou the next day. But I never forgot about Quan and Suo, and I added them to the list of reasons for eventually getting myself back into China with my studio in tow.

When I finally did get to Beijing in 1999, a friend took me to see a band playing at a tiny bar across from Worker's Stadium. As we walked in the door, it dawned on me that I had stumbled across the two guys I had spent four years thinking about producing. That night Quan and Suo played a tremendous set of new material, all fiercely original and eminently recordable. For their second set, they invited me to sit in with them on percussion, and the rest of the evening spiraled off into a raucous jam session.

In 2003, Wild Children have purchased their own little venue called River Bar on South Sanlitun Street, where the jam sessions continue and the band performs its own music every week.

The Last Hotpot

By the end of the summer of 2001 I had finally finished mixing the record and decided on the title, Beijing Band 2001. In my last week in Beijing I photographed the cover shot for the record. Yao's drummer helped arrange for us to borrow a set of Beijing Opera costumes, and band leaders He Guofeng, Wu Hongfei, and Liang Long all met at Fang Ke's apartment, where they donned the outfits and applied weird opera makeup. To get to the photographer's studio I had rented, it was necessary for the lot of us to make our way through the Wangfujing shopping district, Beijing's busiest marketplace. The site of these singers dressed up like Halloween ghouls, attracting the stares and chuckles of passersby, seemed a fitting way to wrap up the project. It reminded me how unusual my musician friends were in relation to the culture surrounding them.

My last night in Beijing was reserved for Cui Jian. After all, it was only because of him that I had been able to make it back to Beijing and produce my compilation. That night we met at a little mutton hotpot restaurant much like the one I had enjoyed when we first met seven years earlier.

In 2001, Cui Jian's status as the father of Chinese rock was still intact. But to the new generation he didn't mean as much. His old fans still loved him, but by and large the face of Chinese youth had changed, and the post-communist struggle for social and artistic freedom had been replaced by a desire for cell phones and sharp clothes. Was Cui Jian in danger of becoming irrelevant? I, too, had become less spellbound by Cui Jian, as will happen when you break through the veneer of celebrity and get to know the person underneath. But still, when I receive pictures of Cui Jian's live shows and listen to his groundbreaking records, the same twinge of curious excitement runs through me as I remind myself that he is known by 1.3 billion people on the other side of the world -- and that I am one of only a handful of Westerners who has seen a rarely acknowledged side of China, in which real artists and musicians achieve integrity derived from a historical and cultural context vastly different from my own.

As for Cui Jian's relevance, he continues to push himself in new directions. In 2002, he was responsible for China's first Woodstock-like music festival, held at high altitude in the mountains of Yunnan province. Following that he embarked on a series of high-profile events aimed at heightening public sensitivity of the cultural sham of lip-syncing. And most recently, Cui Jian has raised eyebrows by replacing his Chinese manager with an American and setting his sights on international markets. Given all of this, I doubt that China, changing as quickly as it is, has seen the last of an artist who has persevered and developed with equal resolve.

photo of matthew corbin clark

Matthew Corbin Clark (a.k.a. Kemaxiu) is currently a graduate student at Stony Brook University and an apprentice teacher of social studies at Westhampton Beach High School in Long Island, N.Y. His compilation record of new Chinese rock bands, Beijing Band 2001, is available at www.beijingband.com.

(Song lyric translations and band photographs by Kemaxiu.)


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