Enter the founding father of Chinese rock music

David Li
Reform and opening-up brought American music to China's urban youth and launched a unique fusion led by Cui Jian.
David Li

The birth of Chinese rock music arrived at a time of drastic social transformation, around a decade after the reform and opening-up policy took effect in 1978. With regulations loosened on international travel, an increasing number of Chinese conducted their business abroad and returned with Western cultural commodities, including cassette tapes of American music, of which rock music made up a significant part. This new and stimulating sound was welcomed particularly by the urban youth.

It was at this electrifying moment in Chinese society of widespread consumption of Western pop music that Cui Jian released “Rock and Roll on the New Long March” in 1989, the first original rock album in China which became an instant classic and established Cui, born in 1961 in Beijing, as a pioneer of Chinese rock. 

A close examination of “Nothing to My Name,” the most iconic song from “the godfather of Chinese rock,” demonstrates the conjunctural nature of Cui’s work, as defined by Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014), primarily in the sense that it merges traditional Chinese folk music and American rock music into a unique sound, drawing from the repertoires of both genres.

First and foremost, Hall laid emphasis on the “historical specificity” of the precise moment these cultures came together. One inspected the significance of the precise socio-economic conditions that made the fusion between these separate cultures happen at this particular moment.

For instance, ska developed in Jamaica around the 1960s because limited access to a favored style of American rhythm, and blues propelled the Jamaican recording industry to produce a “rhythm and blues” of its own. In regard to Chinese rock music, the socio-economic condition was the massive influx of cassette tapes of Euro-American pop music after the launch of reform and opening-up.

But most importantly, when Hall described the blending between two or more distinct cultures of the kind in Cui’s music as “conjunctural,” he meant to highlight the level on which this mix happened. 

Therefore, the abstract notion of cultural fusion can be grounded in tangible musical details. In the case of the African diaspora, one might point to the shared basic rhythmic structure as evidence of the influence of American rhythm and blues on Jamaican ska music. When it comes to Chinese rock, the conjoining of Chinese and American popular music happened on a microscopic level of instrumentation and performance practices, exemplified by Cui’s incorporation of traditional Chinese instruments – dizi (bamboo flute) and suona (double-reed woodwind instrument) – and the singing style of Chinese folk music such as the shange (mountain song) of the northwest region into the fundamentally Western sound of electric guitars and bass, synthesizers and drums in his iconic rock ballad “Nothing to My Name.”

Cui Jian, the founding father of Chinese rock music

Beginning with Cui’s resoundingly expressive vocals over a soothing layer of synthesizers and electric guitar and bass, the song gradually acquires more color and range of sound as the Chinese flute enters as embellishment halfway into the verse (0:44-1:00). The headroom continues to expand in the chorus with the entrance of the drums and a “call-and-response” between backing vocals in the style of the mountain songs of northwest China. 

The song builds over the course of a slightly altered second verse and the chorus to a powerful interlude (2:08-2:41) where a soaring suona blasts out against a heavy backdrop of distorted guitars and spacious drum beats, which then leads up to a drastically different and markedly faster funky bridge section, a rushed chorus and a rolling guitar solo. Then, at precisely 4:04 minute, when the guitar melody seamlessly transitions to the suona, the rock ballad reaches its climax. This exact moment symbolizes the harmonious union between the East and West in Cui’s music.

It is also worth noting that the traditional lyrical theme of man-wooing-woman in “Nothing to My Name” is deliberately narrated from an individual standpoint characteristic of Western-style rock music. As a matter of fact, the word “I” appears 28 times in the 6-minute song, appearing in 28 lines out of a total of 42. 

In a 2005 interview with the Independent, Cui said: “Back then, people were used to hearing mostly revolutionary songs, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual, they picked up on it.” Compared with the first-person pronoun of “we,” the “I” employed extensively in “Nothing to My Name” became a liberating call of self-expression.

Special Reports