More of “Nothing”, Finally

The casual follower of rock and roll in China will have heard that Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” (一无所有) was the song that started everything and that it was first performed, in 1986, to a stadium and a television audience that immediately took to it like it was their own (which, for all intents and purposes, it was). One of my favourite experiences writing Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll was doing the play-by-play on a video of that performance. I watched and re-watched the only clip of that performance I could find, a clip with a voice-over covering up the second verse, and, worst of all, an abrupt ending in the wake of the suona (a traditional combination clarinet-oboe-soprano sax) solo halfway through the song.

Though continually coming empty, I continued to search for a better, more complete version of the performance. Today, I lucked out and found, finally, a different cut of the same show, this time in all its four-minute-plus glory.

First, let’s recap what It all was: In May 1986, Cui Jian, then a trumpet player for the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble, was one of the lucky few to have heard a bit of Western pop music at a time when even hearing that there was a thing called Western pop music was rare. He was singing other peoples’ songs – Chinese songs written for him and Western pop tunes reworked in Chinese – and was tinkering with his own material on the side. He joined up with over a hundred of his fellow pop singers united, as the Hundred Stars (百名歌星) under the banner of the International Year of Peace to sing a song called “Let the World be Full of Love” (让世界充满爱), the Chinese response to “We Are the World” et. al. Cui was one of the Hundred Stars who got to perform their own tunes in addition to the big number. This is when yaogun, Chinese rock & roll, was born.

There are problems with this video: The sound quality is less than ideal and the video doesn’t synch up with the audio. And in contrast to what I assumed was the only video I’d be able to find, the actual playing of the music comes out here much more clearly as not fantastic. But, like any great rock and roll, technical skills are only a part of the story. Here, it’s a very tiny part, and the footage is too important for any of that to get in the way. What’s most important is that the video provides a better glimpse than anyone’s had in twenty-five years of what went down on the day yaogun was invented and when a trumpet-playing Cui Jian transformed from semi-famous pop singer to Infamous Yaogunner #1.

Banned in the P.R.C., Part I: “Enemies” from Within

The Chinese Cultural Ministry recently unveiled a list of songs that must be taken down from the country’s music websites because they had not been properly submitted for approval. Or, to put it in Their words: The songs may do harm to “national cultural security”.  It relates, of course, to Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, as it reminded me about previous so-called controversial material I came upon over the course of writing the book.

But first, the recent Blacklist. It’s got its share of Western pop (Gaga, Backstreet, Beyonce and more), but most of the songs were Canto- and Mandopop, the Cantonese and Mandarin-language pop music coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively. It’s worth noting that there is more than just saucy lyrics at work. “National cultural security” is a serious issue: As a late bloomer in terms of the international community, China is extremely concerned about ensuring its own culture isn’t drowned in a sea of imports. It’s not an unprecedented attitude: Canada, France and others have systems in place to ensure time for homegrown material. But, as in so many situations, China takes things further. And anything that relates to the islands of Hong Kong and Taiwan is particularly sensitive.

Taiwan and Hong Kong are certainly linked to what is technically their Motherland, but they are separate from Mainland China in more than geographical ways, much to the chagrin of only, really, the Mainland. Taiwan and Hong Kong have been at the pop industry – and experimenting with Western ways generally – for much longer, and doing it much better, so an inferiority complex is definitely part of the fuel for the decision to limit the bigger and slicker pop machines of the islands into Mainland ears. Of course, the battle is pointless, since Mainland audiences have been choosing the music of Taiwan and Hong Kong over that of their own comrades for years now. While the Mainland pop machine has certainly come a long way in its chase for the Hit, it will be a long time before China proper is producing pop stars with a regularity that competes with the superstars of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop – it’s not that there are no Mainland stars, it’s just that their fame pales in comparison to that of their bretheren and sisteren over the water. Something interesting occurred in the early nineties (which China scholar Geremie Barme brings up in this article), when it was believed that official support for yaogun was worth undertaking: In combination with the Official support of Mainland pop, a Great Wall of music might be erected that could compete with imports, lest the country lose out completely in the battle for its citizens’ hearts, minds, and ears.

Red Rock encourages a look at how we’ve arrived where we have arrived, and so, in the face of a new Blacklist, it makes sense to look back at what previously fell victim to the Red Pen of officialdom. When the Communist Party gathered in 1942 to talk about the guiding principles of the nation they were seven years from founding, Chairman Mao said something that resonated far beyond those years: “Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics.” The goal of art – a poster, a play or, much later, a three-minute-and-thirty-three-second pop song – was to “awaken and arouse the popular masses, urging them on to unity and struggle and to take part in transforming their own environment.” Here, then, are some of the folks that the Party worried were doing a bit too much awakening and arousing. It’s a sampling of the music of the Mainland, and of Taiwan, that got caught on the wrong side of that struggle in the early days of China’s dealing with the world.

Stay tuned for another installment, featuring “Enemies” from outside of the Middle Kingdom.

1. Teresa Teng: Back in the late seventies and through the eighties, Teresa (known as Deng Lijun in Mandarin), queen of Taiwanese pop, was the embodiment of pop music’s corrupting influence, even as she became a favourite of the citizenry supposedly morally beyond bourgeois fluff such as this. Even yaogun mourned her death in 1995, releasing a CD of covers to mark the occasion, which gives you an idea of how wide-ranging her influence was. Words like ‘decadent’ and ‘pornographic’ (mimi zhi yin 靡靡之音 and huangse gequ 黄色歌曲) were the kinds of language used to deride Teng’s music, but eventually the Man came around: In 2007, news broke that she was invited (though unable to attend) to perform for the 1988 Spring Festival Gala, the Chinese New Year extravaganza that is an intimate part of every family’s New Year’s celebrations, and the ultimate Official seal of approval for any participant.

Karaoke staple, then and now: “The Moon Represents My Heart”

2. Su Xiaoming’s “A Night at A Naval Base”: Another to be filed under “…Really…?”. Authorities attacked Su’s tune for the suggestion that navy officers slept soundly in their bunks, comforted by the knowledge they were anchored close to home because it implied that China’s protectors weren’t constantly at attention, primed to strike down any enemies whatever the time, place or situation. It was confusing, because Su came out of the military, and had even won a singing competition, putting her soundly in Official territory; the delayed reaction against her song was downright 1984-y. Eventually, though, she was back on the right side of the law: Like Teng, Su’s rehabilitation was signaled by a Spring Festival Gala slot, which she took in 1986, singing about her nation’s soundly sleeping soldiers.

Su Xiaoming circa 1980, when it was not ok for the navy to take a break

3. Zhang Xing: Often seen as yaogun’s first star, Zhang Xing did not quite cut a rock and roll figure. In his memoir of his time in the late eighties and early nineties playing music in China, Dennis Rea, who played a few shows with Zhang, remembers him as a “dandy” with an “impeccably tailored suit, slicked-back hair and stylish sunglasses.” Rumours of affairs and multiple pregnancies among his female fans (of which he had many) culminated in a jail stint for “(violating) the marital laws of the time”. Zhang cultivated a bad-boy image in a time before folks knew what to do with a bad boy, and thus, his association with rock and roll. Because musically, he was only a very distant relative of rock: He may have turned rockers on to a rhythm that rolled, but surely yaogun would only have invited him to the largest of family reunions. Below, “Late Arrival”, from the 1984 album that was the country’s first million-seller (the song is a cover, incidentally, of a tune penned by a Taiwanese pop singer):

Before there was rock and roll, there was Zhang Xing

4. “Prison Songs”: Written from the perspective of (and, sometimes by) ex-convicts and former so-called “rusticated youth” – those “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-sixties through to the late seventies to be educated by the peasants. These songs spoke directly of those experiences as well as celebrating the vulgar alternative lifestyles of the down-and-out. In his fantastic book Like A Knife, which looks at pop and rock in the late eighties and early nineties, China scholar Andrew Jones reports that somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred thousand prison-song tapes were sold between the winter of 1988 and the spring of 1989; knock-off compilations were soon also hitting the streets, and the product was selling at a rate that increased as fast  as official disapproval of it. Musically, though, they don’t sound so much like the rough-and-tumble outlaw music you might expect from the name. Like, say, Chi Zhiqiang’s “Cigars and Beer Are First-Rate”:

Pop music for ex-cons, by ex-cons, about, well…


In future installments: More “Enemies” from within, and a few from wihtout.

And: Coming, in less than one month… Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll to a bookstore near you!

Early Visitors

It’s been a long time since news of overseas performers performing in the Middle Kingdom is big news – with maybe a few recent (Dylan, Stones) exceptions. These days, whether in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan or Nanjing, touring bands are a normal part of rock and roll, and pop, life. But even a decade ago, the descriptor “foreign” was enough to fill a room with fans equal parts curious and hungry for something from the general direction of rock and roll’s homeland.

Rewind the tape further, and you quickly enter the dark ages.

The nineties saw a literal handful of visitors, large-scale and small. There was Paul Simon (1991), Roxette (1995), Air Supply (1995), and Bjork (1996 – the same woman who, a dozen years later, would cause kerfuffle over her shout-out to Tibet that pissed off local authorities and citizens on the large side. Small-scale shows included BB King (1995, to open Beijing’s Hard Rock Cafe), Bill Laswell (with the Uzbek-Japanese-Mongolian-and-more project Flying Mijinko Band, 1994), John Zorn (1995), Pridebowl and Envy (Japanese punk bands, 1997), International Noise Conspiracy (1999).

As for the eighties, it was even slimmer pickins: Jean Michel Jarre (1981), Filipino surf-pop band Nitaige’er (1982), the Chieftains (1984), Wham! (1984), sixties surf-rock legends Jan and Dean (1986) and German pop-rock band BAP (1987).

There’s more to come, in blog and in book, on the details of a selection of those events, all of which, by virtue of just having occurred, are noteworthy. For now though, a slice of something I just came across – admittedly by accident, and, unfortunately, long after the deadline to include it in the pages of Red Rock passed.

On May 10, 1986, a year after George Michael graced the Middle Kingdom with his presence, and mere days after Cui Jian’s unveiling of a homegrown rock and roll, Billboard reported, deep in the issue, on an upcoming China tour under the headline “SheRock Will Be Rocking China; 1st U.S. Pop Act Visit”.

Six months prior to the announcement, before they’d even played a show, their demo had made it into the hands of the director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, who was impressed with the band’s “healthy attitude” and set to work trying to get the band to China. By mid-May, 1986, the band was playing an invite-only show at LA venue The Roxy to garner local interest in what would be the first American pop act to scale the Great Wall. The crowd was half comprised of officials from the Shanghai Bureau of Culture – and of waitresses dressed more conservatively than usual, due to presenters “obviously concerned with maintaining a ‘wholesome image’ after the fiasco of Wham!,” as Billboard put it. The publication also noted the band’s efforts to remain “squeaky clean for the diplomats”. It paid off in at least a trip to China, where, between late July and early September, they performed sixteen shows in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou for an estimated total audience of 125,000. There was also talk of a hundred million viewers via television broadcast, as well as a trip to a studio for a Mainland-only album.

“We had to modify our dress and lyrics,” frontwoman Edie Robertson told a reporter, adding that they were happy to oblige, since they were representatives of the US.

Cover of SheRock's 1986 tour flyer. The band was known in Chinese by the transliteration "xi luo ke". The title is "Friendship Great Wall"

The band’s manager, Walter Stewart, who had worked with many artists over many years, was asked about the greatest challenges of his career. “Attempting to teach the Chinese technicians the art of multi-track recording and over-dubbing,” was his reply.