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Fuck Confucius

Most countries outside the English-speaking world have some sort of "father of rock" figure. Cui Jian is China's.

Cui Jian with the author. Photo by David Feinberg

Most countries outside the English-speaking world have some sort of “father of rock” figure. Cui Jian is China’s, but unlike the Johnny Hallydays and Tarkans of elsewhere, he’s not just another shlubby Elvis clone or closeted Europop singer. His songs served as the soundtrack to the student revolution of ’89, and while most of the ones we’ve heard lean pretty heavily into Mr. Big territory, there’s something really sharp about the guy which puts him leagues beyond the standard international rock doofus. Case in point, this brief little fluff-piece of an interview we sat down with him to do which turned into one of the most keen and precise explanations of the Chinese psyche we’ve ever heard. Vice: Hello Cui Jian. Is that the right pronunciation? Cui Jian? Cui Jian: Uh, the tune is different… but it’s good enough. You can just call me CJ. C for Cui. J for Jian. Got it. So, CJ, how did you get into rock? We begin our musical training from Western classical music, so for me, listening to rock ’n’ roll is just very natural. Even before rock-n-roll I started listening to a lot of country and folk music. It’s not really that special though. No one really thinks “Oh, this is Western music.” Rock ’n’ roll is international. Really? No one is saying stuff like “This isn’t Chinese music”? If you’re singing and writing lyrics in Chinese, then you’re making Chinese music. You have your own story and you try to tell your own feelings, which are different from older generations’—different from the revolution. We were the first generation to try and express our own feelings. You can say this is Western, but I would say it’s human. Anyways, it doesn’t matter. I’m playing rock music and I’m singing in Chinese. That’s it. What generation do you belong to? My generation was born in the early 60s or a few years earlier. My parents’ generation carried guns and gained control of the country. We’re the first generation under them, so we call ourselves the revolution’s generation. That’s a whole lot catchier than “Gen X”—is the revolution’s generation the one responsible for China’s embrace of capitalism? Talking about capitalism and communism isn’t really important or relevant anymore. Money isn’t proof that Capitalism is right—money is money. Nobody really cares about these concepts, not even the government. They’re all just tools. I do think people of this generation talk more about control, education, the environment. Nobody talks about capitalism or socialism anymore though. It’s all mixed up together. Do you feel like this makes it easier to talk about things like politics or is it trickier because the official stances are no longer clear? Usually, when I travel abroad journalists want to ask me political questions and talk about some really sensitive issues. I talk about these problems with friends, but not media. Among friends we can talk without fear. Is that just because you’re a major figure, or do you think everybody is afraid to talk about things out in public? Fear is part of the culture of this country and has been for the past 50 years. But in America everyone is fearful too, just for different reasons. Maybe now it’s the same everywhere. Anyways, I may be afraid, but I usually try to answer questions without putting myself in danger. I just don’t want to lie. Journalists always expect me to answer that black is black or white is white, but if you get to know China you’ll understand that no one answer is ever right. It’s all gray. Do you think that this vagueness is how China was able to slip into a market economy so subtly? This is the way things work in this country, with this government. The economy developed without anybody losing face. It’s a kind of game: “Do what you have to do, just don’t say anything that will make people feel bad.” You just have to be careful not to be too clear about things. That sounds sort of nerve-wracking. A lot of stupid things happen because of this, but you learn how to play. It’s about respect. I’m careful not to be too honest, and in return you give me some space. This is how the culture works. But I don’t think this is the right way to bring up children. Teaching them how to be “smooth.” Rock ’n’ roll isn’t like that though. For a lot of young Chinese people rock ’n’ roll is about not playing this game. But if you try to be honest you loose opportunities. It’s not like that for pop singers. I mean money-making singers, who don’t create anything of their own. They just show their faces, act like stars, and make money. It’s totally different for them. They don’t have to tell the truth. Do you play the game? I do! I play a lot of games. I’m a good player. That’s why I know how to answer questions. I’m playing the game right now, actually. As I said before, I don’t want to lie, that’s why I say some things pretty straight. But I have to be careful of the words I use and what you might understand. What about the younger generations, do you think they’re breaking away from all this obfuscatin’? There’s a real problem in China with getting young people to think for themselves. A lot of people just get their information from the media, but we’re trying to tell the truth. I don’t think you can get this from CCTV [Chinese state TV] or on the streets. It’s not easy to find someone who is telling the truth, but I do believe it’s getting better and better. How so? People are beginning to understand that telling the truth is good for the country. Just because young people might say something bad about their country doesn’t mean they don’t like it. Maybe they really love this country, but they’re not satisfied and they want to change it. People can accept that now, and this is very different from 20 years ago. What would people who felt this way 20 years ago have done? Get nervous. Most people would have gotten nervous. We’re the first generation to try and create freely. I have my own opinions, and nobody really has the power or right to change me. A lot of young people have told us that the lyrics of your songs mean a lot to them. What are they typically about? Different songs have different meanings. Some people say that there are political meanings in my love songs, like “Piece of Red Cloth” or “Balls Under the Red Flag.” I don’t say these things too clearly because I don’t have to. Anyway, sometimes I feel that politics and love in some ways are the same. Your one song “Nothing to My Name” became the anthem of the student revolution and the Tiananmen Square protest. What’s it about? “Nothing to My Name” is a love song. There’s nothing behind that song—it’s purely a love song. We’ve heard that you’ve been banned from playing in Beijing. Is that true? Nothing is written down on paper or anything. I’ve played in some small clubs in Beijing. Actually, every year I play at least two or three clubs. But I haven’t been able to play in a big arena or stadium for the last 12 years. Each year we try to have a big concert in Beijing, and every time it’s the same story: We almost get permission and then at the last moment there’s some problem and we have to cancel it. So I guess we’re banned. Or maybe we’re not banned. Maybe we’re just not working with the right person or company. Maybe we’re unlucky. Whatever the case, it’s not as simple as “banned.” One thing we don’t get is how come you don’t see more Chinese influence in the world? The country is completely huge, but everything that comes out of it seems like it’s just aping the West. I mean, you’re making rock ’n’ roll in Chinese, which is cool and everything, but is there really anything that “Chinese” about it? You’re asking some very sensitive questions, but I want to answer you because I think this is something people are beginning to talk about. People here like to separate things into two clear, separate sides. One is Chinese and traditional, and the other is Western, more modern and international. A lot of times it seems like China is behind economically and politically and it’s hard to figure out why. We could be so much more. I think the first thing we need as a nation is to have more self-respect. Confucius totally destroyed Chinese culture. He’s the worst thing that ever happened to China. Young people need to wake up and stop believing in Confucius. Don’t listen to him—he’s an old guy who was born over 2000 years ago. He may have said something that was OK for his time, but not for now. China has old traditions and a great culture, but this doesn’t mean that they necessarily make any sense. Something went wrong along the way, because we lost our creativity. Young people today have a lot more freedom. They listen to western music, but they still don’t create. They just listen and then copy. I think it’s a lot like taking care of fish. If you want a fish to live, you need fresh water, but if you change the water too quickly the fish will also die. Chinese culture is like a lake in which the water is not really clean, but the fish are still alive. And Western culture is like the fresh water. Some fish will swim into it and think “ I like this,” “I can look good,” “I can look like a model,” “I can live like I’ve dreamed,” but the fish might end up looking like a model while they’re half dead. How does rock ’n’ roll fit into this? Are the kids as into it as the rest of the Western influences? No. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that rock ’n’ roll is alive in China. If someone says that people in China are playing rock ’n’ roll and listening to rock ’n’ roll they’re lying. In all of Beijing there are only a few clubs that play rock on the weekends. In Shanghai or Guanjo or Xenging there are even fewer, if any. This is a huge country. The media likes to talk about rock ’n’ roll but it’s not a reality. It’s a joke. Everybody here is copying the music. Young kids who have parents with money ask them to buy them a guitar. Then they play in the small clubs in Beijing, on the weekends, and their friends come and buy drinks. This isn’t rock ’n’ roll. I think a lot of people enjoy the attitude because it looks cool, but rock ’n’ roll is about freedom. It’s about solving your problems. If you are living in China, you have to tell the world that you don’t want to escape. You have to say, “I want to change my problems. It’s not my hero’s problem. Not Bruce Springsteen’s problem. Not the Beatles’ problem. It’s my problem.” If they cannot solve your problems you need to solve your own problems. This is why I have to say another bad thing about Confucius. Confucius teaches people how to be nice, but not nice to themselves. It teaches them how to be polite to their parents and elders, but it never shows them how to look after oneself. This is the bad part of the culture. Confucius says, “Always think about others. Be nice to people, and they will be nice to you.” But he doesn’t say anything about searching for yourself, as a human.” That’s why I think its time to rethink this culture. Not destroy it, but question it. People must be brave, then they can think and create. What kind of music do you listen to? I listen to a lot of jazz, hip-hop—really everything. Except for heavy metal. What’s wrong with metal? I don’t want to listen to it. I want to see heavy metal, but I don’t want to listen to it. Fair enough. Who are some of your favorite bands? I love Radiohead. the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones. I also really like Eminem, but I can’t listen to him too often. And I like Missy Elliott—my daughter introduced her to me. My daughter is 14 years old and she told me, “This is cool stuff.” But the lyrics are pretty… Well, I really like the music. Oh! And Prince! Prince! Purple Rain is my favorite album. And Police. Police is my favorite band, too. And the Clash. Yeah! INTERVIEW BY MILENE LARSSON