Shake, Rattle, Roll : In Post Tian An Men China, Cui Jian and a Rock and Roll Underground Keep on Playing for Change

<i> Orville Schell is one of America's foremost China watchers. His last piece for this magazine was a profile of dissident Fang Lizhi; he is working on a book about events in China since the spring of 1989, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He lives in Northern California. </i>

In the crowded streets of downtown Nanjing, it looked as if the entire city were flooding toward the concert at the 30,000-seat Wutaishan Sports Arena. Along the way, clumps of police stood watching the seemingly endless procession of young Chinese flow by. Outside the stadium gates, crowds of teen-agers negotiated anxiously with scalpers for tickets that cost as much as $25 U.S., five times their original price and more than half the monthly income of the average Chinese worker. The event was the last of three May concerts given in Nanjing by China’s best-known rock and roll star, Cui Jian. The series represented the first time in two years that Cui had been allowed to perform with official sanction in such a large venue. It was not that the Communist Party particularly approved of Cui’s dark, enigmatic, hard-driving music but simply that Cui had agreed to donate the proceeds from the shows to Project Hope, a program that was helping send rural children to school; such tithe paying had forged a curious alliance between this new cultural Chinese rebel and the old Chinese political establishment.

Inside the arena, the fans ecstatically waved hand-lettered banners and cheered wildly. One claque from a city almost 1,000 miles away held up a sign that read, “Cui Jian: Your buddies from Lanzhou are here!” Another group had organized itself so that when each of its members raised a placard inscribed with a single character, they created a collective message: “From your fans in Nanjing!”

When a slender, pale and almost expressionless young man wearing blue jeans and a white tank top strode onto the stage amid a blaze of flashing colored lights and billowing clouds of theatrical smoke, the audience rose to its feet, screaming. With his band behind him, Cui Jian looked around the stadium and proudly proclaimed, “Nanjing is another of my liberated areas!” When Cui hit the first earsplitting chord of “Rock and Roll on the New Long March” on his white electric guitar, the crowd exploded as if the home team had just scored a last-minute tiebreaking point.


On the stage, electric guitars, synthesizers, woodwinds and brass shared space with traditional Chinese instruments such as the oboe-like suona , the zither-like guzheng , and the reed pipe sheng , blending Western rock riffs with Oriental flourishes. In the audience, a young man swayed back and forth, waving his arms over his head. “I love it here because I don’t have to behave!” he cried out. “This is the only place I can go where I don’t have to act like a gentleman.”

As he smiled beatifically, all around him thousands of other young Chinese whooped, clapped, gyrated and cheered en masse. Set against the repression and enforced political silence of post-Tian An Men China, the concert was a stunning moment of exultant mass catharsis.

“I feel something like I imagine the old guard of revolutionaries must have felt on the Long March,” Cui Jian would tell a journalist from the Hong Kong-based China Times Weekly after the concert. The old guard, he explained, in a way that made it hard to tell if he was being facetious, realized their dreams despite being “chased and embattled.” “I want to study their spirit,” he said, “so that perhaps I, too, can succeed in creating something rare in this world.”

Cui didn’t bother to define precisely what he meant by “something rare in this world,” but it was clear that the Long Marchers would hardly have approved of what he was stirring up this night at the Wutaishan stadium. In fact, as the crowd danced and shouted, one block of the audience--Nanjing dignitaries attending the benefit in their official capacities--sat almost motionless in a special section near the stage. Isolated amid the sea of fans, they looked as if they had been anesthetized by some mysterious, highly selective chemical agent.

Their only counterparts in the hall were hundreds of silent, still police, watching the crowd nervously and clinging to their walkie-talkies like drowning men to lifelines. The more excited the crowd became, the more jittery the police grew. Once or twice, they tried to restrain youths who had jumped to their feet to dance in the aisles. But against the music and the crowd’s frenzy, such gestures of authority seemed almost hopeless.

“Now my heart is like a knife that wants to pierce your mouth, to kiss your lungs,” Cui sang, coming to the end of “Like a Knife,” one of his most popular songs. The government officials remained as opaque as ever. But when he broke into “The Last Shot,” I thought I saw a flicker of recognition sweep across their faces. Undoubtedly they were, like everyone else, thinking of the Beijing Massacre.


Cui Jian (pronounced Tsway Jen ) has insisted that “The Last Shot” is about the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. The lyrics consist of only two lines: “A wild shot hit my chest/and at that moment everything from my life surged through my heart,” followed by the title sung again and again like an incantation. During the concert, periodic bursts of machine-gun-like fire rolled from the drummer’s snare, and the song closed with a plaintive, taps-like trumpet solo. Like so many of Cui’s songs, it was packed with weapons, blood, anger, wounds and loss, and as he sang, the fans began to light candles in the classic gesture of rock-and-roll solidarity.

When the concert ended, the Nanjing dignitaries appeared even more lifeless and frozen than before. I supposed that their glumness was not simply caused by Cui’s violation of that most fundamental of Maoist precepts--namely, that all art and literature should serve party politics--but also by the inescapable evidence that China’s youth had become hopelessly indifferent to the older generation’s socialist pretensions. Stranded in the center of a liberated zone of counterculture where tens of thousands of young people stood mesmerized by a 31-year-old singer, those stony-faced cadres must have recognized just how irrelevant the Communist Party had become for this generation of Chinese.

IN THE SUFFOCATING ENVIRONment of China since 1989, many young Chinese--Cui Jian among them--sought refuge in what some observers now call huise wenhua , or “gray culture.” Huise wenhua is a distinctive universe, defiantly separate from official party culture. Its signal components are rock and roll, pulp fiction, pop art and punkish fashion. Rooted in China’s pre-Tian An Men thaw, this counterculture not only survived the post-massacre crackdown, it also blossomed, providing one of the few arenas in which the Chinese could still express their frustrations and alienation.

In his article “The Greying of Chinese Culture,” published this year by the Hong Kong-based China Review, Australian Sinologist Geremie Barme described huise wenhua as a phenomenon mixing “hopelessness, uncertainty and ennui with irony, sarcasm and a large dose of fatalism.” It is less a movement than a state of mind, and it is the province of a rebellious generation that, for the moment at least, has abandoned any thought of directly confronting China’s political establishment.

Instead, says Andrew Jones, whose monograph “Like a Knife” chronicles the Chinese pop music scene, “Rock parties, wild lyrics and slam dancing have replaced megaphones, sit-ins and rock throwing as the preferred means of protest.” In China, being politically subversive can still land you in jail, but those who merely subvert the culture are, to some degree, tolerated--at least for now. Ducking and weaving to avoid the party’s counterblows, gray culturalists are co-opting the system rather than trying to change it.

Cui Jian is one of the most prominent figures in this shadow culture. “I don’t want to talk about politics,” he told the Agence France-Presse. “I engage in culture. Politics is not my work.” As much as he insists on the apolitical nature of his music, to many Chinese youths his songs are almost as important as Mao’s Little Red Book was to their parents. “If one likens rock and roll in the West to a flood,” he said at a 1989 concert in Beijing, “then Chinese rock and roll must be likened to a knife. Let us stick this knife into our own land.”


As in the American ‘60s, rock music provides a focal point for a burgeoning counterculture. One of the other main constituents of huise wenhua is China’s so-called liumang , a word that is difficult to translate into English. Liumang are the mustachioed young men who float around the cities of China late at night, wearing looks of vapid boredom, shooting endless games of snooker, drinking, chain-smoking and chasing girls in karaoke bars. Lately, they have gotten into drugs--opium from Yunnan province’s poppy crop and hashish from Xinjiang can be bought in almost every major city in China. Liumang keep their various habits satisfied with one illicit hustle or another. Many are getihu , or private street entrepreneurs, the progeny of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms launched in the early ‘80s.

Not long ago, the word liumang was a pejorative term similar to “punk” or “hoodlum.” Today, however, it has expanded to embrace almost any kind of alienated urban rebel who aspires to distance himself or herself from official culture. Particularly among young people, the word has lost much of its negative connotations of indolence, dishonesty and criminality and now describes an attitude that includes desirable attributes such as individualism, defiance and independence. It has even taken on some of the romance associated with the jianghu haojie , the Robin Hood-like knights-errant in Chinese literature who have embodied China’s “outlaw ideal” for hundreds of years. Being called a liumang in China is now almost the equivalent of being called “hip” or “cool” in Western culture.

In the spring and summer of 1991, liumang , rock fans and other gray culturalists announced their alienation with wenhua shan , or “culture T-shirts” (also known as “dissatisfaction T-shirts”), emblazoned with cryptic and often cynical messages. The most politically provocative culture T-shirts wryly used quotations from the preachments of party leaders. One featured a weeping cat above characters that read, “Black Cat, White Cat; It Doesn’t Matter as Long as It Catches Mice.” The slogan was Deng’s famous expression of economic pragmatism, but when worn by cynical teen-agers, the message was one of ironic disrespect.

A series of culture T-shirts dovetailed with a craze for Mao Tse-tung paraphernalia that also hit China in the summer of 1991. One shirt was inscribed in Mao’s handwriting “Serve the People,” which had at one time been written on everything from walls to notebooks and toothbrushes. Another read, “Sweep Away All Pests,” a line from a 1963 poem in which Mao contemplated the clean sweep that would become the Cultural Revolution. Yet another featured a bright crimson image of the chairman on the front with the characters, “A single spark can light a prairie fire”--one of Mao’s most famous incendiary revolutionary exhortations--on the back. It was obvious to any devotee of gray culture just what the next prairie fire might consume.

One more category of culture T-shirts was a little more direct, expressing the frustration that many members of China’s younger generation felt about their dead-end lives. “I’m pissed off! Get out of my face!” asserted one of the genre’s most popular shirts with undisguised irritability. “There is no way out!” declared another with existential weariness. “I’m just sick of everything!” proclaimed another.

The T-shirts were everywhere. One student at the Central Arts Academy was so successful at designing and marketing them that he was detained and fined for “disrupting the planned socialist economy.” Annoyed by all the human billboards walking the streets, the government banned the sale of culture T-shirts in the summer of 1991. In a quintessentially gray-culture move, Chinese kids began hand-painting their own blank shirts, a style of protest they called “visual karaoke.”

The extent to which gray culture has successfully defied and even infiltrated official culture was graphically illustrated in May. The Central Ballet, China’s most prestigious classical dance troupe, scheduled a program that included selections from “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Red Detachment of Women” and a work called “Four Romantic Pieces.” On the night of the performance, the audience was astonished to find that the latter was set to the music of Cui Jian.


It was a major coup for Chinese gray culturalists. Not only did the Central Ballet bring indigenous rock music into China’s temple of classical ballet for the first time, but the choreography also contained just the sort of veiled political subtext that defines huise wenhua. In one piece, dancers came onstage like walking apparitions, holding candles to their chests while Cui’s well-known “Nothing to My Name” boomed out. Later, they broke into a frenzy of stylized fist shaking that evoked an angry protest demonstration. The piece ended when the dancers, seeming to wipe away tears, moved across the stage in a dirge-like procession of unmistakable sadness.

“Four Romantic Pieces” is the work of Hong Kong choreographer Willy Tsao, who had been invited to teach at the Beijing Academy of Dance after the Beijing Massacre. Tsao had created it for the academy’s 1990 graduation ceremony, but permission to perform the work was denied, forcing him to wait until he could insinuate it into this performance two years later.

“The reason I chose the music of Cui Jian is because it communicates the emotional thoughts, stress and anger of this generation,” Tsao told an American living in Beijing after the performance. “The dance is a tribute to the young generation of Beijing. It is meant to reflect all they have been through; their gentleness, hopes, disappointments and sadness as well as their energy.”

CUI JIAN FIRST BURST ON THE CHINESE SCENE IN 1986, WHEN HE WAS INVITED to appear on a nationally televised pop music competition. Then 25, Cui was already one of the country’s rock pioneers. His father, a member of the army band, had taught him to play the trumpet. After graduating from the Beijing Industrial Institute High School, Cui, an accomplished musician on several instruments, won a position as trumpeter with the prestigious Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra in 1981. But after hearing the music of John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel and Andy Williams--whose records were among the first non-classical Western music to enter China, in the early 1980s--Cui started drifting into pop music. Playing hooky from his duties at the Philharmonic, he formed his own band with six other classical musicians and made a few recordings. “I worked hard, said farewell to my old life and started a new life from zero,” he said.

By 1986, he was listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads and Sting. When he showed up at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing for the televised music competition, he was wearing a pair of tattered army fatigues, and his style had moved from smooth pop to gravel-voiced, hip-gyrating rock. At first, he dumbfounded the studio audience. But by the time his set had ended, the crowd was cheering wildly and dancing in the aisles. It was not long before bootlegged tapes of his performance began appearing all over China, and other concert offers flooded in.

Then Cui’s fortunes went into reverse. In 1987, the government launched what it called the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign. The party’s distaste for rock and roll was nothing new. Hard-line Marxists always viewed Western popular culture as dangerously anti-authoritarian and terminally contaminated with pernicious capitalist and foreign influences. With the anti-liberalization campaign, they vowed to eradicate its influences. Cui was criticized by the cultural watchdogs for contributing to “spiritual pollution” and was formally expelled from the Philharmonic.


But the campaign failed. With Hong Kong radio and television stations pumping tidal waves of “Canto-pop” (Cantonese pop music) into China from just across the Guangdong border, and Deng’s economic “open door” bringing in Western businessmen, tourists and students, it was impossible to stop the flow of Western pop culture, much less to keep China’s younger generation from falling under its spell.

It wasn’t long before a new dilemma faced the party. Traditional propaganda and Marxist study sessions could no longer compete with the influx of foreign films, books, art, fashion, television and music. Party strategists decided that, despite their aversion to pop culture, a tactical retreat was in order. They backed away from attacking what they considered to be an aberrant cultural phenomenon, concentrating instead on overt political dissidence. Bolder propagandists even started trying to repackage traditional Marxist messages in pop-culture wrappings. To an extent that left many longtime China watchers gaping in amazement, the party began to pander more and more to the very cultural forces that the leadership had insisted it deeply opposed.

Almost every Western observer has a favorite example of the cultural collisions and glaring ideological contradictions that took place in China during that time. My personal choice is a People’s Liberation Army chanteuse I stumbled across while channel-hopping through government-sponsored TV variety shows during the Chinese New Year in 1988.

From the emcee’s introduction, I had expected to see a rouge-cheeked soldier in baggy, khaki-colored fatigues, canvas sneakers and a pug-nosed Mao cap, exuberantly singing one or two of the party’s well-known socialist hymns. But instead the spotlight fell on an eye-popping young woman in spike heels, wrapped in a body-hugging PLA uniform. Licking her ruby-red lips, she grabbed an electric guitar and began writhing and gyrating like a female Elvis as she belted out a song called “Battlefield Disco.”

Even though some of the party’s cultural poobahs were grudgingly willing to exploit certain seductive aspects of Western culture to survive, they far preferred to pacify young people with tongsu yinyue , or “popular music,” rather than yaogun yinyue , literally “shaking and rolling music.” The former tended toward traditional ballads, insipid love songs and uninspired imitations of Western disco, avoiding any hint of the kinds of complex social and political issues that rock and roll tended to focus on. Once the party opened its arms to pop music, however, officials discovered they had made a Faustian bargain. The line between tongsu yinyue and yaogun yinyue proved impossible to hold.

Not that they didn’t try. When the government censured Cui Jian and expelled him from the Philharmonic, it also denied him his “iron rice bowl”--the salary, housing, and medical care guaranteed to all employees of the state. Party leaders must have hoped such punishment would silence Cui, but instead it afforded him an unprecedented degree of freedom to develop both his music and a new outlaw lifestyle. As he told Billboard magazine in 1992, “Of course, when you are the first, there are a lot of problems. But I also think one is lucky because no one will control you. You can do anything you want.”

Still, the problems were real. In 1987, Cui was living a hand-to-mouth existence in his cramped Beijing apartment decorated with posters of Elvis and John Lennon. At about that time, he began playing regularly with a new band, ADO: a bass player from Hungary, a guitarist employed at the Madagascar embassy and several Chinese dropouts. With ADO, and sometimes without, Cui managed to support himself by playing at private parties for foreigners, in restaurants, bars, small hotels and the after-hours club at Pierre Cardin’s Maxim’s restaurant, which had ushered night life into Beijing.


Cui’s ability to survive without a party-sanctioned job was another result of Deng’s economic reforms. As China’s economy privatized and diversified, the margins of society steadily expanded, creating areas where nonconformists, entrepreneurs and even rock and rollers could find refuge and work beyond the reach of government interference. For a society that had allowed no such sanctuaries for more than four decades, these fringe zones represented a real milestone in the history of the People’s Republic.

And as the reform movement weaned more and more state-run businesses away from government subsidies, life for a rock musician could only get easier. Recording companies, like other businesses, had to start making a product that turned a profit. Cui was suddenly in demand. The new market-driven reality even meant that when political considerations collided with commerce, commerce won. Though Cui had been censured by the government, his first rock album, “Rock and Roll on the New Long March,” was released in 1987 by the state-run China Tourism Publishers of Audio-Visual Materials. Official radio and television might not play his music, but his album was a steady seller.

Cui’s growing underground popularity stemmed from his ability to skillfully articulate deep levels of political frustration, sexual confusion and social alienation. While he avoided overt political references in his songs, he often toyed with party symbols or alluded to party themes. Like Bob Dylan in the ‘60s, Cui captured the chaos of his times without becoming mired in didacticism or romantic escapism. In his song, “It’s Not That I Don’t Understand,” he sang: “Looking back I can’t tell good from bad/ I can’t even remember the decades gone by/ What once seemed so simple is now unclear/ And I suddenly feel the world has no place for me.”

Some critics have been frustrated by Cui’s habit of sidestepping what they see as the obviously political dimension in his work. “If you want to understand me, you only have to listen to my songs,” he has insisted. “Everything I want to say is in these songs.” It is precisely this evasiveness that makes Cui a gray culturalist par excellence. He has said that the music represents nothing except “the truth, the modern truth . . . about our life in China.” The songs are simply an expression of “the serious things in my heart, people’s lives, including love, of course.” Cui has been content for each person to define that “truth” for himself.

Whatever Cui’s denials, he has walked a fine line between art and politics. When “Nothing to My Name”--which obliquely suggests that after 40 years of socialism the Chinese still have “nothing”--was released in Hong Kong and Taiwan in early 1989, the notes made a strong claim for Cui’s outlaw role. “He is a reflection of what is going on in Chinese culture, and because he criticizes Chinese culture to this degree, he has become a spokesman for a generation,” the notes point out. “One could also say that he brought the situation of the last few decades, in which there has been such a scarcity of individuality and individual thought in art, to an end.”

Early in 1989, Cui was finally allowed to give major concerts in Beijing. In April, just prior to the outbreak of demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, Cui’s musical reputation had grown to the point that he signed with EMI Music in Hong Kong and was invited to England to participate in the First Asian Popular Music Awards at London’s Royal Albert Hall. By the time he returned to Beijing, the student movement was in full swing, and “Nothing to My Name” had become one of the demonstrators’ anthems: “I’ve given you my dreams, given you my freedom/ But you always just laugh at my having nothing.”


As the dramatic events unfolded, Cui finally could not resist going to Tian An Men Square. And when a wire service photo showed him performing before a huge crowd of students, wearing a blood-red blindfold, Cui became irrevocably identified with the protest movement in the minds of party officials. After the Beijing Massacre, Cui, like so many other young Chinese, dropped out of sight.

Although the crackdown bludgeoned the political dissidents, officials found it more difficult to get the gray culture genie back into the bottle. Only a few months after the Beijing Massacre, Australian diplomat and novelist Nicholas Jose visited a Beijing dance hall near one of the massacre’s most blood-drenched intersections. The band onstage called itself 1989, I Love You and belted out “Get Back” and “Let It Bleed” for a capacity crowd of dancing youth.

When 1989, I Love You signed off that night, they played a strange and deeply ironic version of an old socialist anthem, “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China,” that was reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Jose later wrote that the song was a “weird, cacophonous, 20-minute improvisation that could be interpreted as a musical re-enactment of events still imprinted on everyone’s mind. It was electrifying. Nothing was said, and nothing needed to be said.”

After lying low following the massacre, an absence from the scene that spawned rumors that he had been detained by police, Cui Jian finally re-emerged unscathed. But with the party initiating yet another campaign against bourgeois liberalization, Cui found it impossible to give formal concerts. On the fringes again, he survived by selling his tapes and playing with outlaw bands at private gatherings.

By then, China’s leaders were desperate to re-enter respectable global society, and they looked to the 1990 Asian Games, scheduled for Beijing, as a showcase opportunity. When Cui agreed to do a series of benefit concerts to help the Games make up their huge budget deficit, the authorities were hard put to turn down his offer.

But all over China, Cui performances were met by ecstatic fans who raised clenched fists in defiant solidarity and flashed the “V” for victory sign, the symbol of the Tian An Men Square protest. Government censors were particularly offended when Cui donned the red blindfold and his guitarist put on a gag while performing the song “A Piece of Red Cloth.”


“Of course, everyone in Beijing knew exactly what it meant,” explained a young fan to Andrew Jones. At one Asian Games concert, the fan said, “Most of the audience of 15,000 rose to their feet. It was so exciting, just like that other unbelievable day and night.” Halfway through the ambitious 10-city benefit tour, in April, 1990, the honyemoon ended: The party abruptly canceled the remaining shows.

Nonetheless, in January, 1991, Cui was allowed to release a new album, “Solution,” produced by Kenny Bloom, an American, but released by a state-run company. The album contained both “The Last Shot” and “Like a Knife,” and it was no accident that the lyric sheet was missing the words to both songs.

But the government’s arbitrary and scattershot efforts to control the counterculture didn’t prevent Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yuan from making a video of Cui, which ended up on MTV, where it won an award. Nor did it prevent the band from going to Hong Kong to give several concerts. “I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of music because I must tell the truth,” Cui told a Hong Kong journalist in an unusually forthright statement. “But I must tell it rationally. I know what is possible and what is not possible.”

Back in China, Cui continued performing with outlaw bands, appearing often in all-night jam sessions in an abandoned Beijing movie theater known as the Titanium Club. His companions in the underground included Yellow People, the hard-pop Black Panthers, all-female Cobra (whose lead singer, Wei Hua, had been an anchor on CCTV’s English-language news until she lost her job in 1989 for giving interviews to foreign television reporters) and He Yong, an angry new wave punk rocker whose song “Garbage Dump” contained the memorable line, “First we eat our consciences, then we shit ideology.”

At the beginning of this year, the political and cultural climate had loosened up enough to allow Cui to perform in Japan, and he and Bloom have already started making plans for a United States tour next spring.

China’s gray culture, it seems, is gathering momentum.

JUST AFTER DARK, THE RENTED BUS crammed with musicians and hangers-on rattled to a stop in front of a large, walled enclosure somewhere on the outskirts of Beijing. It was last May, three years after the Tian An Men protests, and Cui Jian was making a movie. A sort of Chinese version of Penelope Spheeris’ punk documentary, “The Decline of Western Civilization,” “Beijing Bastards” was being produced with Hong Kong money and directed by Zhang Yuan, who had made Cui’s video. The idea of the film was to capture in cinema verite style the freewheeling gray cultural elite, using Cui and other habitues of the rock underworld as stars.


What Zhang had in mind for this night’s shoot was a rock bacchanal--complete with nude dancing, according to a rumor--staged at a horse track about an hour outside of Beijing. In the flickering light of bonfires that had been lit in the middle of the riding ring, two iron caldrons waited for freshly killed goats that had been hung from a hitching post nearby. Knots of young men in high black boots, tight trousers and black T-shirts mingled with attractive young women in modish outfits.

The production crew was laying tracks for a camera dolly as the party began. The scene was like a diorama of the new underground, with alienation, ambiguity, black leather, cigarettes, beer and rock music replacing discussions about democracy and idealistic demonstrations. Those on the “set” were about as far removed from the official Communist Party version of Chinese youth as they could be.

Cui Jian was unobtrusively seated on the ground next to one of the bonfires, vamping on an acoustic guitar in the midst of a throng of buddies. Finally, after the goat carcasses had been hacked into pieces and thrown into the caldrons by two shirtless young men, someone rushed out with a clap stick to start the shooting. But the presence of a rolling camera seemed almost irrelevant to the party-goers.

How had Zhang Yuan dealt with securing official approval for “Beijing Bastards”? He smiled conspiratorially. “Well, we sort of got it,” he said slyly.

“The whole point of the film is to portray the kind of hand-to-mouth lives these guys live,” piped up a young woman whose connection to the film was unclear. She gestured to the crowd that by now was roasting huge chunks of boiled goat meat over the open fires. “The government says that it wants to encourage private entrepreneurs as part of Deng’s economic reform movement. So these musicians are just taking the government at its word by extending the notion of private enterprise to include rock and roll.” She gave a little chirrup of laughter.

It seemed safe to assume that the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television, whose job it is to keep strict account of all movies made in China, would have been more than a little reluctant to approve the script, if indeed there ever was a formal script, for “Beijing Bastards.” In all my years of visiting China, I had never encountered anything quite so bizarre as this film shoot, and it made me wonder if Chinese authorities had any idea what was going on here.


It was well past midnight when Cui’s band finally began warming up. As bats flew overhead and huge moths did kamikaze dives into the lights, the music reverberated over the dark fields around the horse track, loud enough to wake up everyone in the surrounding villages, including the police. But neither the crew members nor anyone dancing in the firelight seemed agitated. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught some movement in the shadows near the entrance gate. Two men wearing Public Security Bureau uniforms were watching the proceedings. I braced for a confrontation. But once again, no one in the crowd of merrymakers evinced even the slightest alarm.

Finally, two young men who looked as if they were part of the production team sauntered over to the two policemen. Five minutes later, the officers quietly turned to leave. I asked a longhaired young man standing beside me if he knew what had happened.

“Aw, they’re just locals,” he replied without concern. “Unless there is some order from above, they won’t bother us,” he said, pointing upward with his index finger. “Anyway, I guess they’ve been taken care of, so it’s no big deal.” He took a swig from a can of Qingdao beer and for a moment stared off at the dancers. Then he looked up and smiled. “Hey!” he said. “We’re just a bunch of liumang . We do what we want.”

Although the party and filming of “Beijing Bastards” went on well past sunrise, I left about 2 a.m. I later learned that the nude dancing never did materialize, but I was stunned enough by what I had seen of China’s new underground culture. What was so unique about it was that despite its iconoclasm, it chose to manifest itself in an indirect and non-confrontational way that, compared to the protesters of 1989, seemed almost Taoist. A new kind of youth revolt seemed to be taking root on the free-market edge of society, free and clear of party politics and political manipulation, neither the party’s creature nor its hostile adversary.

On the eve of the Tian An Men demonstrations, Cui Jian had told an interviewer, “We do not rebel. We fight for personal liberation.” But in a society where the political reins are so tightly held by the state and where the human cost of direct political dissent is still so high, the kind of liberation sought by Cui and his comrades puts them perhaps unwittingly in the vanguard of a strong new revolution. As Mao Tse-tung presciently warned: “There may be some Communists who are not conquered by enemies with guns . . . but will be defeated by sugar-coated bullets.”

Whether Cui cares to admit it or not, he is a veritable machine gun of sugar-coated bullets.