Cui Jian, Chinese Rock Star, Balances Fear and Sincerity in New Film

Known for his rock music, Cui Jian has found a new outlet for his message in 'Blue Sky Bones'
February 10, 2014 Updated: February 15, 2014

During his recent trip to New York City to promote his new film, Cui Jian, China’s biggest rock star, was asked by a young Chinese student how the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 changed his life. Cui owes much of his fame to singing rock ballads to the protesting students on the square, two weeks before many of them were shot with machine guns and run over by tanks.

“We didn’t understand things then,” Cui said, in response. “In my movie I look at the question of traumatic amnesia. No one in China would dare to ask me what you asked me. 

There is a space in ourselves that these memories are in, that will never disappear. I will take you to this space in my movie. Our memory is there. Do we dare look at it?”

It was a pregnant introduction to his directorial debut, “Blue Sky Bones,” shown Friday night at New York University (NYU). The screening capped two days of seminar-style discussions between Cui and a small group of artists, friends, academics, and young bohemian Chinese who study subjects like filmmaking and music at NYU.

Cui sits in an exalted position in the world of contemporary Chinese music, and in particular rock. Jonathan Campbell, author of the book Red Rock, writes that Cui is the progenitor of “China’s musical and visceral experience of rock.” Zhang Xudong, one of the professors that flanked Cui during the seminars, characterized his position in the Chinese music scene as being on par with “The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan” all rolled into one. 

Cui wore his trademark white baseball cap with a red star on the front, black pants, and a black semi-turtleneck sweater under a faux-leather black jacket. For three hours on two consecutive days he fielded questions, giving expansive answers that touched on topics as diverse as literature, politics, media, dance, classical music, and modern physics. 

Censorship and Style

The afternoon sessions were also an occasion for Cui to expound on how he seeks to maintain a sense of revolutionary verve in his music without upsetting the authorities. “Rock and roll is always political,” he said. In Cui’s case, it is of necessity never overly so.

In an interview on Power 105.1 FM’s “The Breakfast Club” radio station last year, Kanye West once remarked that rap music is “just a chamber” that gives space to his creative expression. For Cui Jian, one chamber was evidently found to be insufficient: he has experimented in rap, rock, film, songwriting, and dance. His new movie, Blue Sky Bones, encompasses all of those influences, and a great deal apart.

The film also attempts to straddle the boundary of the forbidden and the permissible: pushing the envelope without pushing too far; creating something with meaning and a message, but sufficiently veiled so as to not anger the notoriously thin-skinned protectors of the image of the Chinese Communist Party. At any point, they had the power to stop the film in its tracks. 

What does not appear in the film is thus almost as important as what does. During the Friday question-and-answer sessions, Cui said that China’s system of censorship fundamentally shapes the sort of work that he is able to produce. 

“I already passed it through my own self-censorship filter. I did their job for them so they don’t have to worry,” he said in response to a question from a member of the audience after the film screening Friday.

“There’s one third of me, which is a Communist Party leader,” he said earlier in the afternoon. The result is what happens when an unstoppable force—a burning desire to create and express, to fulfill the artist’s moral responsibility to his society—meets an immovable object—the Communist Party’s determination to ensure that they do not lose control of the cultural sphere, and so their ability to mold the thoughts of the Chinese people. Maybe that could be called a substance under enormous pressure. 

“The pressure of censorship gradually forms its own artistic style,” he said. There are countless examples from Chinese history of artists and poets embedding their meaning in enigmatic historical metaphors.

Cui sees himself as continuing in this tradition: existing within the system of censorship, while remaining true to himself, compromising where necessary, but never giving up in the mission to get a message to the public that helps push social change.

“You have to have a sense of proportion: regarding the amount of fear you have in yourself, and the amount of sincerity you have. You cannot allow your fear to overtake everything else. Then it’s no longer an artwork,” he said. “It is a game, but it’s a game of how you remain truthful to yourself.”

In his film, he said, there is that fear, but also “a clever way of dealing with it.” In response to reviews in English already out, Cui said, “In the Western market, films like mine may appear too torturous, not straightforward enough. But if I made it too straightforward it could never be made.”

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Blue Sky Bones is not a conventional film with a realist linear narrative: It’s full of flashbacks, montage, surrealism, and incessant loopings-back in time. The structure of the film serves to reinforce one of Cui’s conceptual points: that the past is always with us, but that a level of bravery is required for contemporary China to bring it to its proper place in the present.

The top narrative of the film broadly follows the creation and performance of a piece of music, called Blue Sky Bones, by a computer hacker-cum-music producer, named Zhonghua, the protagonist. The song is a modern take on one written by his mother during the Cultural Revolution, when she had been dispatched to an art and dance ensemble in rural China. 

This tale—of Zhonghua’s father and mother—is a second narrative arc in the film, which provides the background to the present. The regular cutting between the two timescapes, before they are united at the end, reinforces the sense of the past belonging in the present.

“The song ‘Blue Sky Bones’ is basically … a story of self-contradiction. The same can be said about ‘Nothing to my Name,’” Cui said, referring to one of his most famous songs. “It’s about the relationship you have to your reality and your ideals.”

The film is also bursting with metaphor and symbolism, drawing deeply from contemporary and pre-modern Chinese history and culture. An inescapable central motif is the image of a fish in the water longing for a bird in the sky. This appears in a song composed by Zhonghua, and in images and dance that are part of its final performance.

The imagery and its context strongly recalls the English expression “neither fish nor fowl,” which has no direct correspondence in Chinese, but analogues like “neither mule nor horse.” 

In the same manner as the English, the expression refers to a state of tension and irresolve. This, in a word, is contemporary China: the fervor of communist commitment having been thoroughly discredited, widely shared aspirations for freedom, and democracy crushed, the Party ordering the populace to make money and forget about everything else, the suppression of indigenous faith that may have forged a new spiritual foundation—with the result that the People’s Republic of China has no cohesive, legitimizing narrative, nor a common moral foundation. 

The denouement of Cui’s film shows that China is a country that is neither fish nor fowl. But it also shows that art can be a circuit breaker, a place for the individual to reassert himself and create his own meaning. Is this the fish, looking skyward?

In his remarks about his tangles with the Party’s censorship apparatus on Friday, Cui concluded in this way: “The final point is not about repression, but the repression has become an element of my art.”

Correction: Cui Jian and his band performed four songs to students on Tiananmen Square in May, 1989, soon before the Chinese military carried out a brutal massacre; the songs did not, however, include the famous ballad “Nothing to my Name.”