After Cui Jian: Du Li as a continuum of Chinese rock

Changbo Duan

Published June 2024


On the front page of this item from the archive we see a phenomenal figure in the history of Chinese rock music—Cui Jian. For people who might not be familiar with Chinese popular music, rock music is an 'imported' cultural practice in China, similar to how traditional Chinese music is perceived in the UK or, more frankly, how Chinese food is made, consumed, or appreciated in the UK. My point is that rock in China is not received the same way it is in the West due to the differences in popular music history, as well as the distinctive trajectory of the development of politics, economics, and culture within the country. I would love to share with you how my current research interest—indie/independent music in China - links to the content of this item from the archive to illustrate an updated understanding of Chinese popular music.

The archive item I will be focussing on is The Japanese Association for the Study of Popular Music, Working Paper Series No.7 from May 1997. The issue is dedicated to an article on Cui Jian called "Cui Jian: A Superstar in Turbulent China". The article is written by Hashizume Daisaburo and translated by Hashizume Miwako. 


A Piece of Red Cloth

What came to my mind immediately was the figure shown on the cover of the publication. Cui Jian blindfolds his eyes with a piece of red cloth. It is an image from his song ‘A Piece of Red Cloth’. Some believe that he blindfolded himself because it was too cruel to witness what was happening in China at the time. But Jian is quoted in the article as saying that he prefers “for the audience to draw their own conclusion” (p27). The author Hashizume suggests that 'every conflict and inconsistency of China is heard in his music' (p2). We could see Cui Jian as a figure of courage, rock spirit and talent. Indeed, those who are familiar with Cui Jian have acknowledged him as the godfather of Chinese rock for many generations, both within and beyond China.


Du Li

This particular image of the red blindfold has not vanished at all. In fact, it has become a reference for the young people in China who are into rock music or, to use the 'modern' word, Du Li. Du Li is a Chinese term equivalent to the notion of Western-influenced indie/independent music practices; it is a continuum of Chinese rock. And yet, the boundary and core value within this idea have been readapted and redeveloped in multiple settings. It is broadly used not just by music makers in China, like musicians, industry personnel, music critics, small-scale record labels and live venues, but also amongst the big players in the Chinese music industry, in particular a uniquely Chinese popular music phenomenon: the talent show programme.


The Talent Show

Yes, you are seeing this right: a talent show that gathered dozens of indie bands, called ‘The Big Band’, was released by a joint effort between iQiYi and the biggest Du Li record label, Modern Sky, in mainland China in 2019. It was a huge commercial success and altered the position of Du Li from so-called 'underground' status to the mainstream overnight. The talent show is one of the biggest vehicles for popular music articulation, consumption and production. You might wonder why I am introducing this. Believe it or not, Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock, is also involved in some of these productions, as a Judge, an A&R representative and a production consultant. However, the main character today is not Cui Jian, but the ordinary young person who enjoys rock music, someone who can speak for themselves through their musical practice, as Cui Jian did in his golden age.


A Piece of Black Cloth

Yuanzhen is a drummer for a band named Hoo!, based in Guangzhou, China. Their music covers different styles including indie rock, punk, and hip-hop. During my fieldwork in 2021, I was lucky enough to join them during the recording of a tv talent show called  ‘Strawberry Man’, alongside their manager, AJ. The show was co-produced by - again, in the realm of Du Li music—Modern Sky and another powerful internet giant, In the rehearsal for the recording of the first episode, Yuanzhen started to blindfold his eyes with a piece of black cloth when playing drums in the show. Yuanzhen’s intentions concerned the production team, as they might connotate Cui Jian, a controversial yet powerful figure in Chinese society. To reduce any risk that might create issues for releasing, regulating and managing the show by the National Radio and Television Administration, the production team chose a safe response to Yuanzhen; they proposed he alter his ideas. However, Yuanzhen responded to the team in the following way:


“I know Cui Jian is a legend from the previous rock generation, and he could be sensitive because of some of his music. But what I am doing here has nothing to do with him. I genuinely believe using a black cloth to cover my eyes is so cool. I like the way it looks. For me, it is not political at all, and that is not my intention either. This is just the way how I express my thoughts, and my work. Please, talk to whoever is in charge and let me do it.” Yuanzhen, 2021 (Quotation from the author’s research in the field).

I have noticed a similarity between this response and remarks by Cui Jian, quoted in an interview which forms part of the text of the 1997 JASPM article, which share the same ideas as what Yuanzhen believed in 2021: 

“My music however is about myself, my feeling. It is about our reality.” (p7)

“Everyone is different. Rock musicians for example, should have their own style making them different from all their contemporaries. Individuality is the key to rock music.” (p21) 

This is fascinating. It is fascinating because the idea of self-expression and individuality that is significant in the rock discourse is somehow unchanged and maintained by the current Du Li musicians, even after 27 years of change. This change is tremendous, extraordinary, and accelerated through the processes of globalisation, digitisation and commercialisation of music. Du Li bands participating in talent shows could easily be judged as 'inauthentic', 'too-commercial', 'selling-out', or 'betraying their roots' in the Western rock/indie discourse, especially by fans who devote themselves to indie music. And yet, despite such relevant opinions in China, the commercial is also part of Du Li's music-making practices, just as indie is consumed and popularised in the current Western popular music market. For the music makers, the centre of this discourse is the emphasis on self-expression. After Yuanzhen responded to the tv show production team he was allowed to perform with his self-expression—a piece of black cloth blindfolding his eyes. It is a cool self-expression that might have connotations with a previous controversial legend (Cui Jian), but it is also complicated by culture and history. I was lucky to participate in that recording session, and I am fortunate to have engaged with this archive. It shows the power of time, as well as the power of belief. Something powerful and meaningful always finds a way to live on. 


Changbo Duan is a final year Ph.D. music student at University of Liverpool. He is a Graduate Teaching Assistant on two Music Department modules on music as an industry. He also led the audience research team for Sound City, an annual Liverpool music festival and industry conference. Changbo's research focuses on the notion of independence in popular music and the updated understanding of Du Li music practice in mainland China. He pays particular attention to the value of Du Li and how it affects music makers’ industrial practices, musical practices and everyday life experience in Chinese society.

As lead singer with The Flow Theory and The Oblique, Changbo has written an album and a few singles. He was active in the rock/pop scene in Wuhan around 2010-2016. He performed at one of the biggest music festivals in China, the Strawberry Music Festival, and gained insightful knowledge of Chinese popular music making practices. Changbo is also a semi-professional photographer.

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