The birth of Chinese rock ’n’ roll can be pinned to 1986, when 24-year-old Cui Jian sang “Nothing to My Name” in a nationally televised performance at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing.
Some of the population was familiar with the genre of music from the West, but this was the first time many had witnessed it performed by one of their own.
Mr. Cui’s music, like rock ’n’ roll more broadly, is often associated with movements for social change. In 1989, he played “Nothing to My Name” in Tiananmen Square, just days before the government’s tanks rolled in. The song became the unofficial anthem for the student protesters, hundreds of whom were killed by armed Chinese forces.
In 1990, Mr. Cui performed wearing a red blindfold on his nationwide tour “Rock ’n’ Roll on the New Long March”—a sardonic reference to the Communist Party’s legendary trek in the 1930s. The so-called godfather of Chinese rock was banned from performing at large venues in Beijing for the next decade.
Mr. Cui is far from a washed up rock star. Last year, the 52-year-old made his directorial debut with the film “Blue Sky Bones,” which looks at the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a young rocker and computer hacker. The film, shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was given a special mention at the Rome Film Festival in November.
Mr. Cui, who counts the Rolling Stones and The Beatles as influences, is also making a new album. And the musician, who performed with the Rolling Stones in Shanghai in 2006, is in the process of translating his most famous songs into English, with the aim of rerecording them for a wider international audience.
As the world observes the 25th anniversary of the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square, the Journal caught up with Mr. Cui to ask about his memories of the country’s past—and what he sees for his own future. Edited excerpts:
Do you fit Western rock traditions?
I am totally different from Western rock and roll musicians—I don’t even smoke, I don’t drink much. It is easier to communicate with foreign listeners because I play their music, rock ’n’ roll, jazz and hip-hop, and put them together, [using] my mother language. It sounds like rock and roll. But I have to say my story is totally Chinese.
And you sometimes use Chinese instruments.
I use a lot of instruments found in Chinese folk art. That isn’t because I want to broadcast or promote Chinese traditional art—it is really because it is a better release of emotion if I use those instruments. I don’t want to say music has to provide a sense of dignity to a nation.
How do you think rock music helped shape the Chinese youth of the 1980s and 90s?
It opened a window to see the world. At the time, a lot of artists only copied very superficial styles from Western rock and roll. They adopted certain lifestyle obsessions with sex, drugs and had long hair. But for me, these are all fake. [Musicians] today haven’t been able to withdraw themselves from commercialization and allow their creativity to flourish.
So, what is rock ’n’ roll about for you?
I do rock and roll music not because I want to go to America and make money. I hate that concept. It gave me passion about life. Even getting angry, the wonderful feeling is you have passion. You get the energy from your hormones. For me this is the music, this is rock and roll.
You played at Tiananmen Square in 1989. What was it like?
It’s easy to answer that it was like a huge party. Everybody was having fun, [you felt it] deeply from your body. You wanted to go back every day. I am Beijing-ren [person], I didn’t want to stay home at that moment. It is just a moment I believe will be forever in my memory. I wanted to see as much as I could.
How do you feel about it today?
Even now, years later, I still don’t talk about it. It’s a closed history. There is an ideology still felt among young people, which is you just don’t talk about sensitive things. You attempted it once and because you failed you don’t talk about it again. This is self-imposed ideology, self-imposed censorship.
What do you think of censorship in China?
Censorship is very, very strong here. If we have fear, it really works for those in power. Before you write anything, you start to worry. So we have to compromise before we start writing. It is such a terrible, ugly thing.
Is politics or music more important to you?
The most important thing for me is making music. I really think Ai Weiwei is so smart. He is an artist, not a politician. He isn’t making huge trouble for the government, he isn’t building an [alternative political] party—he is just doing art. He is still promoting society’s march forward.
You did the same with the ‘Long March’ tour, when you donned a red blindfold while singing the political anthem “A Piece of Red Cloth.”
The piece of red cloth, the blindfold—this song changed my life. A lot of people think it is a political song, but it is very emotional. In the last verse I feel that the land is dry and I feel very thirsty. It is for a girl, for a country. Both.