Cui Jian is an intense performer. When he sings “Tolerate” (originally released on his 1994 album Balls Under The Red Flag), his voice ranges from a whisper to a scream that makes the cords on his neck grow taut like ropes. He dances with his eyes closed, showering the crowd with gentle shimmering notes from his guitar. The juxtaposition of his angry lyrics and his quiet strumming creates an uncomfortable tension, which adds to the shock when he shouts, “I hate you—fuck you!” But when Cui steers the song toward the topic of masturbation—a taboo subject not many rock songs ever deal with, even in the U.S.—he’s treading on true rebel ground.
“It could be masturbation, but some understand it differently,” he says matter-of-factly from his Beijing home. He speaks slowly, in English that’s almost without accent. “I didn’t write explicitly. Chinese listeners might think about sex, but not the same way [as an American.] I don’t want to make it too clear what I’m singing about. I don’t sing a love song or a political song that’s straightforward.
“If you stay in China, and have relationships with Chinese friends, you’ll find Chinese communication is complicated,” he continues. “It’s not like in the West, where ‘yes’ means ‘yes.’ In China if you say yes, it can be yes or no or something in between. It’s not black and white—it’s mostly gray, but that’s our culture. Rock lyrics can talk about all subjects—love, anger and politics. In the West, people think I’m angry about everything, but Chinese people know it’s not about politics. It’s poetry.”
Cui Jian (pronounced Sway Jen) is China’s top rock ’n’ roller—the most visible musician in a Chinese rock scene that exists largely underground. But unlike so many musicians elsewhere, he didn’t grow up wanting to be a rocker. “I was born in Beijing during the time of the Cultural Revolution,” Cui explains. “I’m of Korean descent, but I only speak Chinese because the government was intent on wiping out minority languages and culture.” Cui’s father played trumpet professionally, and his mother was in a Korean dance troupe, so the family home was full of music. At age 14, Cui began taking trumpet lessons from his father, and by the time he was 20, he had joined the Beijing Philharmonic. “When I was in the orchestra, China had become open to Western music,” he explains. “We played music by Chinese composers who wrote modern classical compositions.”
Cui’s colleagues in the orchestra exposed him—on the sly, of course—to American and British<