By the mid-1990s, the political ambitions of what is known as the liumang generation — literally, “hooligans” — had devolved from a battle cry into feelings of wounded dejection, crushed under the weight of an intensified Chinese censorship, and the restricted freedoms enforced by a Party who feared the possibility of more dissent on the level of the Tiananmen protests. The rise of a new generation — the dakou, named after a slang term for bootleg media — signaled a shift to the underground for China’s most outspoken social critics. It’s this shift that allowed for an important movement in Chinese cinema — the Sixth Generation, which consisted mainly of filmmakers utilizing low-budget, DIY shooting methods to inscribe the the broader malaise of their postsocialist surroundings into stark stories of alienated urban youths. The film that established this movement, on the international stage, was 1993’s Beijing Bastards, directed by the Sixth Generation’s most prolific figure, Zhang Yuan, and starring Cui Jian as himself — or, at least, a struggling rock musician modeled on himself. The film, which emphasizes the marginalization of artists in contemporary Chinese society, registers as a work of counterculture, content playing to a niche market. But Cui has never seemed comfortable with that idea, so for his third album — and his best to date — he cracks his sound wide open: Balls Under the Red Flag‘s “Flying” is a barnstorming salvo that weaves together guitarist Eddie Randriamampionona’s dissonant power chords and Liu Yuan’s furiously skronking saxophone, all underwritten by a rock-solid Bo Diddley beat. “All around me is the smell of fire / Burning ambiguously between helplessness and rage,” Cui sings, distilling his desire to break free of a social condition that’s allowed his country’s righteous anger to calcify into bitterness and defeat, to be suppressed.
Some of Cui’s most outspoken material is on Balls Under the Red Flag; however, as a sign of inevitable growth, Cui positions these songs alongside less coded expressions of his emotional life.
Balls Under the Red Flag is Cui Jian’s biggest album statement, from its sprawling sound to its suggestive title (whose “dan” actually translates to “eggs” — so, ‘the bad eggs under the flag’). For some critics, like Sun Mengjin — who launched his influential radio show the same year that Balls Under the Red Flag was released — the outsized ambitions constituted a selling-out. Cui’s defiant triumphalism, in a commercial rock context, flew in the face of Sun’s favored sign-off: “I don’t live well; that is my freedom.” Cui was never interested in the kind of brooding self-pity that Sun fetishized; he prefers to vie for his freedom through an earnest expression of his emotions, as implicitly informed by his politics. And what Sun seemed to miss on Balls Under the Red Flag, by focussing on the expensive production, was Cui’s self-awareness about the compromise of his music: “Sang for quite awhile but still didn’t sing completely about the pain of this city / But the more pain, the more we’re able to imagine the happiness of tomorrow / I wear a smile on my face like everybody else still living on this earth / I’m prepared now to speak the fucking truth.” Contrast that proclamation with a lyric from Cui’s last album (“There’s too much to say / Better to keep silent”) and it’s hard to buy Sun’s argument that this wasn’t viably “revolutionary” music anymore — insomuch as any music could have been in the China of the ’90s. Indeed, some of Cui’s most outspoken material is on Balls Under the Red Flag; however, as a sign of inevitable growth, Cui positions these songs alongside less coded expressions of his emotional life. Unfurling over a majestic, slow-burn eight minutes, “Tolerate” plays as the internal conflict of someone in a crumbling relationship, discarding metaphor for earnest eroticism: “I want to satisfy myself / And excite you as well.” The song climaxes with Liu’s bleating, euphoric saxophone — as if this expression of sexuality brings its own form of freedom. Cui exercises his agency as a musician throughout Balls Under the Red Flag, pushing his music further in the direction of the kaleidoscopic: a Beethoven quote (“Balls Under the Red Flag”) and some rapping (“Beijing Story”); heavily processed zither, a phalanx of traditional Chinese percussion, including oil drums, and harmonized dizi juxtaposed with Randriamampionona’s metal riffs (“The Box”); and even a bit of musique concrète (the two collages of recorded, chattering voices that bookend “The Other Shore”). What emerges from all this? It isn’t an album to launch a new Long March, but rather a personal manifesto in the form of a snapshot of a country in turmoil — of a people who won’t accept that losing the battle also means losing the war.