Cui Jian’s status as a cultural icon was largely staked on the reputation of his first breakout song, “Nothing to My Name”: its progression from televised debut at a 1986 stadium show to anthem of the 1989 student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The song’s formula — a kind of ballad steeped in implicit sociopolitical messaging — would prove to be a road map for Cui, as his generation’s political moment faded into memory (that is, the revisionist memory of Chinese history), even as his own voice continued to endure in the public consciousness. A year after the June Fourth Incident, Cui was back performing in stadiums — on a tour named after his first album, Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March — and started including a song in his repertoire that he hadn’t yet recorded. Each time Cui would perform “A Piece of Red Cloth” live, he would first cover his eyes by tying an actual piece of red cloth around his head, a provocative gesture that contributed to the Chinese authorities’ decision to cancel the latter half of his tour. On Cui’s second album, 1991’s Solution, “A Piece of Red Cloth” is a standout — and a much more boldly political song than even “Nothing to My Name” was, or than really any of the songs that Cui had recorded up until this point were. “That day you took a piece of red cloth / Covered my eyes and covered up the sky,” sings Cui over the same accompaniment of softly-strummed acoustic guitar that he favored for his earlier hit. It’s not hard to tell that “the day” the song is talking about is the one which brought the death of his generation’s most fervently fought for ideals — even though some of the song’s lyrics (“My hand clasping yours”) gently complicate that interpretation by introducing something of a love interest for the narrator. One could say that this is the “solution” that Cui found for himself: couch controversial political views in innocuously romantic language.
While writing coded national critique into pop songs may not be the most revolutionary idea, the degree to which Cui commits to it as his organizing principle here is not only unusual, but also proved to be pretty influential.
The first half of Solution, in particular, uses the frame of relationship dramas to address more ambiguous crises of conscience. On “Lonely Like a Fire,” Cui sings, “There’s too much to say / Better to keep silent,” his reticence passing as easily as that of someone who’s afraid to confront their lover as that of a man more generally wrestling with a decision to speak out. And on the first verse of “This Space,” Cui executes an amusing bait and switch, following the line “Freedom isn’t just a prison” with “You can’t leave me / I can’t leave you either,” again anchoring the song to the idea of a fraught relationship. While writing coded national critique into pop songs may not be the most revolutionary idea, the degree to which Cui commits to it as his organizing principle here is not only unusual, but also proved to be pretty influential. So many artists in China, especially over the last few decades, have obfuscated the political positions of their popular art with metaphor and misdirection. Solution also achieves critique through context: Cui had been covering “Nanniwan,” a revolutionary song from the 1940s, for years (much to the chagrin of government officials), but by including a version here, its pastoral imagery (“Nanniwan in years gone by / Was a barren mountain with no human beings / Nanniwan today / Is different from the past”) feels particularly satirical. The kicker? The track is also the most sincerely beautiful song on Solution, with Cui’s longtime bandmate Liu Yuan providing a weightless wood wind solo, and Cui showcasing his most tender vocal to date. In fact, the entirety of Solution finds Cui and his band in top form, musically, from the funk guitar and walking bass that lock in on the title track to multi-instrumentalist Wang Yong’s guzhen, which is given a starring role on album centerpiece “Wild on the Snow.” Cui would continue to build on, and experiment with, his vision of yaogun, or Chinese rock. But on Solution, he already had firm command of both his sound, and how to use it in the service of a sociopolitical vision. The boldest moment comes on closer “The Last Shot,” largely an instrumental that, in its final third, features gunfire — although one could say it sounds like fireworks, conveniently. Over the barrage, Cui shouts a defiant lyric: “Oh, This could be the last shot!” For Chinese rock’s most famous figure, it wasn’t. But he treated it like it was anyway.