by Sam C. Mac Music Retrospective

Cui Jian | Show You Colour

September 2, 2019

If there’s any one quality that defines Cui Jian, it’s that he has never been content to be any one thing. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t start with Cui — so he had to be a Chinese rock ‘n’ roller, fusing his own national identity and cultural and musical heritage with the DNA of the western music that he loved growing up, to form something new. But once he realized the provocativeness of just his formal amalgam of rock, he understood the need for an accompanying sociopolitical message. And when, in the 1990s, Cui saw the rise of a new generation of politically conscious Chinese rockers crop up all around him, he didn’t want to be just an aging scenester, so he pushed himself beyond the confines of his self-defined genre — embracing rap and skronking free-jazz on 1994’s spectacular Balls Under the Red Flag, and electronic and experimental music on 1998’s dispiritingly unfocused The Power of the Powerless. On his hugely ambitious 2005 album, Show You Colour — which Cui wrote and produced entirely himself, at his home studio, over a period of almost 10 years — The Father of Chinese Rock turns the multifacetedness of his identity into the foundation of a concept album. He announces this through the anachronisms of opener “City Boatman,” which starts with a sample of a 1983 Wang Shaoming folk tune, before screeching car wheels and revving engines, and Cui’s own yelping, upset the idyllic scene — the rural bleeding into the urban, Cui right at the center, relishing the dissonance of sound, style, and form that he’s created around him. Show You Colour’s full ambitions, though, don’t really start to become clear until the album’s second track, “Blue Bone,” a humorous, frustrated personal manifesto that finally decides on division as the best course of self-reflection: “Red, yellow, and blue / Represent the heart, body, and mind.” Cui embraces this tripartite, splicing his own musical, personal, and cultural DNA, and then deconstructing it, showing the multitude of meanings music is capable of. 

On his hugely ambitious Show You Colour — which Cui wrote and produced entirely himself, at his home studio, over a period of almost 10 years — The Father of Chinese Rock turns the multifacetedness of his identity into the foundation of a concept album.

Red also represents rock (or, at least, it did in the 2001 musical production that Cui collaborated on with the Hong Kong Modern Dance Company, which was also titled “Show You Colour”). On “Mr. Red,” Cui comes close to fully embracing the music from his past, crafting a sleek, charging, three-minute record built around furiously strummed acoustic guitars, bleating saxophone, and light touches of the traditional Chinese suona (which he first started using on 1984’s “Nothing to My Name”). But in the second verse, the buoyant “I want to go!” refrain falls away, and Cui’s lyrics turn self-aware, as he dismantles his own song: “This song is for you / Every word is for you / This rhythm I will keep / It’s my heartbeat and footsteps / The lyrics are you / The music is me / They’re not inseparable.” It’s not red that Cui chooses, as he makes clear toward the end of “Blue Bone”: “Blue is my sanity.” And blue, according to that Hong Kong musical, represents electronic music — which is also the predominant texture of Show You Colour. “Little Town Story V21” — another tripartite, split into sections that disperse the narrative through the album — unspools the story of a boy living in 1980s China, who falls for the girl upstairs when he hears her singing, but worries that he’s too unsuccessful and uneducated to win her favor. Cui builds the song around rapped verses, undulating electronic beats, and a recurring quote of the melody from a Teresa Teng pop song, also called “Little Town Story.” The “V21” in the title is intended to mean ‘21st century version’; and in the second and third parts of the story, the boy grows into a man, graduates, opens his own bar, and… still doesn’t have the guts to talk to the girl. The piece as a whole threads an album that’s surprisingly heavy on portraits of stunted masculinity. On “Net Virgin,” another clamorous electronic song — and one that incorporates the sound of fingers typing on a keyboard into its rhythm, a full five years before M.I.A. did it — Cui’s narrator, a boastful internet addict with the username “Bug on the Net,” ‘meets’ a girl who’s just broken up with her boyfriend, and tries to console her; but when she tells him that she’s a call girl, he freaks out, and she ‘leaves.’ The song ends with the narrator in a panic (“I post and send messages everywhere!”), looking for the girl online. He’s a bug caught in a web — impotent even in the one space he thought made him powerful.

Show You Colour is as dense an album as Cui’s ever made, but it’s also much more melodic than the similarly layered The Power of the Powerless. Yellow stands for pop, and there’s a lot of it here: “The Lost Season” is Cui’s prettiest song since his cover of “Nanniwan,” on 1991’s Solution, and is absent of the earlier song’s sense of irony; it’s maybe the most earnest love song that Cui’s ever written. More often than not, though, the beauty on Show You Colour is buried below the surface, struggling to express itself amidst cultural confusion. The seven-and-a-half-minute “Dance Across 38th Parallel” is a chugging behemoth of tremolo guitar and hand percussion, but at its core is an interpolation of “Arriang,” a traditional Korean folk song; it’s Cui’s nod to his ethnic Korean heritage, and his subtle gesture to the Korean war (the north 38th parallel formed the border between North and South before the war). The boldest song here, though, is the closing track, “Get Over That Day,” a coded critique of China’s claim on contested territories. (The track sounds particularly shocking right now, since, as I write this, protests are shutting down the Hong Kong airport.) Cui’s narrator sings about how his mother once told told him that he has a “biological sister” who lives far away, but who “one day will come back forever.” The narrator proceeds to imagine what his sister might be like, to the point that he romanticizes her. Finally, he reflects on his relationship with his mother, wondering if she acts cruel because she still hurts from the day that his sister left. If the metaphor (another trifecta) isn’t clear, consider that Cui has been known to perform the song with images of the Hong Kong flag and the date of the handover projected behind him. “Get Over That Day” is a reminder that, as Cui discovers new sides of himself, he doesn’t discard the old ones; and on Show You Colour, he is as politically conscious, emotionally invested, culturally immersed, and aesthetically adventurous as he has ever been.

Part of Cui Jian: ‘The World That’s Changing Longs Never to Change.’