Cui Jian was born on August 2, 1961 into a
musical family in Beijing. His father was ethnic Korean and a
professional trumpet player, and his mother was a member of a Korean
dance troupe. Cui Jian followed his father to start playing the trumpet
at the age of fourteen and joined the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra in
1981. He was first introduced to rock during this period when friends
smuggled in illicit recordings from Hong Kong and Bangkok. Inspired by
the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver, Cui started to
play the guitar.
1984 he formed his first band, Qi He Ban with six other classically
trained musicians, including the saxophonist/suona player Liu Yuan. The
seminal band was heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones
and Talking Heads. They performed their own works—mostly soft rock and
love songs—in local hotels and bars. With his band, Cui released his
first cassette "Vagabond's Return" that same year. The album contained
mellow, pop-oriented love songs, but also showcased songs with
progressive and folk rock influences, which were fresh and innovative in
China at the time.
In 1985, the band released another album, titled "Cui Jian with Seven-Player band". The album featured a combination of Western pop rock, as well as new originals. It also featured more prominent use of the electric guitar, which was seldom used in Chinese popular music. Cui's departure from the band and subsequent solo career led him to become the most successful and influential musician in Chinese rock history. Cui Jian first shot to stardom in 1986, when he performed "Nothing to My Name" 一无所有 on the 100-Singer Concert of Year of International Peace at Beijing Worker's Stadium. The next year he left his permanent job with the orchestra. His band, now renamed ADO, included two foreign embassy employees: Hungarian bassist Kassai Balazs and Madagascan guitarist Eddie Randriamampionona. His first real album, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, was released in 1989.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cui created a
hybrid and experimental music mix that cut across divisions between pop
music genres. Cui's songs drew on folk and traditional music types, such
as the Northwest Wind (Xibeifeng) peasant songs of the Loess Plateau of
Shaanxi. At times they knowingly parodied old Communist Party sayings
and proverbs. In 1991, for example, he set the old revolutionary song
"Nanniwan" to rock music. In 1988 he performed at a concert broadcast
worldwide in conjunction with the Seoul Summer Olympic Games.
His earliest and best known works were spiced with Western popular
music styles, such as punk, dance and jazz. Cui's advocation of a new
internationalism and political awareness connected with many university
students of the time.
Cui Jian reached the apex of his popularity during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when "Nothing to My Name" became an anthem to student protestors. Before the protests were violently broken up on 4–5 June, Cui frequently appeared with the students and was affirmed by Wu'er Kaixi, one of the prominent leaders of the movement, as highly influential among young Chinese of the time. The following government crackdown forced many rock musicians, Cui Jian included, into hiding in the other provinces. Sanctions proved relatively temporary and Cui was able to return to Beijing shortly afterward. In early 1990, he began his first rock tour entitled the "New Long March", with ten concerts scheduled in Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Xi'an, Chengdu and others. Midway through the tour, Cui Jian gained notoriety for appearing on stage wearing a red blindfold across his eyes before performing his well-known political anthem, "A Piece of Red Cloth", prompting the government to terminate the performance and cancel the remainder of the tour. After the tour, 1 million yuan was donated to help pay for the 1990 Asian Games, alleged by some to have been a disguised fine for his political indiscretion.
Through the 1990s Cui Jian was banned from playing major venues in Beijing, although he was able to stage a number of one-set, word-of-mouth concerts at newly flourishing venues like The Sunflower Club. Elsewhere in China he was permitted to play to sell-out crowds in both large and small venues, only on occasion facing government interference. Cui's records have also remained off-limits for broadcast on regular state-controlled radio and television stations. Satellite television was the first to challenge this unofficial ban, beginning with Hunan TV's 2000 broadcast of an in-studio performance by Cui and his band.
has toured both Europe and the United States four times, and he has
played a number of shows in Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. He is one
of the few modern rock musicians from China to have made such an impact
on the global music scene, and continues to be a point of focus for
international news media coverage of Chinese cultural affairs.
In 2000 Cui was awarded the Dutch royal family's prestigious Prince
Claus Award for positive artistic and intellectual influences on the
broader culture and societ. In 2002 Cui and his manager Paul Fry
co-organized the Lijiang Snow Mountain Music Festival (China's
Woodstock) in Lijiang, China. Cui followed this with a 10-city tour in
Germany and performances with Udo Lindenberg (Godfather of German Rock
& Roll), performances with Deep Purple in China and a 13-city
sold-out tour of the United States.
Bai Qiang produced a 3D concert film and documentary on Cui The film, Transcendence, which evokes memories of Tiananmen Square, was screened in Beijing in May, 2012 to an enthusiastic fan audience, but its prospects for mainstream release in China are doubtful. On 8 September 2000, Cui and his band performed the song "Flying" 飞了at the Anti-Piracy Concert held at Worker's Stadium in Beijing. It was his first large-venue performance in the capital in 7 years. In 2002, Cui initiated, produced, and played at a major rock festival in the mountains of Yunnan province. The "Snow Mountain Music Festival" was a major media attraction and was reported by the international press as "China's Woodstock". This experience started a trend of outdoor music festivals in Chin
In early 2003, Cui was authorized to open for the
Rolling Stones' concert in Beijing. In a 2003 interview, Cui claimed
that in the 1980s he'd learned Rolling Stones and Beatles songs to
improve his guitar skills. He was also quoted as having three dreams: to
perform in his home city of Beijing again, to see the Rolling Stones
perform live, and to perform together with the Rolling Stones. Due to
the SARS outbreak, however, the concert was cancelled.
Not until March 2004, when Cui opened for Deep Purple on their mainland
tour, was he finally able to perform a full set at a major venue in
On 24 September 2005, Cui was
finally granted permission to headline his own show at the Beijing
Capital Stadium, which signified the end of the unofficial ban on his
performances in China's capital. It also confirmed a major turn-around
in government attitude towards rock music in general.
Cui did finally play with the Rolling Stones at the Shanghai Grand
Stage on 8 April 2006, singing and playing "Wild Horses". Following the
performance, Cui was quoted as saying, "This is the 20th anniversary of
Chinese rock 'n' roll... We have an appointment. In the near future,
they will be back, and we'll rock again in Beijing.
Cui performed in Taiwan on 8 July 2007 after numerous attempts in previous years to perform there had been derailed by governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Cui's entourage to the island comprised 18 people including his 75-year-old mother. Headlining on the last day of the Hohaiyan Rock Festival at Fulong Beach, Cui's participation was promoted on the festival's website with the slogan: "He's really coming! In September 2007, he performed at the Beijing Pop Festival, including a guest appearance rapping with the American rap group Public Enemy. On 4 December 2009, Cui returned to Taiwan for his second concert there in three years, for the grand opening of the Legacy Taipei.