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  • Anning Cui

Soundtrack to Rebellion

As the events of last week’s protests in Beijing slowly unfold, many on the Chinese internet draw comparisons to the tumultuous events of the late 1980s, the last time PRC (People’s Republic of China) citizens had a widespread call for government reform. The 1980s are also known as an important period for the emergence of modern Chinese art and music, indispensably linked to the political turmoil of the time.

The 1970-80s were a pivotal era for the Chinese mainland, as reforms under Deng Xiaoping increased economic relationships and communication with the rest of the world. Music from other Chinese-speaking regions and Western countries began to trickle in. Most notably, songs by Hong-Kong and Taiwanese artists like “The Moon Represents My Heart” by Teresa Teng became big hits.

Teresa Teng was a Taiwanese singer, who reached peak popularity in the 70s and 80s as “Asia’s Eternal Queen of Pop”. She was known for her strong, sweet voice; mixture of Western and Eastern ballad styles; and performing in a variety of languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Indonesian. Her popularity in the mainland was so immense that a common phrase emerged: “During the day, Big Deng Rules (Deng Xiaoping). During the night, Little Deng Rules (Deng Lijun, Teresa Teng’s Mandarin name in pinyin).” Teng was vocal for her patriotism and support for the re-unification of China under the ROC (Republic of China, nationalist government). Her popularity was co-opted by the ROC government, who blasted her song “When Will You Return?” from an offshore ROC island towards the mainland shore of Fujian. Thus in the early 80s, the communist government put a temporary ban on her music, which was removed a few years later. They claimed her music represented the “bourgeois” and would erode the “revolutionary spirit” of the Chinese people.

While Teng’s music and the Mandarin pop genre’s popularity is associated with the mainstream, Western-influenced, Chinese-language rock music also gained immense popularity as a prominent subculture. Chinese rock and roll was heavily influenced by Western acts such as the Beatles and the Talking Heads. During this era, such bands were gaining popularity among college students in many East Asian countries, including mainland China and Japan. Out of the Chinese rock scene, emerged Cui Jian. Unlike Teng, Cui came from an ordinary Chinese family. It was not his personal background or actions, but the meaning of his songs that would cause controversy. Many of his songs espoused feelings of disillusionment and lack of self-empowerment, as well as mocked old revolutionary songs of the Communist party. Thus, as the youth became increasingly frustrated with the government and supportive of democracy, they flocked to his songs. In particular, his song “Nothing to My Name” would become the anthem of the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Both Teresa Teng and Cui Jian are superstars in terms of long-term popularity among the mainland Chinese public; their success cannot be overstated. Other artists at this level, such as Faye Wong, also have a history of social and political controversy. One thing is clear, that the music being played out loud goes hand in hand with the secrets being whispered under the table.

Frustrations with the PRC government are at an all time high as the current despotic COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, and Xi Jinping is projected to be granted a third term as the party’s general secretary. As anti-Xi posters pop up across Chinese college campuses and public spaces yet again, the world is waiting for what the people will have to say. Or at least, we can listen to what their music is saying for them.


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