It’s Spring Festival time in China which also happens to be my favorite time. People who live in Shanghai think that’s insane for the following reasons:
1. The trains/planes/buses are packed to the brim with Chinese folks trying to get home for their government-mandated holiday. Transport is packed to the brim.
2. The weather is both freezing and rainy but we don’t get any lovely snow, only the misery of being cold and wet ALL THE TIME.
3. The sky is so dark during the day you can’t tell if the sun even came up.
4. Absolutely nothing is going on in the city because everyone is on holiday.
Here’s why I love it:
1. The city is empty! I can just go out of my flat and cross the street WHEREVER I WANT. Oh, the freedom to jaywalk and not get killed. Shanghai is a ghost town and that is amazing.
2. My apartment is very, very cozy so I don’t give a shit what the weather outside is doing. I prefer it when it’s dark and gray because it matches my soul. Also, I can sleep in really late.
It is true that absolutely nothing goes on during Chinese New Year. There are, like, two DJs in the entire city holding down the fort. Even bars close. Can you imagine that? You go to your local and there’s just a sign on the door that says, “Going home for holiday. Back next week.” It’s rough, man. It’s rough.
But the one thing that happens everywhere in China is the big CCTV (China Central Television) New Year’s Gala that airs on New Year’s Eve. It’s just a big ol’ TV variety show of the Chinese variety: singing, dancing, acrobatics, magic, comedy sketches, plate spinning, a little political brainwashing thrown in, blah blah blah. It’s super boring and long and every Chinese person I knows always falls asleep during it but it’s a big tradition and if you don’t watch it the government will come get you. Maybe? Possibly I made that last bit up. But it’s probably true.
Anyway, I never watch it because I don’t have TV and it’s not interesting enough to Google, but this year there was an interesting note about it. Cui Jian, a Chinese musician (actually, China’s first rock star and the guy who brought original rock music to China), was asked to perform and he was like, “Awesome, yeah, I’ll totally do that,” and then the Chinese government was all, “Yeah, but you can’t perform your biggest hit, ‘Nothing to My Name,’ because you know why.” And Cui was all, “No thanks, then,” which is awesome because this is the most widely watched single-view show in China, and possibly the world.
The reason the government nixed “Nothing to My Name” is because back in 1989, Cui performed the song at Tienanmen Square during the student protests, right before all the tanks came in and shit got real, and the song became the unofficial anthem of the protest. After that, the government obviously cracked down on him and he was heavily censored and unable to get permits to perform for years and years, and it’s only in the last 10 years or so that they’ve lessened up. So it’s pretty ballsy of him to ask to sing that song and then also pretty ballsy to back out of the show when they said no.
“Nothing to My Name,” though, is also an interesting song in that it was one of the first major hits that addressed the growing inequality and backwardness of politics of China, but didn’t really address the backwardness of China, you know? People aren’t allowed to just write things that criticize the government here, so there’s this fabulous tradition of allegory in Chinese media and creativity that is so obvious, yet (mostly) non-prosecutable. The artist can always just step in and say, “No no no, I’m not saying China is a horrible Communist bastard, I’m saying my girlfriend is. This song is totally about my girlfriend.” And sometimes it’s cool, and sometimes you get sent to a re-education camp. It’s a line to toe.
There’s a great book called Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll by Jonathan Campbell which is a fascinating look at how rock music seeped its way into China despite the government’s best efforts to keep it out, and also how rock music developed here devoid of the founding influences it was built upon in the West. Very interesting if you’re into the origins of rock or the effects of media censorship.
And “Nothing to My Name” is still a pretty damn good song, even 30 years later.
And if this isn’t the post that finally gets the authorities a-knockin’ at my door, I don’t know what is.
More about Cui Jian and the CCTV gala here.