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Rock Star Cui Jian Performs in Chengdu

Guards occasionally told people to take their seats, but otherwise seemed to be enjoying the concert. photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR

Cui Jian, often referred to as the father of Chinese rock, gave an incredible concert at the provincial sports arena in Chengdu last night. For two and a half hours, he and his band played to an adoring and grateful crowd, who at times, sang along with his every word. Some of the concertgoers told me it's been 18 years since Cui Jian's last major solo appearance in Chengdu; others seemed to think it was within the last decade.

Whatever the case, it was a much different scene from the last time I saw Cui Jian perform, in a small club in Beijing in 1999. Back then, Cui Jian had essentially been barred from performing large venues, and news of his shows spread by word of mouth. The unofficial ban, at least in Beijing, had come into place after a rousing concert he gave in Tiananmen Square in 1989. You can find on iTunes and elsewhere a clip of his song "Nothing to my Name," which became an anthem of sorts for the pro-democracy movement.

"Old Cui," as he's known, is 46 now, and something of a national hero. His songs are played on the radio sometimes, and last night's concert was a pretty big deal. There was a multi-tiered stage, an impressive lights display, large video screens, and a well-choreographed stage show, featuring drummers from the Beijing-based group SambAsia and a team of dancers.


Cui Jian's concert featured a special guest, Chinese gymnast Li Donghua, who won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu, NPR

The concert also featured an improbable special guest: the Chinese gymnast Li Donghua, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Cui Jian spoke about Li as a friend and a native of Chengdu, while footage of Li's gold medal performance in Atlanta rolled on a huge screen behind him. Then, the gymnast himself appeared on stage with a pommel horse and wowed the crowd with a short routine, while Cui Jian sang -- a thrilling, if slightly odd duet. Cui Jian concluded the special appearance with some chatter about his hope for Chinese rock music -- that it will one day, like Li Donghua, be able to win gold. The crowd went wild.


Cui Jian and his band played three encores, the last one after the house lights were already on and the credits had rolled twice. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu, NPR

At one point, Cui Jian called out to fans born in each of the decades (50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s), asking each group to shout out in return. Those born in the 80s were definitely the loudest, but the 60s and 70s seemed well represented too. He said he hoped those born in the 90s could still understand what he was singing about. I actually spotted a few children in the crowd, perched on their fathers' shoulders.

After one encore, credits rolled on the big screens -- yes, credits, naming the band members, the dance troupe, the drummers, the lighting director, etc., but the crowd cheered until Cui Jian and his band came back and played a couple of songs. Then the credits rolled again, and the house lights were turned on. And still, about half the crowd stayed and cheered and starting singing one of his songs, and then cheered some more. And then, to my surprise, the band took the stage one last time and played one more song with the house lights on. Finally, everyone left, exhilarated.