It is impossible to reimagine the emergence of youth cultures in the United States and Western Europe in silence. Music made by and for young people was an integral part of the generational shifts of the 1950s and 1960s that established youth as a powerful and assertive group that reshaped consumer tastes and popular culture in general. In China, the noise of a youthful soundtrack to accompany the emergence of new groups in society blasted out in a much shorter time frame than in the Anglo world (the North Atlantic and Australasia), essentially in the single decade of the 1980s. The interconnectedness with the musical developments in the Chinese advanced or outlier societies of Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japan, and with the Anglo world drove this Chinese process in unexpected and hybrid ways unique to the conditions in the People’s Republic. By the 1990s, youth music had been further elaborated by local artists working from international and domestic inspirations. K-pop (from South Korea) joined the chorus, which received new impetus in the new century from the commercialised world of television talent contests.
Discussions of the rise of youth and rock music in China tend to begin with Cui Jian, the former trumpeter in the Central Philharmonic Orchestra and Korean–Chinese. Cui’s most famous song, ‘Nothing to My Name’ (Yiwusuoyou), became the theme song of the late 1980s, sung by the protestors in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 alongside the more ancient and orthodox Communist anthem Internationale. Cui Jian’s career from his emergence in 1986 as the inventor of Chinese rock music (yaogun yinyue, literally shake and roll music) to his reemergence in the 1990s and his continued performance in the new century offers us a way of mapping the continued relevance of youth-oriented music to successive generations over three decades.