Her uncle was a famous Red Army general and revolutionary
martyr - but she was thrown out of the Red Guards. She trained as a
classical pianist at the prestigious Central Conservatory - but made
her name as a leather-clad rock and roll rebel. She went on to pen surrealist
novels that have become cult classics. Now she sings a particularly
Chinese brand of blues in New York. Her name is Liu Sola - and you ainít
seen nothiní yet.
Liu Sola sits on the living room sofa in her motherís Beijing apartment
and says to me "Iím black." Now, my mother is Japanese but my father
is black and I grew up in the United States: I know something about
being black and I know that the 43-year-old musician and writer sitting
in front of me is in fact not at all black: she was born in Beijing
to a family of Han Chinese high-ranking Communist Party officials. But
when I listen to her music - a distinctive blend of Asian opera and
folk blended with African-American blues and jazz - I know what she
In the early 1980s Liu was one of the first generation of mainland musicians
to wear black leather jackets and play rock music but it wasnít until
her first visit to the U.S. in 1987 on a writing exchange fellowship
that Liu discovered her "blackness." On that trip, she visited Chicago,
Columbus Ohio, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville, New York,
and Washington DC. She listened to the music of Otis Redding and Aretha
Franklin. She saw Junior Wells perform in Chicago. When she returned
to the U.S. in 1989, Liu headed for the Mississippi Delta where she
became a blues groupie, living in a motel and joining blues men and
women at juke joints, hotel lounges and performance halls.
"The very first time I heard the blues - thatís when I knew. It instantly
struck a chord with me. I believe I feel music like a black person,"
Liu says. She notes the similarities between Chinese folk music and
the story-telling tradition of African-American blues.
Red China Blues
While Liu Solaís childhood was not without its share of blues-inducing
tragedy, she has an unlikely family background for a blueswoman. Her
uncle, Liu Zhidan, was a general in the Red Army before his death and
martyrdom in 1936. Her father was also a high-ranking leader, but the
familyís political fortunes declined when his closest comrade-in-arms
Gao Gang was accused of treason by Mao and persecuted to death in 1955.
Liuís motherís written account of the controversial affair was denounced
by Mao and resulted in her parentsí exile on a rural pig farm for almost
two decades. Liu and her elder brother and sister were left with a relativeís
family in the capital.
Despite the chaos around her, a precocious 5-year-old
Liu began studying classical piano. She also studied Peking Opera, but
her vocal pitch was too low and she turned instead to Chinese folk songs.
Liuís teenage years are best represented by the film In the Heat of
the Sun. The Jiang Wen film portrays a gang of mischievous schoolchildren
left to their own devices during the Cultural Revolution. Liu explains,
"Everybodyís parents were in the military. Us teenagers, left on our
own, were sitting around outside playing Beatles songs. After the Cultural
Revolution ended, I luckily passed the entrance exam for the Central
Conservatory of Music."
In 1977, Liu entered the Conservatory where she studied composition.
"We were trained in Western classical as well as traditional Chinese
music. But we were not allowed to study modern composition." She produced
a piano suite, The Book of Songs, based on Chinaís earliest poetry collection.
For her graduation thesis, she composed a symphony dedicated to her
famous uncle. The symphony was performed in 1985 by the Central Opera
House Orchestra and broadcast on Beijing Radio.
Although Liu studied composition and piano, her heart was in rock and
roll and her head was in existentialist fiction. She read novels by
Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Albert Camus and Joseph Heller - works
first available in translation on the Mainland in the early 1980s. After
graduation in 1981, Liu began her writing career, publishing several
controversial short stories and novels. Her first novel, Ni Bie Wu Xuanze
(You Have No Choice) was completed in 1984.
You Have No Choice
The term ‘Catch-22í has entered the English language to describe a frustrating
situation in which one is trapped by contradictory rules or circumstances.
‘Ni bie wu xuanzeí has similar connotations for Chinese people. As Liu
elucidates, "It is a common Chinese saying, it is something we were
all feeling, but nobody dared to say. It appeals to Chinese people in
my generation and especially to those younger than me. We often have
to do something we donít want to do in order to do something we want
Ni Bie Wu Xuanze charts the experiences of music students and uses this
as a microcosm of society. The story opens with the narrator, Li Niao,
contemplating dropping out of school. She seeks advice from an eccentric
but caring teacher. The advice: "Ni bie wu xuanze." The two main professors
in the story, Jin and Jia, are symbols of authority and the absurdity
of contradictory regulations. The students have a range of attitudes
to art and life: some strive to find their own authentic voice in their
music, some are motivated by more materialistic aims. The novel perceptively
captures the tensions in Chinese society between repression and creative
endeavor and gives voice to the feelings of futility, frustration and
aimlessness felt by Liu Solaís generation. It has since been lauded
for giving expression to the views of the so-called lost generation
- urban Chinese born during and after the Cultural Revolution.
Ni Bie Wu Xuanze became a cult classic among urban youth, and remains
required reading of all urban hipsters despite being out of print on
the mainland. Some critics have called the story is Chinaís first surrealist
fiction; others have denounced it as ‘irrationalistí, but despite its
controversial nature, the book won the 1988 Chinese National Novella
During this period Liu was also learning to rock and roll. She formed
an all-female band. "In school, we were taught classical music - Western
as well as Chinese. There were those that were into Michael Jackson
and Lionel Ritchie, but I was opposed to the whole notion of ‘popí -
commercial music with no substance. Back then, our music sounded a bit
like Pink Floyd."
Liuís celebrity at the time rivalled that of the present Mandopop singer
Faye Wong (Wang Fei). She recorded three albums of her own songs which
became best sellers not only on the Mainland but also in Taiwan and
Hong Kong. She also wrote music for film, theater, and television. In
1988, she went to Hong Kong and completed a rock opera version of her
novella Blue Sky Green Sea. Produced by the Taiwanese musician Hou Dejian,
the rock opera was recorded with the Chinese Central Symphony Orchestra
and a rock band from Hong Kong.
Despite her popularity both as a musician and as a writer Liu wanted
to leave China: "I just felt so incredibly out of place in Beijing."
She went to London in 1988, and continued her work as a writer, singer,
composer, and dramatist. She started a reggae band (called Sola) with
English, Japanese and Chinese musicians. She wrote and performed in
a theater piece called Memories of the Middle Kingdom, in which two
innocent Englishmen are hauled through an absurdist version of the Cultural
Her experiences in London also helped shape a novella entitled Hun Dun
Jia Li Ge Leng. The novella was first published in Hong Kong in 1991,
and only became available in China in 1994. An excellent English translation
is available from University of Hawaii Press (see the end of this article
for contact information). Of the title, translator Richard King explains
in a postscript to the translation that hundun is an ancient term for
the primordial chaos that preceded all things. Jia means "plus" or "and".
Li ge leng are syllables often used to vocalize instrumental accompaniment
for operatic singing - a Chinese version of do re mi - but in Beijing
slang the word has come to signify old and unhip people who like opera
and by extension, bullshit. In Chinese it is a superb title for a novella
that mixes profanity, political jargon, classical and operatic Chinese
references, Cultural Revolution slogans and rock lyrics. Hun Dun Jia
Li Ge Leng is a collage of memories, narrated in the stream of protagonist
Huang Hahaís consciousness. Huang is an emigre Chinese artist in London,
but most of the novella concerns memories of events in Beijing.
In 1992 Liu was accepted into the University of Iowaís International
Writing Program. During the year-long course she also composed several
pieces of music for theater and dance music including a major modern
dance score based on the classic Chinese opera Snow in Midsummer. Since
then, Liu has continued writing fiction but has become better known
for her inventive and highly experimental music.
Blues From The East
Liuís first album was released in 1994. Entitled Blues From the East,
the record is a fusion of Asian and African-American traditions, blending
elements of funk, R&B, techno with oriental opera and Chinese folk music.
The motley crew performing on the album includes Wu Man on the pipa
(a traditional Chinese stringed instrument), jazz vocalist/keyboardist
Amina Claudine Myers, Parliament/Funkadelic drummer Jerome Brailey and
Last Beat rapper and story-teller Umar Bin Hassan. The album is based
on two Chinese parables: "The Broken Zither," and "Married to Exile"
which tells of a Chinese Emperorís mistress who is betrothed to a Mongolian
chieftain as a peace offering. Blues from the East is a blues album
that reveals the similarities between Chinese and African-American story-telling
traditions. The album climbed to number nine on the Billboard world
music charts in 1995.
One of the few opportunities for mainlanders to hear Blues From the
East was a broadcast of some songs on Zhang Youdaiís "Midnight Blues"
radio show in 1996. Zhang says Chinese listeners criticized the pieces
as "too noisy," "not Chinese," "not music" and "a bastardization of
Peking Opera." Liu retorts, "If analyzed in the Chinese sense, these
comments are definitely legitimate, but I see music differently."
Liuís notions about music are not populist, nor likely to find approval
at the Central Conservatory anytime soon. Liu comments, "I think in
terms of using my body as an instrument. Your body resonates in a different
way depending upon how you hold yourself. Air flow for singing comes
from a different part of the body. I have this kind of physical feeling
for music - I call it a kind of qi, (roughly translatable as ‘life forceí
or ‘essential energyí) but most black people understand it as soul."
Like Beethoven who is said to have seen musical notes as colors (C as
blue for example), Liu says she has a visual sense of music. Liu makes
a similar claim on the album notes of her third album Haunts: "The structure
of this music comes from emulating handicraft designs. As I trace out
the outlines of a chair or a necklace, at the same time I hear witches,
jongleurs, fox-demons, and Buddhaís screaming at me all together."
After finishing Blues from the East, Liu wrote the musical score for
several films, plays and TV productions. She composed the soundtrack
for Michael Aptedís documentary on Tiananmen, Moving the Mountain.
Liuís second album, China Collage, was released in 1996. In the liner
notes, Liu says makes references to Jimi Hendrix, African music, jazz,
blues and rock ‘n roll. Nonetheless, China Collage still sounds very
Chinese, but it Chinese music gone psychedelic.
Now based in New York where she finds the arts world more encouraging
of experimentation than in London and Beijing, Liu has just released
her third album, Haunts. The album starts off with "Daddyís Chair,"
nine-minutes of oriental melodies laced with blues piano. Liuís solo
vocals are child-like and otherworldly, like something between Bjork
and Enya. The piece "Drunk on Images" is a perfect example of Liuís
vocal expressionism, mating modern classical piano and Peking operatic
vocals in an interpretation of the classic Peking Opera "Guifei Zuijiu"
(Drunken Beauty). In "Labyrinths," Liu moves between operatic and Native
American chants with Native American percussion in the background. The
title track, "Haunts" is aptly named: Liuís deep satin vocals possess
the listenerís mind.
Listening to Haunts is both a happy and melancholy experience. It is
good to know that Liu Sola is revitalizing Chinese traditions by experimenting
and mixing them with artistic traditions from other places. But it is
sad that Beijing does not yet offer the creative encouragement and freedom
necessary to keep Liu and many other Chinese artists from settling abroad.
Chaos and All That is available online from University of Hawaii
Press at www.hawaii.edu/uhpress/books.
Haunts and China Collage CDs are available in limited supply from Beijing
Scene, call 6532-6428 or email