Almost twenty-four years ago to the day (it was actually in mid-May), a guy, his band, and a bunch of young folks who wanted to change the world got together to play, and listen to, some music. Continue reading “A Cui Jian Performance”
Twenty-three years ago, it was June 4, 1989.
I lived in Beijing through ten anniversaries, but the significance of the date, in what must sound, to those who didn’t live there over the past few years, odd, seemed to shrink over my stay. Until, however, I looked into yaogun’s history, and saw that the movement that brought thousands to Tiananmen Square was nourished at the same teet as was the passion for rock and the drive to yaogun. Citizens in the Square and yaogunners on stages were after the same thing: It was about possibilities. There was so much that was new, and there was a hunger to discover it all, and more. And there was so much hope.
I had mentioned, in a previous post, and wrote, in Red Rock, of a four-song set that Cui Jian performed at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Cui was not the only one to perform in the Square during the weeks and months leading up to June 4, but his is, as far as I know, the only performance caught on tape. There is a video clip, in the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, of Cui Jian emerging from the bus carrying hunger strikers and being surrounded by fans, but the documentary doesn’t have footage of the performance.
A recording of the performance made the rounds a few years back, but was, soon after appearing, removed. I only just came across this Youtube clip that sets the audio from a portion of the gig to a montage of images. The song featured here is “Start Again” – which the band proceeds to do, taking a mulligan after a technical difficulty. Note that the subtitles here are not translations of the lyrics or what Cui is saying. Elsewhere on the recording, Cui says he came with only a slight chance of actually performing, just wanting to show support. Here, he references the chorus of “Start Again” in his pre-song chat to the gathered crowd:
“I don’t want to leave/I don’t want to exist/I don’t want to live so much in reality
I want to leave/I want to exist/I want to die and then do it all over again.”
UPDATE: The China Beat has a good breakdown of train-crash talk and points to this article on China Geeks with the translated lyrics (though a correction should be noted: Cui did not sing the song to the Tiananmen protesters, at least not according to the recording of the four-song set put up online a couple years back).
Lots of talk, lately, about the high-speed train collision on July 23 near the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, particularly about the general anger over the Official response. A report on Public Radio International’s The World relates this to yaogun: The song that was the first expression of China’s own homegrown rock and roll, Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”, has been used to express that anger.
Cui’s song (lyrics here), first performed in 1986 and spread quickly and widely thereafter, expressed the feelings that his fellow citizens either didn’t realize they had or couldn’t figure out how to make known. Its power was in its subtelty; Cui was expending a huge effort with his moans, yes, but he wasn’t screaming, because he, and his generation, weren’t exactly angry – not yet, anyway. The song, and the way people took to it, was a product of the era’s angst and confusion: Unlike the pop music of the day, Cui Jian sang about the sudden confrontation with a new world, both inside and outside of China, and with the possibility that their own world as they knew it was coming to an end.
The “Nothing to My Name” that has emerged the wake of the train crash is a very different beast, as is the generation that produced it. This version, particularly with the accompanying video footage, isn’t just angry, it’s a call to arms. Many have pointed to the song’s role in the events of 1989, but Cui has never been the type to demand people to rise up – not directly, since the immediate reaction doesn’t take the long view. It was a revolutionary tune, to be sure, but it was not incendiary in the way that the tweaked version now making the rounds is.
“Oh… You seem to be making a show” struck me in particular. The idea that much of the news coverage in the Middle Kingdom was less than actual news is not new: It’s been a long time since intelligent people believe they’re getting the full story on just about anything from the newspapers and newscasts of the Official Media (an argument which can be made of many nations, one is quick to add, though it’s not always easy to spot the “official” outside of China). What’s new is the eagerness to call it when it’s seen, not to mention the media’s own desire to editorialize on the issue – there’s the rage of the anchor at the top of the video, and the CCTV anchor mentioned in the PRI report who implored the nation to slow down, lest it leave behind the souls of its citizens. This type of expression, at least among the general populace, also happened in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008 (and the image of the candle-lit “7.23” in the video is the link to that episode) and it’s happening moreso now, inasmuch as its being allowed by Officialdom.
Alas. Back to Cui Jian.
I’d always been dismissive of Cui Jian’s own campaign, in the first years of the aughts, against lip-synching (which, recall, led to actual legislation banning the practice without telling people you were doing it), but in revisiting that campaign, particularly in light of a situation such as the one around the train crash, one understands what he might’ve been trying to do – and it’s been something he’s obviously been trying to do through his music, and general example. To get people to think. If people are telling you they’re singing and they’re not, what else out there is fake?
Whether this new “Nothing” merely riles folks up in the short term or leads them to reflect on the long is the difference between yaogun’s ability to shock and its ability to awe; its power and its potential.
PS: Happy 50th b-day, Cui Jian!