More of “Nothing”, Finally

The casual follower of rock and roll in China will have heard that Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” (一无所有) was the song that started everything and that it was first performed, in 1986, to a stadium and a television audience that immediately took to it like it was their own (which, for all intents and purposes, it was). One of my favourite experiences writing Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll was doing the play-by-play on a video of that performance. I watched and re-watched the only clip of that performance I could find, a clip with a voice-over covering up the second verse, and, worst of all, an abrupt ending in the wake of the suona (a traditional combination clarinet-oboe-soprano sax) solo halfway through the song.

Though continually coming empty, I continued to search for a better, more complete version of the performance. Today, I lucked out and found, finally, a different cut of the same show, this time in all its four-minute-plus glory.

First, let’s recap what It all was: In May 1986, Cui Jian, then a trumpet player for the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble, was one of the lucky few to have heard a bit of Western pop music at a time when even hearing that there was a thing called Western pop music was rare. He was singing other peoples’ songs – Chinese songs written for him and Western pop tunes reworked in Chinese – and was tinkering with his own material on the side. He joined up with over a hundred of his fellow pop singers united, as the Hundred Stars (百名歌星) under the banner of the International Year of Peace to sing a song called “Let the World be Full of Love” (让世界充满爱), the Chinese response to “We Are the World” et. al. Cui was one of the Hundred Stars who got to perform their own tunes in addition to the big number. This is when yaogun, Chinese rock & roll, was born.

There are problems with this video: The sound quality is less than ideal and the video doesn’t synch up with the audio. And in contrast to what I assumed was the only video I’d be able to find, the actual playing of the music comes out here much more clearly as not fantastic. But, like any great rock and roll, technical skills are only a part of the story. Here, it’s a very tiny part, and the footage is too important for any of that to get in the way. What’s most important is that the video provides a better glimpse than anyone’s had in twenty-five years of what went down on the day yaogun was invented and when a trumpet-playing Cui Jian transformed from semi-famous pop singer to Infamous Yaogunner #1.