II: June 4 1989_Smasher of the Week #12_Cui Jian_”Nothing to my name”

Cui Jian, “一无所有/yīwúsuǒyǒu /Nothing to my name”, 1989 © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

June 4 2019_Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy in the 1980’s has a number of side effects that have not been anticipated by the Chinese government. At the height of the Chinese reforms between 1986 and 1989, a Chinese rock scene emerges in Beijing, formed by a group of ~40 Chinese musicians influenced by Western rock music. Up to that moment music in China consists of patriotic hymns, classical (Chinese) pieces and opera or some bittersweet ballads from Taiwan and Hong Kong, all of which are usually only available on cassette.

Cui Jian is the most important exponent of this flourishing Chinese rock scene. He is considered “the godfather of Chinese Rock & Roll”. Born in 1961 and of ethnic Korean (chaoxianzu) descent, he lives in Beijing, instead of in the border region with North Korea like most Korean Chinese.

He learned to play the trumpet from his father, himself a trained trumpet player: in 1981 Cui Jian becomes a member of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. Through friends and contacts with foreign students, Cui Jian receives cassettes with Western pop and rock music, which is still banned by the government. The CCP is very suspicious of Western cultural influences. Cui Jian becomes familiar with the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Talking Heads, Bob Marley etc. He dreams of forming his own band that will make contemporary rock music, a novelty in his country . He wants artistic freedom to create what he wants, although he does not yet dare to give up his permanent job with the symphony orchestra.

He takes this giant step after his his song “Nothing in my name” (“一无所有 / yiwusouyou / for the entire translation see end of this article) becomes the public favorite during a talent show with multiple acts in a stadium in Beijing that is broadcast live on national TV. Authorities do allow the event to propagate the reformist spirit of the Communist Party. Cui Jian’s performance in which he delivers his rock ballad dressed as a simple Chinese peasant overwhelms those in the stadium and those glued to their TVs.

Cui Jian’s backing band for a subsequent national and brief international tour is ADO, which includes 2 foreigners. Foreign students in Beijing do also gradually get to know Chinese rockers in this short period of relatively great cultural freedom. One of those foreigners is a young sinologist and guitarist from the Netherlands: Jeroen den Hengst, better known in 2019 as the husband and musical accompanist of singer Monique Klemann (of Lois Lane fame, see also 2016 youtube clip below). For his memories of the remarkable Chinese rock scene of the mid-80s, go to https://www.whatsonweibo.com/the-early-days-of-rock-in-china-interview-with-sinologist-hardrocker-jeroen-den-hengst/

Cui JIan ~1989 foto copyright © unknown No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

Cui Jian and his band release their first album in 1989: “Rock and Roll on the New Long March”, which includes “Nothing to my name.” This song becomes the anthem song of protesting students in the Square of Heavenly Peace in the spring of 1989. In May there is an almost Woodstock-like mood of peace and harmony on Tiananmen Square, but towards the end of the month the atmosphere between government and protesters turns increasingly tense. Cui Jian regularly visits the students on Tiananmen before the protests come to a violent end on June 4.

Cui Jian considers himself first of all a rock & roller and entertainer, not a protest singer or leader of a democratic movement. His texts are not outspoken or openly anti-communist, more ambiguous and suggestive. Yet his fearless attitude and tough appearance do speak volumes, we are seeing a strong and indivualistic personality. His international fame and connections with foreigners do perhaps prevent him from suffering the same fate as the leaders of the protest movement who are imprisoned, tortured or exiled after June 4 1989. But Cui Jian’s rock career in China is on hold after that turbulent year.

Cui Jian – Fake Monk (崔健 – 假行僧), 1989 © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners
Cui Jian – Let Me Sleep (崔健 – 让我睡个好觉), 1989 © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

When I arrive in Beijing in August 1990 I am only familiar with the name Cui Jian, not with his musical work. I manage to get hold of a cassette of his first album via my French roommate. This Frenchman Xavier has been studying Chinese at Beiwai for over a year and is a jazz drummer in his spare time. Cultural life in Beijing is almost beaten to death in 1990: the city is suffocating from a re-education campaign with a lot of old-school communist propaganda and events. Only instrumental, innocent jazz can sporadically be found in some Western hotels.

Cui Jian tries to make a living as a jazz trumpet player: one of his concert spots is the French bistro “Maxim’s”, a copy of the Paris Maxim’s, found in a hotel on 2 Chongwenmen Xidajie, 5km south of Tiananmen square. He sometimes plays with with my roommate, the drummer, in a trio. These concerts take place very irregularly, and are only announced at the very last minute. Unfortunately I never get to see such a concert by the jazz trumpeter Cui. Xavier describes Cui Jian as a great guy, though he admittedly does have some difficulties in mastering the jazz approach and idiom.

Drummer Xavier, 2nd to the right, standing next to myself at a Xinjiang/muslim restaurant on Beiwai campus. Photo Summer 1991. Sorry, I have not got any photo showing him as a drummer!

Cui Jian continues to perform irregularly in the Maxim’s in Beijing until at least the mid-90s. His 80s and 90s rock songs don’t get any airplay. When a new (economic) wave of reform rolls over the country in the 2nd half of the 90s, the government finally allows Cui Jian to hold a few rock concerts outside of Beijing. After 2000 they let him perform in Beijing too. The rock scene in Beijing has meanwhile been marginalized: a large number of rockers have opted for a normal, civilian life, others have taken the dead end street of self-destruction.

left, Cui Jian the jazz trumpet player in Maxim’s Beijing 1994, photo on website: © https://u.osu.edu/mclc/2016/01/27/25-years-of-jazz-in-china/ No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

Listening back to Cui Jian’s 1989 album and his hit it’s easy to dismiss them as a cheap attempt to imitate Western pop music. Cui Jian has always been aware of that danger: his first album contains Chinese instruments and local folk influences to avoid this pitfall. This groundbreaking work, however, must be primarily seen in the context of what it induced: an unprecedented spirit of solidarity, strength, hope and rebellion among demonstrating youngsters against the all powerful authorities, which no musician in China has since equaled. His songs do reflect perfectly a prevailing feeling of dissatisfaction and a yearning for change and freedom. Rock & Roll in its purest form.

In 2000, Cui Jian receives the Prince Claus Award for his cultural and musical merits for China. He continues to grow as a rock and pop musician, ventures into experimental music and performs regularly at home and abroad. He even makes films and film music. Foreign artists such as the Rolling Stones and Public Enemy ask him on stage during their tours in Beijing. The CCP still hesitates to allow such performances by famous foreign acts. Because of Cui’s international fame and recognition, it is difficult for the government to completely silence the singer. They don’t want him to become a martyr: they prefer to make his life difficult, but leave him untouched as long as his lyrics do not become too critical.

Cui Jian decides to stay in China and aims for ways to make his voice heard within the constraints of the system. He tries to live and deal with the reality of the omnipotence of the Communist Party, while he recognizes that the country is making major economic progress. He is aware that the majority of the population is more concerned about economic change than about political, artistic and personal liberties (see also 2014 interview: https://www.theepochtimes.com/chinese-rock-stars-film-balances-fear-and-sincerity_498367.html ). The rocker pursues his own vision and path, though he is no longer really able to tap into a new young audience. He realizes that self-censorship is constantly lurking, just like the danger of being encapsulated by the manipulating Communist party. It’s sometimes a struggle to maintain his personal and artistic integrity.

For a review and picture of Cui’s guest appearance at a Rolling Stones concert in 2006, see https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2006/apr/09/stones-deliver-satisfaction-despite-shanghais/

However, for most of today’s Chinese youth, Cui Jian is an ancient fossil: the majority prefers the easy listening Asian pop or Voice of China pulp. They are not aware of or interested in the events of June 4 1989, which are still taboo in the Chinese media today. Rock and heavy metal bands do still exist, but none of them have had the impact of Cui Jian with his song “Nothing to my name”.

Prosperity in China has grown tremendously and the big cities offer plenty of entertainment, but there is no real freedom. Government interference is large, erratic and unpredictable. The Chinese surveillance state has been perfected with modern technology. The pressure for Chinese youth to perform is enormous. Inappropriate behavior is very risky. Anyone who fails or goes against the government risks social scorn and exclusion, penance and / or a hefty punishment. Nationalism prevails, self-criticism and reflection are rare, a somewhat similar trend as elsewhere in the world. Cui Jian will no doubt be saddened by these developments, but he perseveres as an artist nonetheless. Fortunately, his anthem song lives on even though my tape has not survived!


  1. The French drummer Xavier (I can’t remember nor find his last name) returns to Europe in 1991 with his German girlfriend who is pregnant at that time. I have lost contact with this couple.
  2. wanna know more about youth cultures, the pop and rock scene in China, check out the website of professor jeroen de kloet http://jeroendekloet.nl/ en ook
  3. http://china2025.nl/
  4. https://www.whatsonweibo.com/the-early-days-of-rock-in-china-interview-with-sinologist-hardrocker-jeroen-den-hengst/

Lyrics “Nothing to my name”

我曾经问个不休 Wǒ céngjīng wèn gè bùxiū I have asked endlessly,

你何时跟我走 nǐ héshí gēn wǒ zǒu when will you go with me?

可你却总是笑我,一无所有 Kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ, yīwúsuǒyǒu But you always laugh at me, for having nothing to my name.

我要给你我的追求 Wǒ yào gěi nǐ wǒ de zhuīqiú I want to give you my dreams [goals] ,

还有我的自由 hái yǒu wǒ de zìyóu and my freedom,

可你却总是笑我,一无所有 kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ, yīwúsuǒyǒu but you always laugh at me, for having nothing.

噢……你何时跟我走 Ō……nǐ héshí gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! When will you go with me?

噢……你何时跟我走 Ō……nǐ héshí gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! When will you go with me?

[drums come in fully]

脚下这地在走 Jiǎoxià zhè de zài zǒu The ground beneath my feet is moving,

身边那水在流 shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú the water by my side is flowing,

可你却总是笑我,一无所有 Kě nǐ què zǒng shì xiào wǒ, yīwúsuǒyǒu but you always laugh at me, for having nothing.

为何你总笑个没够 Wèihé nǐ zǒng xiào gè méi gòu Why is your laughter never enough? [Why does your laughter never end?]

为何我总要追求 Wèihé wǒ zǒng yào zhuīqiú Why do I always have to chase you?

难道在你面前 Nándào zài nǐ miànqián Could it be that in front of you

我永远是一无所有 wǒ yǒngyuǎn shì yīwúsuǒyǒu I forever have nothing to my name.

噢……你何时跟我走 Ō……nǐ héshí gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! When will you go with me?

噢……你何时跟我走 Ō……nǐ héshí gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! When will you go with me?

[instrumental solo]

告诉你我等了很久 Gàosu nǐ wǒ děngle hěnjiǔ I tell you I’ve waited a long time,

告诉你我最后的要求 gàosu nǐ wǒ zuìhòu de yāoqiú I give you my final request,

我要抓起你的双手 wǒ yào zhuā qǐ nǐ de shuāng shǒu I want to take your hands,

你这就跟我走 nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu and then you’ll go with me.

这时你的手在颤抖 Zhèshí nǐ de shǒu zài chàndǒu This time your hands are trembling,

这时你的泪在流 zhèshí nǐ de lèi zài liú this time your tears are flowing.

莫非你是在告诉我 Mòfēi nǐ shì zài gàosu wǒ Could it be that you’re telling me,

你爱我一无所有 nǐ ài wǒ yīwúsuǒyǒu you love me with nothing to me name?

噢……你这就跟我走 Ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! Now you will go with me!

噢……你这就跟我走 Ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! Now you will go with me!

[instrumental solo]

噢……你这就跟我走 Ō……nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu Oh! Now you will go with me!

Cui Jian – Rock ‘N’ Roll on the New Long March (崔健 – 新长征路上的摇滚), 1989
Cui Jian – Do It All Over Again (崔健 – 从头再来), 1989

Rocker and sinologist Jeroen den Hengst does still have a special bond with China and sometimes performs there with his wife Monique Klemann. She has made a song in 2016 with the Chinese Jazz singer Coco Zhao (1977)

Monique Klemann & Coco Zhao the jazz singer from China, “COOOL” PHONOGRAPHIC COPYRIGHT & © 2016 ZIP RECORDS © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.