The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is the song of Tiananmen: ‘Blindfold my eyes and cover the sky’

The cover art for Cui Jian's 1986 single, "Nothing to My Name."

On May 20, 1989, a Chinese singer and guitarist named Cui Jian walked onto the makeshift stage at Tiananmen Square. Thousands of protesters had held the square for weeks; their calls for political and economic reforms had inspired similar protests in dozens of Chinese cities, panicking the Communist Party leadership. The mood, though tense because of the troops surrounding the square, was still hopeful. No one knew that troops were to massacre hundreds of civilians 15 days later.

Cui was already in famous in China, where his rock-and-roll attitude had shaken up a staid pop music scene and captured the imaginations of Chinese youth eager for something new and free-spirited. The crowds at Tiananmen were thrilled to receive him. "If you were there, it felt like a big party," he later told the British newspaper the Independent. "There was no fear. It was nothing like it was shown on CNN and the BBC."

The singer, ever a showman, wrapped a red blindfold over his eyes, a symbol of both the Communist Party and its attitude toward the problems that, according to the protesters, needed urgent reform. He later wrote in Time, "I covered my eyes with a red cloth to symbolize my feelings. The students were heroes. They needed me, and I needed them."

He sang two songs. "Nothing to My Name," a video of which is embedded above (lyrics in English at bottom), quickly became an unofficial anthem of the protest movement and, later, a symbol of its tragic defeat. The song, which tells the story of a poor boy pleading with his girlfriend to accept his love though he has nothing, had made him famous three years earlier. Though Cui insists the song has no political meaning, it captured the changing – and politically charged – mood among China's increasingly activist youth. It conveys disillusionment and dispossession but also a sense of hope: exactly the attitudes that electrified Tiananmen and the similar protests across China.

"Back then, people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual they picked up on it," he told the Independent, in explaining the success of "Nothing to My Name". "When they sang the song, it was as if they were expressing what they felt."

At Tiananmen that day, Cui also sang "A Piece of Red Cloth," a video of which is below (lyrics in English at bottom) and which he called "a tune about alienation" in his Time article. It refers to a red blindfold, like that he wore in his performance, and though the lyrics are vague it certainly sounds like a reference to the Communist Party's sternly authoritarian rule. Recall that the violent Cultural Revolution had ended in 1977, a decade before he wrote the song; the Party's totalitarian era was over by 1989 but was not as distant then as it is today.

"I was really clear about standing on the students' side," Cui told the BBC. "But not everyone liked what I did. Someone said, 'Get out of the square. Don't hurt the students' health - they are very weak.'"

He left Tiananmen by June 4, when troops from the 27th Army Group moved in and shot hundreds of civilians, clearing the square and abruptly ending the protest movement in a crackdown that so shook China that censors still forbid even the most oblique reference. But they could never stop people from listening to "Nothing to My Name." The song is just too popular, even if not all of its listeners still remember its significance.

After the crackdown, Cui was still a big Chinese star. The authorities, perhaps not anticipating the anger around the June 1989 crackdown or the rebelliousness of rock musicians, allowed him to go on tour the next year. He performed in peasant clothes and wearing a red blindfold, an obvious nod to the protests and massacre. "Nothing to My Name" quickly became not just an anthem of the protests but their elegy, a way to remember the crackdown. A September 1990 show before 10,000 fans in Beijing's Workers Stadium was the last large-scale concert that Chinese authorities allowed their country's biggest rock star to make.

The man known as the grandfather of Chinese rock and roll is still playing in his home country, though rarely in venues larger than a bar or hotel lobby. A scholar of Chinese pop music, Jonathan Campbell, has said, “I can’t think of someone who has ever been more worthy than Cui Jian for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Campbell explained, “He’s Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen, whose songs made people suddenly realize that there are things going on about which we don’t know and ought to, and singing with the voice of the people not often represented in popular culture.”

In a recent interview with Vice, Cui lamented that Chinese youth today listen mostly to Western music. "China has such huge history and culture, and then [Chinese people] just want to leave that alone and listen to the Western music or culture," he said. Like the Tiananmen crackdown itself, Cui's anthems are both remembered and forgotten, too significant to ignore but increasingly repressed by a government eager to move on and youth who have other, more present concerns.

Here are the lyrics for "Nothing to My Name":

I have asked endlessly,
when will you go with me?
But you always laugh at me, for having nothing to my name.
I want to give you my dreams [goals],
and my freedom,
but you always laugh at me, for having nothing.
Oh! When will you go with me?
Oh! When will you go with me?
The ground beneath my feet is moving,
the water by my side is flowing,
but you always laugh at me, for having nothing.
Why is your laughter never enough?
[Why does your laughter never end?]
Why do I always have to chase you?
Could it be that in front of you
I forever have nothing to my name.
Oh! When will you go with me?
Oh! When will you go with me?
I tell you I’ve waited a long time,
I give you my final request,
I want to take your hands,
and then you’ll go with me.
This time your hands are trembling,
this time your tears are flowing.
Could it be that you’re telling me,
you love me with nothing to me name?
Oh! Now you will go with me!

Here are the lyrics for "A Piece of Red Cloth":

That day you used a piece of red cloth
to blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky
You asked me what I had seen
I said I saw happiness
This feeling really made me comfortable
made me forget I had no place to live
You asked where I wanted to go
I said I want to walk your road
I couldn’t see you, and I couldn’t see the road
You grabbed both me hands and wouldn’t let go
You asked what I was thinking
I said I want to let you be my master
I have a feeling that you aren’t made of iron
but you seem to be as forceful as iron
I felt that you had blood on your body
because your hands were so warm
This feeling really made me comfortable
made me forget I had no place to live
You asked where I wanted to go
I said I want to walk your road
I had a feeling this wasn’t a wilderness
though I couldn’t see it was already dry and cracked
I felt that I wanted to drink some water
but you used a kiss to block off my mouth
I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to cry
Because my body is already withered and dry
I want to always accompany you this way
Because I know your suffering best
That day you used a piece of red cloth
to blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky
You asked me what I could see
I said I could see happiness