Return of the Red Cloth

cui_jian_tiananmen_squareI keep asking endlessly

When will you go with me?

But you just laugh at me

I’ve nothing to my name.

I’ll give you my dreams,

and give you my freedom.

But you just laugh at me

I’ve nothing to my name.

One of China’s most famous musicians is coming to Shanghai. Cui Jian is often called the father of Chinese rock. Cui, the son of ethnic Korean parents, started out as a trumpet player, but gained fame by playing the rock song “Yi Wu Suo You” (“Nothing to my Name”) on a televised talent show in 1987. It promptly blew up into a protest anthem. He played Tiananmen Square in May, 1989, and was associated with the demonstrations there. After that political misstep, as well as after singing thinly veiled protests songs in concerts around Beijing in a red blindfold, he was relieved of his livelihood by the government. But he seems to be back now and it should be a welcome return.

Lao Cui is a genuine national treasure because of his courage and sacrifice. China has contained so much muffled heartache that it is intriguing to hear something that was immeasurably important to people during a momentous time period. Can you imagine playing Tiananmen in front of a multitude of hopeful youths, on the eve of one of the most infamously momentous occasions of the 20th Century? It makes a packed show at YuYinTang look like a tea party. Dude was playing shows laden with controversial lyrics while wearing a red blindfold in the 80s. For real. And then, 20 years later, it is as if it never happened, like altered Soviet photos with the executed cut out. However, considering the propagandist prowess of the Party, the surprise is not that he went down for a bit, but rather that he came back. In Cui’s own words:

I performed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, 15 days before the crackdown. I sang “A Piece of Red Cloth”, a tune about alienation. I covered my eyes with a red cloth to symbolize my feelings. The students were heroes. They needed me, and I needed them. After Tiananmen, however, the authorities banned concerts. We performed instead at “parties,” unofficial shows in hotels and restaurants.

You will notice Cui’s clever and necessary verbal subterfuge in that quote, referring to a song that he performed with a red blindfold on as being about “alienation.” It should be stated that Cui has never been overtly political, but his lyrics constantly play a game of brinksmanship with the boundaries of authoritarian patience.

For this reason, I love “Yi Wu Suo You” (Commonly translated as “Nothing to my Name”). The lyrics are intentionally ambiguous, but it would take a dolt to misunderstand the subtext. This powerful, yet subtle song is alluring, especially considering the surrounding hubbub. The lyrics could ostensibly mean anything, but the song’s tone is desperately urgent. There are several different parts to the song, ranging from the melodramatic opening salvo and suona solo, to the peppy funk interlude, to the joyous conclusion where (in a live video) the band begins jumping around onstage and doing that jumping/marching/dancing thing like the Talking Heads in “Stop Making Sense”. The drama in the interplay between Western rock and Chinese music elements is jarring, but somehow it feels good. Cui’s voice is like a rusted gate swinging on its decrepit hinges and the sound is big, emboldened by Cui’s impassioned howls, all the bigger for its brash implications.

This type of music makes me think about a time when music mattered in China, not just something to play while ex-pats drink, spokes models sashay, or costumed animals gesticulate. This music signifies an era when political figures were scared about what art could do and what might happen next. Cui Jian’s music was a symbol of hope, a hope that has now devolved into resignation.

Check out Cui Jian on the JZ Music Festival’s Rock & Folk stage in Century Park, Sunday October 18th, from 7-8 PM. No one knows exactly what his set will be like, but expect a little more jazz and probably more trumpet from Lao Cui.

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