Deng Xiaoping’s reforms created a multi-headed hydra of dissenters, assembling in Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1989 under the guise of mourning a recently departed Party dignitary, but refusing to leave and camping out for a month. Many of the protesters were students who felt that Deng’s reforms had not gone far enough, either in policing corrupt officialdom or in implementing democracy – an always-difficult issue in the People’s Republic, where the rule of the Communist Party was regarded as the ultimate and final implementation of the will of the people. It was this faction that erected the hastily constructed effigy of a “Goddess of Democracy,” holding a torch aloft, defiantly facing the portrait of Mao himself on the front of the Tiananmen gate. But others in the Square were laid-off workers protesting that Deng’s reforms had gone too far, and demanding greater state controls.
Some of the protesters in the square sung ‘The Internationale,’ a Communist anthem establishing them firmly as inheritors and supporters of the ideals of the People’s Republic, but insinuating that perhaps Deng had lost his way. The Chinese lyrics go something like this:
Arise, slaves afflicted by hunger and cold,
Arise, suffering people all over the world!
The blood which fills my chest has boiled over,
We must struggle for truth!
The old world shall be destroyed like fallen petals and splashed water,
Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say that we have nothing,
We shall be the masters of the world!
Others, however, found a touchstone in a much more recent song, ‘Nothing to My Name’ (Yi Wu Suoyou) by the pop star Cui Jian, who came to the Square to sing to the crowds, leading to a ban on him performing in Beijing for much of the following decade. Framed as an unrequited love poem, sung by a boy to a girl who spurns his advances, the song evokes a sense of loss and marginalization.
I have asked you endlessly, will you go with me? / But you always laugh at me / I have nothing to my name.
I want to give you my dreams and my freedom / But you always laugh at me / I have nothing to my name.
Its proverbial title contains a double meaning. “Yi Wu Suoyou” contains no subject; it could be a lament that boy is poor, but it could equally be a comment that both of the couple are missing out – on money, on success, on opportunity. He could be complaining that he has nothing to his name, or he could be commenting on their shared situation – neither of them has anything. Both are being swindled by powers beyond their control. But the real provocation, and something that seems to have passed most observers by, is that “yi wu suoyou”, was a direct lift from the Chinese translation of ‘The Internationale’ – “do not say we have nothing” and “nothing to my name” were two sides of the same argument.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. He spends too much time thinking about song lyrics in a historical context.