Remembering Tiananmen with Music
For the first time, there will (probably) be no vigil to commemorate the 32th year anniversary of the repression of the Tiananmen movement in the Sinophone world, due to the COVID situation in Taiwan, or the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong – the organiser of Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil was arrested on June 4. Another way to commemorate this sad anniversary is to listen to the songs produced over the years in support of the movement or to mourn the fallen students.
- Cui Jian 崔健
- He Yong 何勇
- Hou Dejian 侯德健
- Teresa Teng 鄧麗君
- Hong Kong, “為自由”
- Taiwan, “历史的伤口”
- Jacky Cheung 张学友, Lowell Lo 盧冠廷
- Tat Ming Pair 達明一派
- Li Zhi 李志
- SMZB 生命之餅
- Ordnance 軍械所
- Muma 木馬
- Carsick Cars
- Hiperson 海朋森
- My Little Airport
Cui Jian 崔健
It’s now a cliché to remind that Cui Jian’s song “一无所有” (“Nothing to my Name”) was the anthem of the students during the 1989 democratic movement. Cui Jian and He Yong performed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, as shown in this audio record of Cui Jian’s concert on May 20th 1989 in Tiananmen:
The crackdown on the student movement came also with an increased control of popular music. For instance, Cui Jian was forbidden from performing in Beijing until 2007. However, 1990s musical production was influenced by the crackdown, in the music itself or through the despair in the lyrics. In Cui Jian’s “The Last Bullet” (“最后一枪”) we think of bullets being shot when we hear the drums, and see the distress of the singer in the MV directed by the (then) independent director Zhang Yuan 张元:
He Yong 何勇
He Yong’s “Garbage Dump” (“垃圾场”) is perhaps the song that reflects the most accurately the post-Tiananmen state of mind. The proto-punk ask the audience if “there is still hope” (“有没有希望”) in a society where “humans eat conscience and shit ideology”:
Hou Dejian 侯德健
Apart from Cui Jian and He Yong, other rockers, from China or Taiwan, participated in the 1989 democratic movement. Hou Dejian 侯德健, a popular Taiwanese singer, was with the students up until the end, negotiating alongside Liu Xiaobo with the authorities the retreat of the students from the square. In this video taken in Hong Kong during a demonstration in favor of the Chinese students on May 27, 1989, Hou Dejian sang his hit-song “Descendants of the Dragon” (“龍的傳人”), written in 1978, which he modified after 1989 – he changed the lyrics “black eyes, black hair, yellow skin” after meeting the Uyghur student leader Wuer Kaixi, since being Chinese does not mean to be ethnically “Han”. Unfortunately for his symbolic posterity, Hou Dejian recently composed a song praising Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”.
Teresa Teng 鄧麗君
During this demonstration in support of the Chinese student movement in Hong Kong, the very popular Taiwanese singer Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng) sang for the first time the song “My Home is in this Mountain” (家在山那边 – a song from a Taiwan nationalist movie). At that time, Teresa Teng was the most popular popstar in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Asia in general, to the extent that there was a popular saying in China up until the 1990s stating that “Old Deng [Xiaoping] rules by day, little Deng [Lijun] rules by night”:
Like Hou Dejian, Teresa Teng and dozen of other artists (as Jackie Chan, yes), the Hong Kong rock band Beyond participated to the Concert for Democracy in China of May 1989. They sang “Great Earth” 大地, adding a part in Mandarin. In December 1989, at a concert in Hong Kong, they also covered Cui Jian’s “一無所有”, dedicated to the fallen students.
Gene Lau, Beyond’s lyricist, began to write more political and dark songs, as shown by Beyond’s 1992 hit song, “Great Wall” 長城, an explicit attack on the Chinese regime, since “we can’t hear the cries of the people on that day” (那裡那天不在聽到在呼號的人).
Hong Kong, “為自由”
Hong Kong Cantopop singers showed their solidarity by recording a song entitled “All For Freedom” 為自由 on May 23, 1989, whose lyrics were also printed in local newspapers. The song itself is sung by 150 Cantopop singers in Cantonese, with four sentences in Mandarin, in order to establish a dialogue with Beijing students. The song was released commercially and went to the top chart for three weeks. “為自由” became a classic at the annual Tiananmen vigil, sung by all the participants, alongside “Flowers of Freedom” 自由花 (a melody taken from a song by the Taiwanese singer Zheng Zhihua), or “Bloodstained Glory” 血染的风采 (originally a Chinese patriotic song during the Sino-Vietnamese war).
As in Hong Kong, Taiwan artists performed a collective song in support of the Tiananmen student movement, on May 28, 1989. The song, entitled “历史的伤口” (The Wound of History), was sung by dozens of Taiwanese artists, as “The Little Tigers”, Sky Wu, Li Zongsheng or Samuel Tai.
Jacky Cheung 张学友, Lowell Lo 盧冠廷
1989 was a traumatizing experience for Hong Kong artists, 8 years before the handover of the British colony to the PRC. Jacky Cheung’s famous song, written by Cantopop Godfather James Wong, “The Path of Man” (人间道), refers directly to the June 4th massacre, according to the late lyricist: “The youth are angry, heaven and earth are weeping… How did our land become a sea of blood? How did the path home become a path of no return?”. It has been removed from the Chinese internet since 2019.
Among the many other Hong Kong Cantopop artists who produced songs inspired by the Tiananmen movement, we can also cite Lowell Lo, who released the album “1989” in reaction to the repression:
Tat Ming Pair 達明一派
For the 30 year anniversary of Tiananmen, the Hong Kong post-rock band Tat Ming Pair 達明一派 paid his own tribute to the democratic movement with the beautiful song “Criminal Memory” (回憶有罪) which lashes out at Chinese censorship in this sumptuous music video. The video uses iconic photos of the 1989 crackdown, and finishes with an evocation of the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution of 2014. Tat Ming Pair knows firsthand the mechanism of official censorship, since their songs were recently censored by Apple in its Chinese Apple Store, alongside other important figures of Cantopop music like Jackie Cheung. Anthony Wong, the singer of Tat Ming Pair, sang “回憶有罪” during the Hong Kong vigil on June 4th, 2019 at Victoria Park, in front of 180.000 people.
Li Zhi 李志
Li Zhi is one of the most famous Chinese folk-singer. Unfortunately, he was arrested before his big Sichuan tour in 2019, and released last year. Li Zhi was probably targeted because of the content of his songs, which make reference to the Tiananmen democratic movement, but also because of his recent legal troubles, the folk singer indeed sued the TV Show “The Coming One” (明日之子) for using his songs without his authorization. It goes without saying that his songs mentioning the 1989 student movement – which he now doesn’t sing during live performances – were the first targeted by the Chinese authorities. Two of his songs clearly mention 1989: “The Square” (广场), a reference to the Tiananmen Square and the June 4th crackdown; and “Goddess” (女神), which reminds of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue erected by the students of the Central Academy of Fine Arts on May 30th, 1989.
What about the new generation of musicians who didn’t experienced the 1989 crackdown? Against all odds, since the late 1990s, punks and rockers made reference to the democratic movement and its crackdown – more or less clearly. The Wuhanese punk band SMZB is perhaps the most straightforward band when they talk about 1989. In its song “Mother TAM”, SMZB talks about the Tiananmen Mothers, an association led by Ding Zilin, which tries to establish what happened during the June 4th crackdown:
We can even say that the entire work of SMZB is dedicated to the history of the oppressed in contemporary China, from Lin Zhao to the petitioners, and more specifically to the memory of the 1989 students. We could list a lot of other songs, as “China Dream”, but the most obvious reference to Tiananmen is the cover of SMZB album “A Letter From China” which literally piss on censorship:
Ordnance was probably one of the most political metal band in China. In 2011, they released an EP intitled “Becoming A Citizen” 成為公民, a reference to the New Citizen movement that was going on in China at the time. They printed in their leaflet a letter from the Tiananmen mothers.
Other singers made reference to Tiananmen, like the band Muma (木马), from Changsha, in their poetic and melancholic song “舞步” (“Dance Step”) on “the death of teachers in spring” (春天老師們死了). Here Muma is performing the song in the 46 Livehouse in Changsha (the name of the bar itself is a reference to June 4th), in the documentary “The Sound and the City” (“渔湾市”). “What comes next, it’s your decision”:
Muma participated to last year’s “The Big Band” 樂隊的夏天. They unexpectedly chose to sing this song on the popular iQiyi show. Of course, they had to change the lyrics (the teachers “left” during the spring – 春天老師們走了), but it was a powerful and bold move – even if it was sad.
The post-punk band P.K.14 from Nanjing sang the most beautiful tribute to the students in “这辆红色的列车” (“This Red Train”). A red train carrying the blood of the youth (“年轻的血”):
The post-rock band Carsick Cars, known for their musical experimentation and their subtle lyrics, have in their first album a song called “The Square” (广场), about “a place without hope” (一个没有希望的广场)…
Another rock band, Ruins 废墟, has a song called “广场” (The Square – in their 2004 album “像叶子一样飞” Glide like a leaf) – clearly a topos for rock bands when conjuring the memory of Tiananmen.
Speaking about “Square”, the best post-punk band from Chengdu Hiperson released in 2018 their album “She Came Back From the Square”. In their 2020 album “Bildungsroman”, the song “Xindu People” states that “A state is further away than a romance / A square is further away than a dance”.
The punk band SUBS in their 2006 album “Down” sing “Brother”, a song talking about the brother of a friend who died and whose memory is being forgotten: “In 1989/I was ten/My friend was eleven/His brother disappeared/A film is shown every ten years/We have already grown to manhood now/He has forgotten…his brother”.
My Little Airport
Not directly linked to Tiananmen, the song “Donald Tsang Please Die” by the Hong Kong indie-rock band My Little Airport is a response to the then Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s controversial comment back in 2009: “I understand Hong Kong people’s feelings about June 4, but the incident happened many years ago. The country’s development in many areas has since achieved tremendous results and brought economic prosperity to Hong Kong. I believe Hong Kong people will make an objective assessment of the nation’s development.” A song that would certainly be banned today.