Nothing to My Name
|Nothing to My Name|
Cover artwork from the overseas release of the album Nothing to My Name
"Nothing to My Name" (also known in as "I Have Nothing") is a 1986 Mandarin-language rock song by Cui Jian. It is widely considered Cui's most famous and most important work, and one of the most influential songs in the history of the People's Republic of China, both as a seminal point in the development of Chinese rock and roll and as a political sensation. The song was an unofficial anthem for Chinese youth and activists during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Both in its lyrics and instruments, the song mixes traditional Chinese styles with modern rock elements. In the lyrics, the speaker addresses a girl who is scorning him because he has nothing. However, the song has also been interpreted as being about the dispossessed youth of the time, because it evokes a sense of disillusionment and lack of individual freedom that was common among the young generation during the 1980s.
By the late 1970s, Western rock music was gaining popularity in mainland China. After the Cultural Revolution ended in the mid-1970s and the government began a period of economic reform called gaige kaifang, many students and businessmen went abroad and brought back Western music. Chinese singers began performing covers of popular Western rock songs.
At the same time, Chinese society and the Chinese government were quickly abandoning Maoism, and promoting economic policies that had a more capitalist orientation. Many Chinese teens and students were becoming disillusioned with their government, which they felt had abandoned its ideals. Because of the rapid economic changes, many of them felt that they had no opportunities and no individual freedom. These developments formed the background against which "Nothing to My Name" appeared in 1986.
Music and lyrics
Cui Jian was heavily influenced by Western artists such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Talking Heads; in the late 1980s he even performed with a hair style modeled on that of John Lennon. In "Nothing to My Name" and other songs, he intentionally altered the sounds of traditional Chinese musical instruments by mixing them with elements of rock music, such as electric guitar. He also purposely divorced his musical style from that of the revolutionary songs and proletarian operas that were common under Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution—for example, he performed his music very loud, as high as 150 decibels, just because Mao had considered loud music disruptive to the social order.
Lyrics and meaning
Sample of the first verse and chorus of "Nothing to My Name", demonstrating the lyrics and the mixing of traditional Chinese instruments with rock elements.
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Throughout the song, the narrator addresses an unidentified girl, asking "When will you come with me", and lamenting the fact that she laughs at him for having nothing to his name. He tells her he wants to give her his hopes and bring her freedom, that "the earth is turning under your feet" and "the waters of life are flowing free", yet she persists in scorning him. He asks why she laughs at the pack he carries on his back, and he wonders why he keeps on going, with nothing to his name. At last, he tells her that he has waited for a long time, and that this is his final plea: he wants to grab her by the hands, to "take you away with me". As he sees her hands tremble, and her eyes "overflow with tears", he asks her, "Do you really mean to tell me, you love me as I am?"
Interpretations of the song's meaning vary from one listener to the next; some people view it as a song about love and desire, while others understand it as a political metaphor, the lyrics being addressed as much to the Chinese nation as to a girlfriend. University of Florida scholar Jonathan Matusitz describes the song's lyrics as a means of expressing politically sensitive ideas that could not be stated through any other medium. In this interpretation, the lyrics near the beginning, "I've asked you without end / When will you go with me / But you always laughed at me / for having nothing to my name" ("我曾经问个不休/你何时跟我走/可你却总是笑我/一无所有") are taken to express the "humiliation and lack of individuality, possession, and personal freedom", the "sense of loss and disorientation" among China's youth in the 1980s. Ethnomusicologist Timothy Brace has described this common analysis of the song lyrics as "recast[ing] the setting of this piece from that of a boy talking to his girlfriend to that of a youthful generation talking to the nation as a whole." The ambiguity is heightened by the structure of the phrase yī wú suŏ yŏu, an idiomatic chengyu. It literally means "to have nothing" and has no grammatical subject. Therefore, it can be interpreted as meaning "I have nothing" (implying that it is a song about two people), or "we have nothing" (understanding it as social commentary).
The narrator of the song worries that the girl he is addressing will ignore him because he has nothing to give her; likewise, the song's audience in the 1980s—young students and workers—were also suffering from not having resources to marry, to be with their girlfriends and boyfriends, or to attract members of the opposite sex. The lyrics also express Western concepts of individualism, and were some of the first popular song lyrics in China to promote self-expression and self-empowerment. This put the song in stark contrast with older music, which had emphasized conformity and obedience. As the narrator, later on in the song, confidently proclaims to the girl that he will "grab her hands" ("我要抓起你的双手") and then she will go with him ("你这就跟我走"), he suggests in the end that she can love the fact that he has nothing ("莫非你是正在告诉我/你爱我一无所有"). On one level, this suggests that the song is about "love conquering all", but the line has also been interpreted as threatening, and suggestive of an unorthodox and "Dionysian" mix of love and aggression.
Just as Cui adapts traditional Chinese sounds and instruments to a new format, in "Nothing to My Name" he also reappropriates traditional Chinese lyrical tropes. The lines "The earth under your feet is moving / The water around your body is flowing" ("脚下的地在走/身边的水在流") are reminiscent of the use of natural imagery in classical Chinese poetry and music, but here are intended to evoke the events going on around the song's listeners, and to provoke them to rebel against the established order.
Release and impact
Cui wrote "Nothing to My Name" himself and first performed it on a televised music competition in May 1986, with his band ADO. The song was an instant success, creating a "sensation" and turning Cui into a cult figure among urban youth. It was one of the first examples of Chinese, as opposed to imported, rock and roll music to gain popularity in China. The government-controlled People's Daily gave the song a positive review, despite its politically sensitive message. The song was included on Cui's 1989 album Rock 'n' Roll on the New Long March, released by the China Tourism Sound and Video Publishing Company. (The version of the album released overseas was called Nothing to My Name.) By 1989, it had become a "battle song" or "anthem" among the youth movement.
Cui performed the song live at the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The performances by Cui and other rock artists during the protests have been described as "a revolutionary few days that rocked a nation," and many protesters sang "Nothing to My Name" to give voice to their rebellion against the government, and their desire for personal freedom and self-expression. Brace describes how, during Cui's Tiananmen performance, students "jumped to their feet and began to sing," a practice that had rarely happened at music performances in China before then. Not long after Tiananmen, Cui was restricted to playing in small venues; he did not play before a large audience in Beijing again until 2005.
Cui has become known as the "Father of Chinese Rock", and "Nothing to My Name" has become his most famous song. It has been described as "the biggest hit in Chinese history" and the beginning of Chinese rock.
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