In 2006, I took a long, slow walk around Tiananmen Square, trying to imagine the horrors faced by the untold hundreds (thousands?) of student protestors who were massacred by the army that was supposed to protect them in June 1989.

I knew this: Before the tanks rolled in, there was music. Much of it was from Cui Jian, one of the very first Chinese rock stars. Taking cues from records by the Beatles, the Stones and the Talking Heads smuggled in from Bangkok and Hong Kong, he started writing music.

In 1986, he released his first album, Rock And Roll On The New Long March. It eventually established him as the Father of Chinese Rock and even “the Bruce Springsteen of modern China.”

The comparison isn’t inaccurate. By 1989, his biggest song was Nothing To My Name, which resonated the same way Born To Run did. The narrator of the song pleads with a girl to go with him, but she scorns him for being poor. Although it works as a typical boy-girl love song, it was also seen metaphorically as a very political song, extolling anti-socialist concepts such as individualism.

Others interpreted it as a dialogue with China itself. A rock song said things that could never be expressed in public.

By the time students began occupying the square that spring, Nothing To My Name had been adopted as their anthem. Cui was flattered and inspired by the risks the protestors were taking so he, sporting a John Lennon-like haircut, often showed up to talk and occasionally sing with the students. No wonder he was embraced by some of the prominent leaders of the movement.

Then came June 4, 1989. Cui and other rock musicians were forced to hide out in the provinces for almost a year. Even after it was safe to come back to Beijing, playing gigs were risky for the next 10 years.

It wasn’t until he was able to play a show in Capital Stadium in September 2005 that Beijing’s unofficial ban on his music came to an end.

During my visit to Tiananmen Square in March 2006, Rolling Stone published its first Chinese edition. The guy on the cover? Cui Jian. This was also the last Chinese Rolling Stone. Within a week, its publishing licence was taken away by the government.


– The Ongoing History Of New Music can be heard on stations across Canada. Read more at and