Rock under the Red Flag: “A Piece of Red Cloth” by Cui Jian

By Ya-Hui Cheng

Cui Jian, Chinese writer and musician, has long been an iconic symbol representing the voice of Chinese youth in the 1980s.<1> In particular, he is remembered for his performances of “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth” during the landmark 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest.<2> Debuting in 1986, “Nothing to My Name” was a groundbreaking song that demonstrated an authentic Chinese style of rock by applying folk tunes from the northwestern province that portray yearning from the Chinese youth who struggle with life’s challenges in a quickly transforming world. The song reverberated with those who sought a return to their cultural roots during the 1980s after China had adopted the capitalist model in 1978 to reform the economy. This return to Chinese cultural roots portrays rock music’s ability, as suggested by Firth, to “ express and reflect its audience’s concerns.”<3> As such, the song presented a successful example of fusing Western and Eastern musical ideas to portray the voice of Chinese youth for the commercial industry. “Nothing to My Name” was released on the album titled Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March in 1989.<4>

“A Piece of Red Cloth,” instead, is a slower tempo, rock ballad. It lacks the influence of Chinese folk tunes as a result of replacing the folk sounds with the Chinese Gu pentatonic scale. This song was written in 1988 and was officially released on the album titled Solution in 1991.<5> It demonstrates a stronger influence of Western rock than “Nothing to My Name” as the melody utilized the pentatonic scale to mimic popular Western melodies.<6> “A Piece of Red Cloth”  became an iconic piece to symbolize the Chinese social movement after the 1989 Tiananmen event where Cui covered his eyes with a piece of red cloth to perform for students. This image was included in Cui’s music video, which spread across the globe to remind people of this social event.<7> In addition, the video presents a social message based on Cui’s observation of an existing numbing attitude that had circulated around the Chinese Communist state and among people in the society. Cui reveals this sense of detachment by covering his eyes with a red cloth, implying numbness and also the unseen. This numbness and desensitization towards social issues increased the frustrations of China’s youth, who witnessed that many people had turned a blind eye to reality as a result from living under a collective social nuance. The song and video became  metaphoric symbols that both critiqued social passivity and the youth’s desire to push forward to reform.

While “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth” have been popular for decades, the latter song contains a deeper social message and extends its influence from the generation of the 1980s back to the 1960s. Chinese popular music critic and author Jin Zhaojun has suggested that its lyrics presented the “innermost sorrow” to reassess the communist revolutionary ideology.<8> For the 1960s generation, the first group born under the red flag, and others who had experienced the Chinese cultural revolution, the image of the red cloth would have immediately implied the communist revolutionary ideology. The lyrics in which the master used a piece of red cloth to cover the protagonist presents the implication that the state uses the revolutionary ideology to cover the mass’s sight and creates a blinding collective nuance that separates people from the reality. The blindness allows one to become unmotivated thus creating social problems that prohibited the society from moving forward.

Cui Jian – A Piece of Red Cloth

Musically, this piece is based on a contrasting verse and chorus structure (see Example 1). The lyrics in the verse portrays the protagonist’s enthusiasm to follow the master while being naive in considering other life paths. The melody in the verse presents a narrowness by limiting the vocal range within an interval of a perfect 5th between pitches A3 and E4. The chorus presents the inner contradiction of the protagonist who realizes the issues, but was dissuaded to accept them. The sense of contradiction is presented by raising the voice higher and extending the intervallic range to a sixth, from C4 to A4. In the post-chorus, the protagonist has been stuck with no way out. This part is the climax and depicts the protagonist’s emotions altered from frustration to empathy. Instead of complaining to the master, the protagonist becomes the master when both realize they share an innermost pain. The vocal range extends to an interval of a tenth, from A3 to C5. It contains a leap of a perfect 4th depicting a mixed feeling of sorrow and tolerance along with shifts of revolt to compliance. The accompaniment is based on an ostinato that consists of four chords from Bb to Eb and to c minor and Bb, which creates a drone in the background to hold one grounded in a repeating cycle. The aporic drone illustrates the inescapable helplessness creating a collective nuance in a society where most people can become numb.

Example 1: A Piece of Red Cloth – Structure and Lyric (Translation Mine)

Verse A1
That day, you used a piece of red cloth to cover my eyes and my sight,
You asked what I saw, I said I saw a completely delightful world.

Verse A2
Such a feeling comforts me, it makes me forget myself and I have nowhere to stay,
You asked me where I want to go, I said I want to follow your way.

Instrumental Interlude from Intro.

Verse A3
[I] Could not see you, I also could not see the road. My hands were held by you.
You asked what I was still thinking, I said I would let you decide my way.

Chorus B1
I feel you are not made by iron but you seem to be as strong and tough as iron,
I feel there has blood in your body because your hands are so hot.

Verse A2 Returns

Instrumental Interlude

Chorus B2
I feel this is not the wideness, but [I] could not see the land has already dry and dried
I feel I need some water, but you blocked me by putting your lips onto mine.

Chorus B2 Repeats

I could not go. Neither could I cry, because my body has dried out.
I want to stay with you in this way forever because I know most about your deepest pain.

Refrain & Instrumental Coda

“A Piece of Red Cloth” beautifully combines lyric and music to metaphorically reveal realistic social problems which evoke everyone to contemplate the red ideology and the unseen reality. Cui’s anxiety and sincerity are represented through rock to inspire people to alter the unsatisfied condition. It is through this earnest expression on the social problems of the time, Cui Jian and his music establish a Chinese rock spirit that became an iconic social symbol in the 1980s.

<1>See Jin 1989, Jones 1992, Baranovitch 2003, Wang 2005 and Matusitz 2010 to name a few.
<2>See Cui Jian’s Talk on Tiananmen Event on February 7, 2014 at New York University from Youtube. And, “This is the song of Tiananmen: ‘Blindfold my eyes and cover the sky’ by Max Fisher on June 4, 2014 from The Washington Post (last access on Dec 24, 2017).
<3>Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: Pantheon Books. 1981: 62.
<4>See Baranovitch, Nimrod. China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics, 1978-1997. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001:34.
<5>Jones Andrew. Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music. New York: Cornell University, 1992:23.
<6>See Jin, Zhaojun金兆钧. “Cui Jian and Chinese Rock.” 崔健與中國遙滾樂 Ren Min Yin Yue Publishing, no. 4, 1989: 33.
<7>See Max Fisher from The Washington Post.
<8>See Jin, 1989. Jin, Zhaojun is the editor of Ren Min Yin Yue (People’s Music) and the most influential popular music critic in China. I am in debt to Mr. Jin who pointed the significance of this song to me when I interviewed him in Beijing in Summer 2017.

Ya-Hui Cheng (Ph.D., Florida State U.), a native of Taiwan, is an assistant professor of music theory at University of South Florida. Her current research focus is on the emergence of Chinese popular music genres including jazz, rock and hip hop and their transitions between the capitalist and the socialist societies of Taiwan and China. In addition to popular music study, Cheng’s research interests also include Giacomo Puccini’s operas. She was the recipient of the National Opera Association Dissertation Competition Biennial prize on her Puccini research and also, the author of Puccini’s Women: Structuring the Role of Feminine in Puccini’s Opera.

Baranovitch, Nimrod. China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics, 

      1978-1997. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Bohlman, Philip. “Analysing Aporia.” Twentieth-Century Music 8/2 (2011): 133-151.
Fisher, Max. “This is the song of Tiananmen: ‘Blindfold my eyes and cover the sky’ on June 

     4, 2014 from The Washington Post (last access on Dec 24, 2017).
Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: 

     Pantheon Books, 1981.
Gries, Peter Hays. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkeley: 

     University of California Press, 2004.
Jin, Zhaojun 金兆钧. “Cui Jian and Chinese Rock.” (translation mine) 崔健與中國遙滾樂 Ren

      Min Yin Yue, no. 4 (1989): 32-33.
_____. The popularity under the Sun—Personal Experience with Chinese Popular Music 

     (translation mine) 光天化日之下的流行——亲历中国流行音乐. Ren Min Yin Tue 
     Publishing, 2002.
Jones Andrew. Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular
 New York: Cornell University, 1992.
Matusitz, Jonathan. “Semiotics of Music: Analysis of Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name,” the 

     Anthem for the Chinese Youths in the Post-Cultural Revolution Era,” The Journal of 
     Popular Culture, 43/1 (2010): 156-75.
McDougall, Bonnie S, ed. Popular Chinese Literature and Performing Arts in the
People’s Republic of China 1949-1979
. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Wang, Siqi 王思琦. Contemporary Unban Popular Music in China: A Study on the Interaction

      between Music and Social Cultural Environment 中国当代城市流行音乐:音乐与社会文
      化环境互动研究. Shanghai Century Publishing, 2009.

Sound Resources:
Cui Jian, “A Piece of Red Cloth” from album, Best of Cui Jian: 1989-1996 (Dong Xi Music, 

Cui Jian, “A Piece of Red Cloth”