Nothing to My Name / 一无所有

“Nothing to My Name” has been called the biggest hit song in Mainland Chinese history. If you’re only gonna learn one Chinese karaoke tune, this is the song. And if you’re looking for a poignant time to learn it, this is the month.

一无所有 / yīwúsuǒyǒu / Nothing to My Name

If you’re in Great Firewalled Youtube-blocking Mainland China you can see the video here (thanks, Ryan!). Listen to the mp3 here:

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一无所有 channeled the disillusionment, anxieties, hopes, frustrations, complaints, and rebellion of urban Mainlanders coming of age during the ideological thaw of 80’s China. They adopted it as their generation’s anthem. Even many 90’s kids (in their mid to late 20s now) still connect strongly to this song.

cuijianblindfold Nothing to My Name / 一无所有Cuī Jiàn (崔健) is often called “the father of Chinese rock.” He first performed “Nothing to My Name” on a TV talent show in 1985 and then at a major concert in 1986. China’s urban young people ate it up. This month marks the 20th anniversary of a third significant performance, but I’ll let you follow the links at the end of this post to discover the more dramatic and sensitive details about the significance of Cuī Jiàn and “Nothing to My Name.”

Lyrics & Guitar Chords
From the beginning people interpreted the ambiguous lyrics in different ways (politics, sex, love & economics). But it was no secret that the lyrics were intended to contain both national and critical meanings. Cuī Jiàn’s concerts, in which he’d perform with a red blindfold over his eyes and play other songs with more pointed lyrics, left little doubt as to the targets of the critique. Those ‘targets’ responded by banning Cuī Jiàn from playing any large, significant performances for over 15 years.

The vagueness of the lyrics leaves this song open to a wide variety of English renderings. The English translation below is based on the translation found at cuijian.com (see other English renderings here and here). The title literally could mean “having nothing” or “not having anything.”

The guitar chords in the download aren’t perfect, but close. If you catch any mistakes on that or the translation, let me know! Download: YiWuSuoYou.pdf

You can play the video or mp3 above and follow along here:

我曾经问个不休 / wǒ céngjīng wèn gè bùxiū
I’ve asked (you) endlessly

你何时跟我走 / nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
When will you go with me?

可你却总是笑我 / kě nǐ què zǒngshì xiào wǒ
But you always just laugh at me

一无所有 / yīwúsuǒyǒu
(with) nothing to my name

我要给你我的追求 / wǒ yào gěi nǐ wǒde zhuīqiú
I want to give you my dreams

还有我的自由 / háiyǒu wǒde zìyóu
(and I) also have my freedom (to give you)

可你却总是笑我 / kě nǐ què zǒngshì xiào wǒ
But you always just laugh at me

一无所有 / yīwúsuǒyǒu
(with) nothing to my name

 

噢 你何时跟我走 / ō nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! When will you go with me?

噢 你何时跟我走 / ō nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! When will you go with me?

 

脚下这地在走 / jiǎo xià zhè dì zài zǒu
The ground beneath my feet is moving

身边那水在流 / shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú
The water beside me is flowing

可你却总是笑我 / kě nǐ què zǒngshì xiào wǒ
But you always just laugh at me

一无所有 / yīwúsuǒyǒu
(with) nothing to my name

为何你总是笑个没够 / wèihé nǐ zǒngshì xiào gè méi gòu
Why is your laughter never enough?

为何我总要追求 / wèihé wǒ zǒng yào zhuīqiú
Why will I always search?

难道在你面前我永远 / nándào zài nǐ miànqián wǒ yǒngyuǎn
Could it be that before you I’ll forever…

是一无所有 / shì yīwúsuǒyǒu
…have nothing to my name?

 

噢 你何时跟我走 / ō nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! When will you go with me?

噢 你何时跟我走 / ō nǐ hé shí gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! When will you go with me?

[instrumental break]

脚下这地在走 / jiǎo xià zhè dì zài zǒu
The ground under my feet is moving

身边那水在流 / shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú
The water beside me is flowing

脚下这地在走 / jiǎo xià zhè dì zài zǒu
The ground under my feet is moving

身边那水在流 / shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú
The water beside me is flowing

 

告诉你我等了很久 / gàosu nǐ wǒ děng le hěn jiǔ
(I’m) telling you I’ve waited a long time

告诉你我最后的要求 / gàosu nǐ wǒ zuìhòu de yāoqiú
(So I’m) telling you my final request

我要抓起你的双手 / wǒ yào zhuā qǐ nǐde shuāngshǒu
I want to grab you by the hands

你这就跟我走 / nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
And then you’ll go with me

这时你的手在颤抖 / zhè shí nǐde shǒu zài chàndǒu
This time your hands are trembling

这时你的泪在流 / zhè shí nǐde lèi zài liú
This time your tears are flowing

莫非你是正在告诉我 / mòfēi nǐ shì zhèngzài gàosu wǒ
Can it be that you are telling me

你爱我一无所有 / nǐ ài wǒ yīwúsuǒyǒu
You love me with nothing to my name?

 

噢 你这就跟我走 / ō nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! Now you’ll go with me

噢 你这就跟我走 / ō nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! Now you’ll go with me

[guitaaarrrr soooloooo!!!]

脚下这地在走 / jiǎo xià zhè dì zài zǒu
The ground under my feet is moving

身边那水在流 / shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú
The water beside me is flowing

脚下这地在走 / jiǎo xià zhè dì zài zǒu
The ground under my feet is moving

身边那水在流 / shēnbiān nà shuǐ zài liú
The water beside me is flowing

 

噢 你这就跟我走 / ō nǐ zhè jiù gēn wǒ zǒu
Oh! Now you’ll go with me

When a Chinese friend in Tianjin downloaded a bunch of songs for me to learn, he made a point to highlight this one. Our Chinese textbooks have a whole lesson devoted to it, and when our teachers taught it they said it represents their generation. But I have a couple teenage Mainlanders in my ESL classes here in Vancouver, and none of them have even heard of this song or Cuī Jiàn. Of course, that’s not the only significant 20-year-old piece of Chinese history that they didn’t know about, so I assigned them some homework involving Google. Still waiting to see how they respond.

More about Cui Jian and Nothing to My Name:

More songs for your KTV repertoire! (with lyrics and guitar chords):

16 thoughts on “Nothing to My Name / 一无所有

  1. Thanks for that! I need to start embedding those anyway. They blocked Youtube after we left and I forgot. I assume it will be unblocked after the 60th anniversary celebrations?

  2. The lyrics and their ambiguity yet clear, subversive undercurrent remind me of music made in Brazil several decades ago during the military dictatorship. Songs that seem childish and harmless unless you are familiar with the history of the times.

  3. I like this song for the way it helps us understand that generation in China. I’m only just beginning to see why they had such a strong connection to it, but exploring that connection helps me have a fuller picture of what was going in and how people felt at the time.

    Cui Jian knew that rock was for stickin’ it to the Man. When he sings a song about how he’s got nothing to his name in that time in place, it’s like saying the Man isn’t doing its job right. The fact that everyone can strongly relate to it didn’t make the Man look too good, either.

    But I’m guessing it’s probably not accurate to characterize this as directly subversive to the ruling order. It’s more of a complaint. People were unhappy with their living standards, at how much less they had than the world outside, at the way society was changing at incomprehensible speeds and inequality was growing, at the intrusive interference in their daily lives that was fast losing it’s veneer of ideological legitimacy… they wanted to say “Hey, our situation sucks (and it’s your fault)!” Things eventually got a little more pointed, of course, but the song was already widely popular before it was sung in TS.

    Cui Jian is a little evasive about politics in the interviews I’ve read. He comes out strong in favour of individualism and being free to do what you want, but he keeps the political comments less explicit.

  4. [Sonia wrote an interesting and insightful response here to the post "A 16-year-old priviledged Beijinger in Canada on this day in history." I've unfortunately edited out large sections, even though she has a special perspective on it all and has some good things to say that would help us think beyond the usual English-language media explanations.

    What Sonia wrote was great and I wish I could post it, but it's just too hot for this blog, especially right now with the unrest in China, heightened 'harmonization' of the internet, and the upcoming 60th anniversary. I originally closed comments on that post because it was about a super-sensitive topic and I don't want this blog blocked like so many others. I'm not here to be political, so there's no reason for me to risk getting blocked. What's left of her comment is below. I encourage you to read it, even though I've gutted it, because there's still lots there worth reading.

    Sorry, Sonia! I still appreciate your thoughts.]

    Since I can’t reply for some reason to your 16-Year-Old privileged Beijinger post for some reason, I’ll reply to both here. Actually, this isn’t so much a reply as much as a general discussion inspired by your posts.

    Let me just say first that I am a twenty-year old Chinese-American, born and raised in the US, but my family has very strong communist influences — my grandparents from my mother’s side were both very early revolutionaries who joined in the twenties, not their twenties, but in the 1920’s, when they were teenagers, and when they were lopping heads off of communists with enthusiasm. Despite the stereotype and the privilege, I actually see my family as one of the more politically-tolerant ones of Chinese families, perhaps even because of this history as “rebels”. But regardless, take my background as a disclaimer to any sort of biases I may consciously or unconsciously have.

    I have also never heard of this song, but that’s probably a combination of my being of this young forgetful generation, and my being raised in the US. But I have heard of Cui Jian. However, I would hardly say that my generation is unaware. Perhaps I have been fortunate that my mother, because of her background, experiences and personality, was keen to talk with (though not educate) me about the political history of China from her point of view. I have also been lucky to meet in college many international students from China who are very aware of the political pitfalls and social instability in their country. With these people I have discussed, debated, and even cried over many problems that we see China facing today, and I have come to learn much more about my motherland that way. However, I can sympathize with your sentiment that many of this generation have been forgetful and mislead. Many of them are just plain disinterested as well, but I hope that you can be aware that many of us, from within and outside of the mainland, ARE interested and concerned.

    [...snip snip...]

    I think that twenty years after [...] that it’s time for all sides to come together and discuss this in an open, intellectual, and constructive way, and perhaps to shed a tear to all those who have died and suffered that day and after that day. I think that it’s not the time for [Them] to clamp down on it, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the memories of [...], in places it is allowed to be remembered, has been so distorted, so prone to finger-pointing.

    But I’d like to remind the people who want to remember that tragic day to not get lost in the grief and resentment. The cause was to further progress [...] Maybe it’s time [...] to analyze what happened, why the movement progressed the way it did [...] and why did nothing get resolved. More importantly, it’s time to think about what we can do in the future that can be more constructive. Not some furious reaction to some injustice, but careful, and systematic social engineering that has incentives for both the people and the government. I think the failure of the [event] wasn’t the [loss of life]. I think that was just a tragic side effect. I think the failure was in part that the original goals [...] were lost, [...] that by the end, it was a win-or-lose mind-set rather than a compromise-mindset, [...]

    But I think it’s pointless now to go back and say who was at fault. I think it’s more fruitful to say what went wrong, and what can be better in the future.

    Anyway, just my opinion about the whole matter. Of course I may in fact have been unfortunate and subject to a whole load of brainwashing…but I am inclined to think that I have actually a more well-rounded perspective than others who have been educated about China either one way or the other.

    One last point. I’ve only begun to read your blog, so maybe I’ve got the wrong idea, but I am slightly disturbed by the fact that you are using the influence of your position as a teacher to get students to think about politics…particularly from your perspective. Please correct me if this is not the case. I also think that the current Chinese generation need more awareness, and less blind nationalistic pride, but it seems…I don’t know, just a bit unethical for a teacher to…assign certain material as homework? I know that if any of my teachers assigned the [historical event] as a homework topic, especially with some sort of predisposition, I would be highly offended.

    Please don’t take that as a personal insult of any kind, just a feeling that I got. In general, I enjoy your blog, and look forward to reading it in the future. I’d love to have a reply, because I love discussing these things, especially if I get to duke it out with someone who has a different perspective than me.

    Thanks,

    an ABC

  5. Looking back at that post, I can see how it could sound like I’m manipulating my student. Your questions are completely fair and I agree with you that it would be very wrong for me to take advantage of that kind of situation and push my political views on students. But I don’t think that’s what I did in this case.

    Just to clarify: we never actually discussed the event, and I never offered any views on it, other than what was written in the newspaper, but we didn’t even read the articles anyway (her English is good, but it would take her a long time, lots of energy, and a pocket dictionary to actually read through a newspaper article). She responded passionately to the topic and the photos on the front page, but my response to her (partially trying to calm her down so we could get on with the rest of the session) was, “I’m not trying to tell you what to think about it. I just want you to see that today the whole world is writing about China.” I think I also told her something like, “Today is a special day in China. Do you know why?” That’s really pretty much all I said about it, aside from showing her the photos in the paper. She didn’t give me much of a chance to say anything more anyway! An observer of our conversation would say that she was the one trying to shape my opinion rather than the other way around.

    The “homework” that I mentioned was simply “go google this and this and see what you find.” I didn’t follow up on it. I never assigned this student any real homework because my job was simply to assist her with her school work.

    Of course I was deliberately exposing her to media that she won’t get back home (or at least making her aware that it was availbale; we never did actually read the articles). My intentions were just to make her more aware of a major piece of her own history that is largely forbidden to her back home, and give her an idea of how her country is perceived in Canada. As this is a major historical event recognized around the world, I don’t think it is unethical to draw her attention to it. Trying to make her think certain things about it, whether through direct or subtle means, would be a different matter.

  6. Interesting Cui Jian/一无所有 stuff going around the Chinese internet lately. This song was performed in the Super Girl’s competition (watch here or here or here), and that led to some unhappy commentary about what Cui Jian means, or doesn’t mean, in China today.

    Also, a bootleg recording of his most sensitive concert has surfaced online here.

    I’m adding links to the post above, too.

  7. a song that echos a generation of vast and hazy youth, confused with past, present, and future of china, due to at the point of both political and economic change.
    with china been on the track of more stability, the sound of the song never stops to echo in our hearts, up to this day.

    a fully blooded chinese with american living experience born in 80’s

  8. Hi, Joel! Today I found your (this) website and I like it a lot. It took me just few houres (grin) to got to this topic.
    At fist, please forgive me a mistakes, I´m not fluent english writer.
    Second – with this theme I feel shame each time. It´s long twenty years history…
    At THAT time, me and my husband were first time abroad from iron curtain in Canada. We saw news in tv and read about it in newspapers. But you know, we (specially me, husband is better in languages) didn´t understand to context and from home we had been taught that one can´t believe western journalists because they used to lie a lot! In fact that was just bigger lie. When we returned home (everyone was surprised why we came back?!) there was nothing in our news about this event, nothing about china at all so after some time I desided that they were right and it was definitelly not so big deal to be mentioned. I was so stupid at that time! After some months there happend a velvet revolution in my own country and I took part on it (of course) and it was like waking up from strange dream.
    Untill today I feel shame that I wasn´t talk to people about this Tienanmen events, but someone outside (maybe you know it) can´t understand that in that time in socialist country (same as china today) you can hear the truth only from your good friend and that it is very hard way for truth to be widely known. Untill the event is spoken in public it doesn´t exist! And that is real life in china today, I think.
    By the way, I found Cui Jian on youtube some weeks ago and I like him a lot. But it is typical that he own said that he can´t be believed because he used to pretend. Every one in socialist regime used to pretend, maybe more than in capitalism :) it is just a way to survive without serious troubles.

  9. Thank you so much for the download. I’ve been wanting to learn this song for ages and finally found what I was looking for.
    Now if only I could find the same for some Carabao songs…

  10. @mamasa,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I imagine it must be very difficult, not knowing who you can trust or what information is true. The way you described the situation is very interesting: “Until the event is spoken in public it doesn’t exist!” It seems like that describes China right now.

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