A hundred days ago Wu’er Kaixi was a fugitive…. Yesterday, before an audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of an earth-shaking movement.
He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi…
The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students and their bewildered elders.
(Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)
John Sebastian’s famous lyric about the impossibility of “trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll” notwithstanding, it was a special moment indeed when Wu’er Kaixi–the flamboyant Tiananmen student leader–attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers who heard him sing Qin Qi’s “Wolf From the North” and explain what its celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said, but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)
When I witnessed Wu’er’s performance, even though I was no longer a student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the “delighted” camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of 1989. I was struck then by the Western media’s tendency to overstate the dissident Fang Lizhi’s impact. Students found his speeches inspiring, but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at–of all things–a Jan and Dean concert.
Another reason Wu’er’s performance pleased me was that I was to give a presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a song, albeit one without a backbeat: “Frère Jacques.” Why that one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949 protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen protesters had just followed suit. Wu’er used a new song to argue for his generation’s uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited tradition.
I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of “Frère Jacques” (which began “Down With Li Peng, Down With Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping,” and which went on to refer to these and other Communist Party leaders as “bullies”) expressed contempt for corrupt, autocratic officials.
A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the streets–not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared completely. The country’s leaders now seemed only to care about protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era (1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist Party’s leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the revolution that had brought them to power.