From ’80s rock to patriotic anthems: 6 songs associated with Tiananmen Square

The 2015 vigil in Victoria Park. Photo: Laurel Chor/Coconuts Media
The 2015 vigil in Victoria Park. Photo: Laurel Chor/Coconuts Media

Though June 4 is arguably one of the most important dates in modern Chinese history, if you were on the mainland today, chances are you wouldn’t hear much about it.

The events of June 4, 1989 — better known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre — saw the People’s Liberation Army turn its tanks and guns on crowds of pro-democracy protesters occupying the titular plaza, killing hundreds. However, the modern Chinese police state, which in many ways grew out of the Tiananmen crackdown, has long worked to effectively erase any mention of the anniversary on the mainland.

Indeed, 30 years later, the Chinese government still refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing in its response to the student demonstrations of 1989, with the CCP-backed Global Times just yesterday characterizing the massacre as an “immunization against turmoil.”

However, thanks to its colonial legacy and the “one country, two systems” doctrine, Hong Kong is the only part of China (self-governed Taiwan excluded) where the bloody massacre can be remembered, and every year Hongkongers gather in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to lay funereal wreaths and light candles to remember those who lost their lives.

In addition to the speeches, eulogies, and prayers read out at the event, there are also live performances of a roster of songs that were written to remember the event or have, in the years since, become synonymous with it. So whether you’re heading down to Victoria Park (were ceremonies will be predominantly conducted in Cantonese) or not, here’s a roundup of some of the songs most commonly associated with June 4.


“Flowers of Freedom”

The melody of the song originally came from a pop song by Taiwanese singer Zheng Zhihua called Sailor, which was about Zheng’s struggle with polio, and was a popular tune on the mainland around the time of the protests. Hong Kong lyricist Thomas Chow rewrote the lyrics for a Cantonese version of the song commemorating the June 4 massacre, and renamed it Flowers of Freedom. Like the original Sailor, Flowers of Freedom expresses feelings of grief, shock, resilience, and hope. The chorus translated reads:

But we have a dream, which never dies, just remember,
No matter how fierce the storm, freedom will still bloom,
But we have a dream, which never dies, just remember,
It comes from our hearts, just remember.


“All For Freedom”

In May 1989, one month after the occupation of Tiananmen Square began, celebrities in Hong Kong banded together and held a benefit concert at the Happy Valley Racecourse to raise funds for the student protesters.

The event was organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China — which also organizes today’s June 4 vigil — and was supported and attended by a roster of celebrities, including Jackie Chan (who, decades later, would do a complete 180 and decide that democracy is not good for China), and the late Madonna of the East, Anita Mui. It was also backed by Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung, who couldn’t attend the concert but left video messages of support for the student protesters.

The Alliance enlisted the help of songwriter Lowell Lo to write a We Are the World-esque song about the protests. According to an Apple Daily article from 2012, the song All For Freedom featured up to 100 singers lending their voices to the ’80s Cantopop rock track.

The benefit concert raised over HK$12 million (US$1.5 million) in 12 hours for the students. Unfortunately, however, the funds couldn’t be delivered. Alliance leader Lee Cheuk-yan was stopped at the border after trying to enter China with more than HK$1 million in cash hours after the concert ended.


“Bloodstained Glory”

A Chinese patriotic song in Mandarin commemorating those killed in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War sounds like an odd choice to play on June 4, but it has nonetheless become one of the songs sung every year at Victoria Park in memory of those who died at Tiananmen. Bloodstained Glory, which was originally written in 1986, has been covered many times, most notably by Peng Liyuan — aka Xi Jinping’s wife. However, it was then co-opted by Anita Mui, who famously performed the song at the Tiananmen benefit at Happy Valley.

The fact that both sides claim Bloodstained Glory to represent their struggles makes it an even more interesting inclusion in the June 4 musical canon.

Perhaps my eyes will shut and never open again, will you understand my silent emotions?
Perhaps I will sleep forever, never able to wake up. Will you believe that I have been transformed into mountains?
If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.
If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.


“Human’s Path”

Human’s Path was featured on the soundtrack of the 1990 romantic-comedy-horror-martial arts film A Chinese Ghost Story II, which starred Leslie Cheung along with Cantopop star Jacky Cheung, who sang the song. The lyrics were penned by the late lyricist James Wong, who at the time of the film’s release made it clear that the lyrics — with their references to angry youth, a sea of blood, and a road to ruin — were explicitly referring to the massacre:

The youth are angry, and heaven and earth are shedding tears,
How did the rivers and mountains become a sea of blood?
How did the road to home become the road to ruin?

The lyrics’ connection with June 4 had apparently escaped mainland censors’ notice until netizens pointed them out in recent months, prompting Apple Music in China to swiftly pull the song from the streaming service.


“Nothing to My Name”

Cui Jian is often referred to as the father of Chinese rock, and his 1986 hit Nothing to My Name is widely considered to be one of his most important songs. The song, which mixes traditional Chinese styles and instruments with elements of modern Western rock, was adopted by student protesters in Tiananmen as their anthem. Though on their face, the lyrics are about a person being scorned by a lover because he has nothing, they have been interpreted as being about the dispossessed, disillusioned youth.

I have asked you endlessly,
When will you go with me?
But you always just laugh at me because I have nothing.
I want to give you my pursuit and my freedom,
But you always laugh at me because I have nothing.


“Fighting For 20 Years”

Beyond is often referred to as one of the biggest Cantopop rock bands in the Hong Kong’s musical history, but it was forced to disband following the tragic death of one of their lead singer, Wong Ka-kui, while filming a show in Tokyo in 1993. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their founding, the band in 2003 released a track called Fighting for 20 Years. The melody was penned by Wong shortly before he passed away, and his bandmates filled in the rest, writing lyrics about not giving up and fighting for your dreams no matter what.

But Fighting for 20 Years wasn’t the only track to resonate with pro-democracy activists. The band’s song, A Bright Future, with its lines about freedom, was also adopted by protesters during the 2014 Umbrella Movement as one of their unofficial anthems.


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