A guide to Chinese musical styles

From military songs to campus folk, Chinese music spans a broad spectrum

China’s musical genres have never solely been based on style. They usually describe geographical differences but can also extend to lifestyles, access to technology and the needs of state propaganda.
Chinese musicians have often been accused of a lack of originality or even outright plagiarism. Many of the early Cantopop and Mandopop songs simply ripped off melodies from Western and Japanese pop/rock songs and filled them with Cantonese or Mandarin lyrics. Gao Xiaosong, a leading figure of the 1990s campus folk movement, argues that Han Chinese (comprising 98 percent of China’s population) are better with words than melodies because, unlike poetry and literature, music has never played a part in documenting the nation’s history.

Whether his theory holds water is debatable, but the fact that music in China serves as a lifestyle component rather than a driving social context seems to be a consensus. The following are musical genres that are characteristic of China and popular in Beijing.

Zhongguo Feng (China Wave) 中国风

The term ‘Zhongguo Feng’, a style of music that mixes Chinese elements such as Peking opera, traditional instruments and ancient poetry with modern pop music, first appeared in 2003 when Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou (周杰伦) released his single ‘East Wind Breaks’ (东风破) - an R&B song infused with the sounds of erhu and pipa. Following this success, Chou released several similar songs including ‘Hair Like Snow’ (发如雪), ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ (菊花台), ‘Blue and White Porcelain’ (青花瓷) and ‘Orchid Pavilion’ (兰亭序).

‘East Wind Breaks’ music video

Menggu Minge (Mongolian folk)蒙古民歌

‘Menggu Minge’ is not a literal term because authentic Mongolian music exists only in Mongolia but the ancient tunes of the steppes have evolved in various forms in the Han Chinese world. There are the heavily produced (often lip-synced) songs on state TV, where singers perform in operatic fashion and with lyrics that satisfy the audiences’ need for exotic cultural flavours.

Teng Ge’er (腾格尔) performs ‘Heaven’ (天堂) on CCTV, Beijing

Then there are bands such as Hanggai and Ajinai, who have experience playing Western rock and experimental music as well as drawing influence from their Mongolian roots by bringing the horse-head fiddle, throat-singing and rock instrumentations together.

Hanggai (杭盖) performing ‘Drinking Song’ at the Womad Festival, Reading, 2010

Xizang Minge (Tibetan folk) 西藏民歌

Just like the folk music of Mongolia, Tibet is another endless source of exotic cultural imaginations. Li Na’s ‘Qinghai-Tibet Plateau’ is the ultimate karaoke song that battles Whitney Huston’s ‘I’ll Always Love You’ for technical difficulty. If your lungs are strong enough to hold the final note during a karaoke session you will be required to sing that song. Every. Single. Time.

Li Na’s (李娜) ‘Qinghai-Tibet Plateau’ (青藏高原)

Sa Dingding, in fact a Han Chinese, is the winner of BBC Radio 3’s 2008 Award for World Music and the rising star of the Tibetan folk circuit. Her lyrics contain both Tibetan and Sanskrit languages, as well as a language of her own invention, and her performances borrow from Tibetan pilgrim’s prostrations - which involves crawling on hands and knees to the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Sa Dingding (萨顶顶) performs ‘Alive’ (万物生) at Royal Albert Hall, London, 2008

Daizu Minge (Dai minority folk) 傣族民歌

Located mostly in Yunnan Province, bordering Burma and Laos, the Dai ethnic community is known for a style of music composed with cheerful melodies, soothing choruses and the sound of hulusi (gourd flute) - an instrument so quintessential of the region it can be heard in basically every Yunnanese restaurant in Beijing.

‘Bamboo Under the Moonlight’ (月光下的凤尾竹), one of the most oft-heard songs

The 2009 season of Super Girls, China’s most popular singing contest, featured contestant Huang Ying (黄英) singing another well-known song ‘Wedding Oath’ (婚誓).

Er ren zhuan (Northeastern duet) 二人转

Originating from northeastern China where freezing winters keep the local folk bolted up at home, er ren zhuan - literally ‘duet’ - is usually performed by a boy and girl as a traditional song-and-dance act filled with funny dialogues and occasional blue humour.

Outside Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, the three provinces in Northeastern China collectively known Dongbei, er ren zhuan is mostly seen in xiaopin (comic sketches) as performed by Zhao Benshan on CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala.

Yang Hongwei (杨宏伟) and Dong Lianhai (董连海) – ‘Theft of a Duck’ (骂鸭)

The genre’s singing and vulgar quips have also been employed in the rock sphere by Beijing-based alt-rock unit Second Hand Rose (二手玫瑰).

Second Hand Rose play ‘Paroles’ (伎俩) at D-22, Beijing, 2009. Video courtesy of Mogo.

Lao Shanghai (Old Shanghai music) 老上海

‘Old Shanghai’ is a term associated with the colonial lifestyle of the ‘Pearl of the East’. Old Shanghai music hales from the 1930s and ‘40s and has heavy influences from Western jazz and classical music with the vocal styles of old Chinese ballads.

Singer/actress Zhou Xuan is the leading figure of Old Shanghai music. Nicknamed ‘Golden Throat’, Zhou is famous for singing songs on the soundtrack of and staring in Street Angel (马路天使), a classic movie set in 1930’s Shanghai. Her popularity continued after the founding of the PRC until her death in 1957 during the ‘Anti-Rightist’ movement.

Zhou Xuan (周璇) – ‘Shanghai Night’(夜上海)

Gangtai Gequ (Cantopop and Mandopop) 港台歌曲

Although Cantopop and Mandopop are two separate genres, they share the same origins in Old Shanghai music. Many of the first generation of singers and composers emigrated to Hong Kong or Taiwan after the foundation of the PRC in 1949, but upheld their Shanghainese heritages. Although mainland China now has the biggest population of Mandarin-speakers, Taiwan still produces the majority of Mandopop stars. Despite being produced in Hong Kong with a solid fan base in Cantonese-speaking regions such as Guangdong and Guangxi provinces Cantopop has been declining in popularity in the rest of the country.

Besides Jay Chou’s massive fame, Teresa Teng (邓丽君, 1953-1995) is still considered Mandopop’s biggest star. Cantopop, on the other hand, reached its peak in early 1990s when Jacky Cheung (张学友), Andy Lau (刘德华), Aaron Kwok (郭富城) and Leon Lai (黎明) - collectively known as ‘The Four Heavenly Kings’ (四大天王) - dominated record sales in both Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking worlds.

Teresa Teng (邓丽君) - Fragrance of the Night (夜来香)

Jacky Cheung (张学友) – Break Up on a Rainy Day (分手总要在雨天)

Xiaoyuan Minyao (campus folk) 校园民谣

Campus folk originated in university campuses in 1970s Taiwan, at which time local folk musicians were inspired by American protest singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The genre was passed across the strait in the early 1990s, when Beijingers Gao Xiaosong (高晓松) and Lao Lang (老狼) teamed up to produce several classics. Campus folk in mainland China is mostly about innocent love and university life featuring acoustic guitar as the major instrument.

Lao Lang (老狼) – My Deskmate Girl (同桌的你)

Junlv Gequ (military songs) 军旅歌曲

Most Chinese military songs are typically patriotic and macho sing-alongs though the most popular ones are often rather soft thanks to the general population’s love of the idea of giving up family life for army duties. Such ‘sacrifice’ is also glorified by the state media.

The following videos are popular hits sung by Yan Weiwen (阎维文) and Yu Junjian (郁钧剑), two of China’s favourite military singers.

Yan Weiwen (阎维文) – ‘Being a Soldier’ (咱当兵的人)

Yu Junjian (郁钧剑) and Yan Weiwen (阎维文) performing ‘From the Bottom of My Heart’ (说句心里话) at the 1999 CCTV Spring Festival Gala

Unfortunately, ‘From the Bottom of My Heart’ suffered from an online mockery that twisted its lyrics into Chinglish to accompany clips from American movie Forrest Gump.

‘Say a Word in Heart’

Hong Ge (revolutionary songs) 红歌

As the name suggests, this classification is more about content than musical style. Most revolutionary songs were composed for propaganda purposes during World War II and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and have been regularly performed on state media since 1949.

Guo Lanying (郭兰英) – 'South Bay' (南泥湾)

Xibei Feng (Northwestern Wave) 西北风

Northwestern China is a region covered in deserted plateaus and plagued by endless drought, yet is also a rich source for music from traditional qing qiang (an ancient opera featuring shouted vocals and heavy percussion surprisingly similar to rock music) to stripped-down love ballads.

Xibei Feng was hugely popular in the late 1980s, when Chinese pop and rock musicians started to look to northwestern folk music and Western pop and rock for inspiration.

Hang Tianqi (杭天琪) - The ‘Loess Plateau’ (黄土高坡)

Jingyun Dagu (Beijing’s storytelling opera) 京韵大鼓

Jingyun Dagu is an art form in which the performer sings, or rather tells stories, in Beijing dialect over improvised drumbeats and the twang of three-stringed instrument sanxian’er.

Lui Baoquan (刘宝全) Ningwu Guan – ‘Ningwu Pass’ 宁武关

Jingyun Dagu has a strong influence on some native Beijing musicians, The most well-known being He Yong (何勇). Although labeled ‘China’s Punk Godfather’, He Yong is best known for his single ‘Bell and Drum Towers’, in which he rumbles through the song while his father He Yusheng plays sanxian’er.

He Yong (何勇) performing ‘Bell and Drum Towers’ in Hong Kong Coliseum, 1994.

Yaogun (rock and roll) 摇滚

There could be, and has been, a whole book written about this. As well as being the Chinese translation of the English word ‘rock n roll’, yaogun also applies to cultural and social contexts too broad to cover here. Two defining songs marking the birth of yaogun in Taiwan and mainland China are ‘Lukang, the Little Town’ and ‘Nothing To My Name’.

Known for his influences on campus folk (in both Taiwan and mainland China) and lyrics targeting social issues, physician-turned-musician Luo Dayou (罗大佑)’s 1982 single ‘Lukang, the Little Town’, is a swamp-stomping honky-tonk commonly believed to be the first Mandarin protest song. It was the also the first time a rock band had performed a Chinese-language song.

The song was banned on radio by the Taiwanese government because the lyrics contains the line ‘Taipei is just not my home, my hometown has no neon lights’ (台北不是我的家,我的家乡没有霓虹灯), which was considered to have a ‘negative connotation’ to Taiwan’s economic boom of the 1980s. Ironically, ‘Lukang, the Little Town’ is now also the Mandarin name of a successful and flashy restaurant Bellagio.

Luo Dayou (罗大佑) performs ‘Lukang, the Little Town’ at Chunghwa Arena, Taipei, 1985

Cui Jian – ‘Nothing To My Name’ (一无所有)
This song has been somewhat glorified as a defining moment in the history of Chinese rock music embodying the nation’s psyche in the 1980s. You can hear the ‘Northwestern Wave’ influences starting from the two-minute mark, when the sound of suona, a high-pitched trumpet commonly played in northwestern China, starts to roar. However, the song doesn’t fully sum up Cui Jian’s musical style. Later works bring to mind New York’s Talking Heads and hardcore hip hop acts such as Public Enemy.

Cui Jian (崔健) performing ‘Nothing To My Name’ at the Workers’ Gymnasium, Beijing, 1986

Xiao Qingxin (Little Freshness) 小清新

‘Xiao Qingxin’ is a rather sarcastic term to describe a narcissistic lifestyle centred on indie pop music, simple design, sentimental statements and a love for Lomo photography. It’s a lifestyle rather than a musical genre per se. The term first appeared on SNS website Douban, a user-generated website where self-proclaimed intellectuals and urban hipsters gather to review books, movies, music, as well as organise events. Like people of this kind anywhere in the world, they get mocked for being snobs but remain proud.

Known for her sweet vocal style, low profile and lyrics about simple emotions (all typical of xiao qingxin, Taiwanese indie pop singer Cheer Chen Qizhen became well-known in mainland China after City Pictorial (城市画报), a Guangzhou-based lifestyle magazine known for its xiao qingxin style, ran a cover feature interview with her in 2006. The song 'The Meaning of Travel' is probably her biggest hit.

Cheer Chen Qizhen (陈绮贞) - The Meaning of Travel (旅行的意义)
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