20080303-Aaron Kwok.jpg
Aaron Kwok, one of the
Four Kings of Cantopop
The centers of Chinese pop music have traditionally been Hong Kong and Taiwan not mainland China. Even Malaysia and Singapore often have had more happening in them than mainland China. Typically nine out of ten songs on the top of the play list in Beijing radio are not from mainland China. Hong Kong and Taiwan pop tends to be dominated by sickenly-sweet, sentimental ballad music in Chinese.

Beijing-based music critic Wang Xiaofeng told NPR that mainstream of Chinese popular musical taste has two main qualities. "The first is that its melody is very easy to remember," Wang says. "The second is that its rhythm is very simple, like a disco beat." Wang says this may explain the Chinese preference for the sort of light Western music (remember Hooked on Classics?) you often hear in public spaces throughout China. While the nation's tastes are diverse, Wang says, Chinese aesthetics generally value moderation and balance. [Source: NPR, July 19, 2013]

According to China Policy: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been adapting folk culture since its founding, but so have others. Cui Jian and Beijing rockers fused folk with Western beats to create the sound track for the late 1980s. They kept exploring, needing to come to terms with new realities in the 90s. For mainland musicians, however, gaining an audience beyond the underground was almost impossible. Hong Kong and Taiwan dominated pop music, setting the pace into the new millennium:Jay Chou’s Chinese Wind, blowing from Taiwan, chimed nicely with official refashioning of Confucianism, and cutesy singer-songwriters from across the Strait gained huge followings among dreamy mainland ‘young pure and fresh’ hipsters. [Source: China Policy, February 12, 2016]

“But some things have changed.. From 2000, open-air music festivals gradually grew to attract tens of thousands of fans. Rock could now be heard outside of the usual underground bars. After Supergirl hit screens in 2004, TV talent shows have provided a new platform for a wide range of aspiring musicians, including those playing ethnic music. Despite this relative diversity, however, in the end the patriotic power ballad prevails. Through new social media, silly divine songs have ‘gone viral’. Appealing to cynical white-collar workers and urban ‘losers’, these novelty hits have made unlikely heroes of some. Conversely, the same platforms have assisted the spread of local adaptations of Korean-style boy bands and European electronic dance music, upbeat expressions of national positive energy.

Websites and Sources: Inter Asia Pop interasiapop.org; Sinomania, with old postings but still online sinomania.com ; Wikipedia article on C-Pop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Cantopop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Mandopop Wikipedia ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Book about Chinese pop music: ”Like a Knife” by Andrew Jones.

Cantopop, Mandopop and Hong Kong Pop

The Chinese music scene is currently dominated by "Cantopop" singers, who sing in the Cantonese dialect of southern China and Hong Kong. "Mandopop" is pop music sung in Mandarin, the dominant Chinese dialect and one associated with northern China. Mandopop is gaining in popularity. Mandarin is not only the most widely spoken language in China, there are also many people who speak it in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Music journalist Mark Levin told Reuter in the late 2000s, "Cantopop is going down very quickly and Mandopop is replacing it. Mandopop is very, very, very strong. If you look at sales in Hong Kong you probably se that half of the top singers are Mandarin, whereas five years ago nine of 10 would have been Cantonese."

In the 1990s many of the most popular pop songs in Asia were sung by Hong Kong artists, many of them homegrown. They released both Cantonese and Mandarin versions of their songs, and were helped immensely by Channel V and MTV. Hong Kong pop stars also got Asia-wide exposure by appearing in popular Hong Kong films. Hong Kong pop is also popular in mainland China, Taiwan. Singapore, Southeast Asia and among the Chinese community in the United States, Canada, Malaysia and Australia. One Classic Hong Kong songs — “This Pair of Eyes Is Looking at You” — goes "You know I can't, I can't, I can't take my eyes off you. I can't take my eyes of you, you, you, you, you, you..."

In Hong Kong, there were three major Cantopop award ceremonies: the Metro Radio’s Hit Awards, Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Chart Awards and TVB Jade’s Solid Gold Awards. In 2003, the Hong Kong music industry was rocked by a big scandal that involved bribes for better chart positions and music awards, stock swindles, and the arrest of 28 people in the recording industry. The scandal was uncovered through an investigaton of Juno Mak, a 19-year-old Cantopop singer who won several awards and had hit songs despite his reputation for being a terrible singer and dancer, and ugly ta boot. . Mak was so disliked that he was booed every time he accepted an award at the TVB Jade’s Solid Gold Award. Among those arrested were Mak’s father.

Jeroen Groenewegen of www.keepmakingsense.com wrote: “To my knowledge there is no English language academic book-length study devoted entirely to Cantopop. But there are a number of seminal articles written by Anthony Fung (on Faye Wong, Sammy, Andy Lau, LMF and others), Lawrence Witzleben (on Anita Mui), Chow Yiu-fai (with De Kloet on Leon Lai) and others. Jeroen de Kloet discusses some Cantopop (such as Anthony Wong) in chapter 4 of his recent book "China with a Cut" . I also recommend you the mockumentary Four Heavenly King (2004) by Daniel Wu.But yes, more work is needed in this field. Fortunately Inter-Asia pop (http://interasiapop.org) is trying to get researchers of Asian popular music together.

Shanghai Jazz Era in the 1920s, 30s and 40s

Jazz thrived in Shanghai in the 1920s, 30s and 40s as an American import — a legacy of the international city’s colonial history. According to NPR: “That “beautiful fusion” eventually spread to other Chinese-speaking parts of the world like Hong Kong and Taiwan. But in mainland China, songs about romantic love and living lush that once filled the dance halls of Shanghai’s jazz age had virtually disappeared after the government deemed them “yellow music” (“Sort of a term for pornographic music”). [Source: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR, January 28, 2015]

“Shanghai had a veneer of foreign sophistication in the '30s," journalist Paul French wrote, "when Noel Coward sat in the Cathay Hotel writing Private Lives and partying with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin at Victor Sassoon's mixed-sex (in the sense of mixed-up-sex) fancy dress parties. The city was then the world's third largest financial center, rich and exotic, and London and New York were a long way away. [Source: Paul French, Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao ]

Nightlife centered around Chinese cabarets and dance halls called wuting. A good book on the subject is Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 by Andrew Field. On the book Field wrote: “ The first five chapters recount the emergence and flourishing of Shanghai's “dancing world” (wujie, wuguo) including chapters on the role of Westerners in introducing Jazz Age dance and music culture to China, the first Chinese cabarets to operate in Shanghai during the 1920s, the design and construction of cabarets and nightclubs in the 1930s, the role of Chinese “dance hostesses” (wunu) in popularizing and facilitating the JazzAge in China, and Chinese ballroom patrons and the political culture of Chinese nationalism.

David Moser wrote in The Anthill: “Shanghai nightlife in the 1920s and 30s included jazz as a part of the cultural mix. Dozens of African-American jazz musicians traveled by steamboat to China to seek gigs in the freewheeling international club scene. Buck Clayton, who later on would play trumpet with Count Basie, formed his first jazz band in Shanghai. And local Chinese musicians absorbed it all to create a form of jazz with Chinese characteristics, a hybrid of New York’s Tin Pan Alley and Shanghai pop songs.[Source: David Moser: The Anthill, January 2016]

After the Communists came to power in China in 1949 things were different. “To the army upper echelons, jazz was a quintessentially degenerate style of music, closely associated with the KMT, prostitutes and Western decadence. Watch any Chinese revolutionary film from the 50s and 60s, and you’ll find that scenes of qipao-clad harlots cavorting with slick-haired KMT spies in smoke-filled cabaret halls are invariably accompanied by cheesy jazz. Du Yinjiao, a saxophonist in the People’s Liberation Army band, did his best to convince the leadership of jazz’s politically correct credentials. “Jazz should be championed by the Communist Party,” he would tell them. “After all, it’s music of the oppressed class, former black slaves of the land-owners!” But the army brass was unbending.

After the Communist take over of mainland China, according to the New York Times, “the musical world of Shanghai was largely recreated in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. EMI opened offices there and invited many popular singers and performers that had been in Shanghai to record.

For an article on Jazz in China in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s See “25 Years of Jazz in China by David Moser MCLC Resource Center u.osu.edu/mclc

China's Seven Great Singing Stars

China's Seven Great Singing Stars from the Jazz Era in Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s were 1) Bai Guang, Queen of the Low Voice (active from 1943 to 1959), best known for "Waiting For Your Return", "Hypocrite" and "Autumn Night"; 2 Bai Hong, White Rainow, (active from 1933 to 1979), best known for "He Is Like The Spring Wind" and "The Intoxicating Lipstick"; 3) Gong Qiuxia, Big Sister (active 1933-1980), best known for "Best Wishes"; 4) Li Xianglan (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), The Judy Garland of Japan (active 1938 to 1958), best known for "Candy Selling Song", "Fragrance of the Night" and "Suzhou Nocturne"; 5) Wu Yingyin, Queen of the Nasal Voice (active 1945 to 2003), best known for "The Heartbreaking Red", "The Moon Sends My Love to Afar" and "Spring Returns to the World"; 6) Yao Li (Yao Lee), See Below; and 7) Zhou Xuan, See Below. [Source: Wikipedia]

Several of the stars acted in films, and their music played a prominent role in developing Chinese cinema. They dominated the Chinese pop music industry in the 1930s and 1940s, which was centered in Shanghai, and often performed in a genre known as Shidaiqu. Amongst the earliest of the stars to emerge in the 1930s were Zhou Xuan, Gong Qiuxia, Yao Lee, and Bai Hong. In the 40s, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, and Wu Yingyin also became popular, and these seven were grouped as the seven great singing stars of the period.

Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945. Popular at that time was Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who was Japanese and went by the Chinese name Li Xianglan (Li Hsiang-lan) without revealing here Japanese ancestry. After the Communist victory in 1949, there was a large migration of people from Shanghai to Hong Kong that included many entertainers but some stayed on in Communist China.. While some of the seven continued to perform for many years, Zhou Xuan died in 1957, Yoshiko retired from entertainment in 1958, and Bai Guang stopped recording in 1959.

Zhou Xuan

Zhou Xuan (1920-1957, also romanized as Chow Hsuan) was an iconic Chinese singer and film actress of the 1930s and 40s. She was the best known of China's Seven Great Singing Stars and was nicknamed the "Golden Voice". Active until 1954, she recorded more than 200 songs and appeared in over 40 films. Among her biggest were "The Wandering Songstress", "Shanghai Nights", "When Will You Return?", "Song of the Four Seasons", and "Yellow Leaves Dancing in Autumn Wind", In 1957 she died in Shanghai in a mental asylum at the age of 37 during the Anti-Rightist Movement. It is believed that she died of encephalitis following a nervous breakdown. Zhou's diary concluded that she suffered from cerebritis. [Source: Wikipedia]

Zhou was born Su Pu but was separated from her natural parents at a young age and raised by adoptive parents. She spent her entire life searching for her biological parents but her parentage was never established until after her death. According to later family research, a relative who was an opium addict took her at the age of 3 to another city and sold her to a family named Wang, who named her Wang Xiaohong. She was later adopted by a family named Zhou, changing her name to Zhou Xiaohong.

At the age of 13, she took Zhou Xuan as her stage name. 'Xuan' means “beautiful jade” in Chinese. In 1932, Zhou began acting as a member of Li Jinhui's Bright Moon Song and Dance Troupe. When she was twelve, she won second prize in a singing contest in Shanghai and was given the nickname "Golden Voice" for her effortless high-pitched melodies. Zhou began her film career in 1935, and she achieved stardom in 1937 when director Yuan Muzhi cast her as one of the leads as a singing girl in Street Angel. Zhou rapidly became the most famous and marketable popular singer in the gramophone era up to her death, singing many famous tunes from her own movies.

Between 1946 and 1950, she often went to Hong Kong to make films such as "All-Consuming Love", "Hua wai liu ying", Sorrows of the Forbidden City, and "Rainbow Song". After introducing "Shanghai Nights" in 1949, Zhou returned to Shanghai. She spent the next few years in and out of a mental institutions owing to frequent breakdowns. Through the years, Zhou led a complicated and unhappy life marked by her failed marriages, illegitimate children, and suicide attempts. Zhou's first husband was the composer Yan Hua (1912–1992), who wrote and sometimes also performed songs with her.

Yao Li

Yao Li (Yao Lee, 1922-2019) was a celebrated singer in Shanghai in the midst of war in the 1930s and ’40s, whose music remained popular after she moved to Hong Kong when China became Communist in 1949. Richard Sandomir wrote in the New York Times: “Ms. Yao was called “the silver voice” in Shanghai, her music influenced by jazz and Chinese folk. She was not famous well beyond Asia, but at least two of her songs made an impact in the United States. An English-language version of one of her hits, “Rose, Rose, I Love You” (1940), was recorded by the American singer Frankie Laine in 1951 and rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 2018, “Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi” (or “Life Is Just a Play”), which she released in Hong Kong in 1959, was used on the soundtrack of Jon M. Chu’s romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), a movie about a New Yorker who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s wealthy family. [Source: Richard Sandomir, New York Times, July 25, 2019]

“Ms. Yao (whose name was sometimes spelled Yao Lee) was born on Sept. 3, 1922, and raised in Shanghai. As a girl in the early 1930s she listened to Zhou on the radio but was too poor to buy her records. Ms. Yao herself began singing on the radio at 13 — at least once on a program with Zhou — and signed her first contract, with Pathé Records, a part of EMI, three years later. She became a popular nightclub attraction. “Big movie stars like Li Lihua would come every Sunday to watch me perform and request specific songs,” she recalled in an interview in 2013 with The Glass, a cultural magazine.

With her soft, high voice, Ms. Yao was long referred to as one of the seven great singing stars of Shanghai, along with her idol,Zhou Xuan, who was known as “the golden voice.” The music of Shanghai bore not only the rhythms of jazz, but also global sounds like Cuban rumba and the Hawaiian steel guitar. Li’s hits included "Rose, Rose, I Love You", "Meet Again", "Congratulations", "Love That I Can't Have" and "Love for Sale".

“Li married Huang Baoluo in the late 1940s but did not stay in Shanghai much longer. The Communist Party took power in 1949 and, fearing that she might have to endure re-education by the new regime, she fled to Hong Kong with her husband the next year. “I was so scared and very sad,” she told The Glass. “I thought my life, and career, were finished.” They were not. She and other Pathé artists recorded with EMI. “She also started working in the film industry, providing vocals that were lip-synced by the actress Chung Ching in a series of pictures, including “Songs of the Peach Blossom River” (1956). By then Ms. Yao had begun to emulate the pop and country singer Patti Page by deepening her voice. She continued to sing into the mid-1960s. In 1967, she took an executive job at EMI.

Pop Music in China in the 1980s and 90s

Popular artist from the old days include Teresa Tang “the empress of Taiwanese love ballads.” Her song “The Moon Represents My Heart” was popular in the mainland in the 1980s Pop music was banned during the Cultural Revolution as capitalist "poison." Before appearing in concert or releasing a record, Chinese artists must submit their lyrics for approval from the Ministry of Culture, anything deemed obscene, unpatriotic or politically sensitive is censored.

Deng Lijun.was a singer who was very popular in the 1980s and 90s and shaped views of women should look like at time. Pop culture researcher Jeroen de Kloet wrote: “In a country that seems particularly keen to periodise, these developments have given birth to yet another term for a generation conveniently classified by a decade: the 1980s (balinghou). This new generation of “little emperors,” as they are often cynically referred to, all come from one-child families, born after the Cultural Revolution.

“Everyday I am somebody else,” sings Shen Lihui in one of his songs from 1997, an apt prediction of the spirit of the 80s generation, a spirit which became increasingly important in order to keep in tune with a post-socialist China of the 21st century. The celebration of agency as evoked by the references to individualism tends to ignore the more structural conditions that contain, steer and produce subjectivities like “the 80s generation.” On a par with the assumed relation between modernization and individualization, this generation is often accused in public discourse of being selfish and overtly materialistic, a generation driven by pleasure rather than politics, for whom “being alternative” — linglei (other species) has become merely a lifestyle choice. A generation for which life has to be “niubi” — literally, a cow’s vagina, metaphorically standing for cool and exciting.

Pop Music Scene in China in the 2000s

Describing the general music scene in Beijing in the late 2000s, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker: “Concert halls may be filled and conservatories mobbed but classical music is hobbled by commercial and political pressures. The creative climate with its system of punishments and rewards, still resembles that of the late-period Soviet Union, which heavily influenced the development of China’s musical institutions. At the same time, the wider soundscape of Beijing is as chaotically rich as that of any Western city: nights of experimental music, indie-rock shows soaked in hipster attitude, pop idols cavorting on HD monitors in malls, retirees singing Peking Opera in parks.”

On the music scene in Shanghai in the late 2000s, John Howkins wrote in The Australian: “Mainstream pop is everywhere and cutesy muzak blasts out in every shopping mall and foyer, indistinguishable from other Asian pop. But alternative, edgier music is so underground as to be almost invisible. Young people enjoy fashion, clubbing and gaming, but the idea that pop and rock might be an act of youthful rebellion has not taken root. China doesn't really have a youth culture in that sense. The idea of doing something to be different from one's parents is seen as a Western malaise. The Ministry of Culture keeps a watchful eye and has veto rights over lyrics before they can be recorded.” [Source: John Howkins, The Australian July 28, 2008]

In the late 2000s, Beijing had a small but active techno and rave scene. 2Kolegas, a bar inside a drive-in movie theater in eastern Beijing, and Sugar Jar, a Beijing music store, were ground zero for China’s avant-garde music scene. The former hosted a range of experimental and abstract electronica musicians. The latter sold recordings with titles like China; the Sonic Avant-Garde. Recordings deemed successful sell hundreds of copies. Artists make the little money they make playing at art galleries and making ambient music for real estate developers.

Techno artists active in Beijing include Wang Fan; Sulumi; Yan Jun; FM3, the inventors of the drone-producing Buddha Machine; 718 (the performer Sun Wei); the rock musician Dou Wei, who has a number of spacey recordings that use traditional Chinese instruments; Huanqing, a Sichian-based group that records traditional folk music in villages and manipulates it electronically; and Tortured Nurse, described by the New York Times as one of the “most extreme noise groups” in China.

China Becomes Enraptured with K-Pop Culture in the Mid 2000s

Reporting from Beijing, Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “At Korea City, on the top floor of the Xidan Shopping Center, a warren of tiny shops sell hip-hop clothes, movies, music, cosmetics and other offerings in the South Korean style. To young Chinese shoppers, it seemed not to matter that some of the products, like New York Yankees caps or Japan's Astro Boy dolls, clearly have little to do with South Korea. Or that most items originated, in fact, in Chinese factories. "We know that the products at Korea City are made in China," said Wang Ying, 28, who works for the local branch of an American company. "But to many young people, 'Korea' stands for fashionable or stylish. So they copy the Korean style." [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, January 2, 2006]

“From clothes to hairstyle, music to television dramas, South Korea has been defining the tastes of many Chinese and other Asians for the past half decade. As part of the Korean Wave,a television drama about a royal cook, "The Jewel in the Palace," is garnering record ratings throughout Asia, and Rain, a 23-year-old singer from Seoul, drew more than 40,000 fans to a sold-out concert at a sports stadium here.

“For a country that has been influenced by other cultures, especially China but also Japan and America, South Korea finds itself at a turning point in its new role as exporter. South Korean movies and dramas about urban professionals in Seoul, though not overtly political, present images of modern lives centering on individual happiness and sophisticated consumerism. They also show enduring Confucian-rooted values in their emphasis on family relations, offering to Chinese both a reminder of what was lost during the Cultural Revolution and an example of an Asian country that has modernized and retained its traditions. "Three Guys and Three Girls" and "Three Friends" are South Korea's homegrown version of the American TV show "Friends." As for "Sex and the City," its South Korean twin, "The Marrying Type," a sitcom about three single professional women in their 30's looking for love in Seoul, was so popular in China that episodes were illegally downloaded or sold on pirated DVD's.

“"We feel that we can see a modern lifestyle in those shows," said Qu Yuan, 23, a student at Tsinghua University here. "American dramas also show the same kind of lifestyle. We know that South Korea and America have similar political systems and economies. But it's easier to accept that lifestyle from South Koreans because they are culturally closer to us. We feel we can live like them in a few years." "They seem to have similar lifestyles," Ms. Qu said. "They have friends and go to bars. They have good mobile phones and good cars and lead comfortable lives." Her classmate, Huo Kan, 23, said, "American dramas are too modern....Something like 'Sex and the City' is too alien to us." Jin Yaxi, 25, a graduate student at Beijing University, said, "We like American culture, but we can't accept it directly." "And there is no obstacle to our accepting South Korean culture, unlike Japanese culture," said Ms. Jin, who has studied both Korean and Japanese. "Because of the history between China and Japan, if a young person here likes Japanese culture, the parents will get angry."

“Politics also seems to underlie the Chinese preference for South Korean-filtered American hip-hop culture. Messages about rebelliousness, teenage angst and freedom appear more palatable to Chinese in their Koreanized versions. Kwon Ki Joon, 22, a South Korean who attends Beijing University and graduated from a Chinese high school here, said his male Chinese friends were fans of South Korea hip-hop bands, like H.O.T., and its song "We Are the Future." A sample of the song's lyrics translate roughly as: "We are still under the shadows of adults/Still not Free/To go through the day with all sorts of interferences is tiring." To Mr. Kwon, there is no mystery about the band's appeal. "It's about wanting a more open world, about rebelliousness," he said. "Korean hip-hop is basically trying to adapt American hip-hop."

Chinese Government Control of Pop Music

20080303-Leon Lai.jpg
Leon Lai,
another Four King

The Communist government likes pop music that promotes party values and soothes the masses:. Most of the stiff hear in the radio these days is uplifting ballads and gentle love songs. Rock is given only brief moments of air time in the middle of the night. The lyrics of one song often played on state-run radio went in 2007: “Don’t care about loneliness/ I don’t think it really matters.” Another went “Ah, little man, ah, succeed quickly/ Enjoy being poor but happy every day.”

The Chinese government keeps tight control of the music industry through ownership of all the broadcast media, the screening of lyrics for all commercial music and direct control of performing sites.The result if this is an incredible bland state-approved music scene and encouragement to serious musicians to work underground.

One Chinese music told the New York Times, “Nowadays singers can sing many songs, but in the end, they’re all singing the same song, the core of which is, “Have fun.” Culture has become an empty vessel.” The lead singer of a Shanghai-based rock group called Three Yellow Chicken said, “What prevails here is worse than garbage. Because China emphasizes stability and harmony, the greatest utility of these pop songs is that they aren’t dangerous to the system. If people could hear undergrown music, it would make them feel the problems in their lives and want ti change things.”

Rock fans at an underground club popular with university students in Shanghai told the New York Times, “What’s on the radio are brainless mouthwash songs that all copy each other...Once you hear the first rhythm you know the rest.”

Defending what is played on the radio, insisting it reflects popular tastes, on DJ on a state-owned radio station told the New York Times, “It’s whether you’re happy or not that counts, and not the substance. Life is smooth, and so music is more about soothing things. Anyone can criticize or blame. What we need right now is guidance.”

Shanghai band Top Floor Circus, whose satirical lyrics poked fun at government projects in the city, had concerts banned by police in 2009. "Rock as entertainment is totally safe, but there are limits. Some things are OK but suddenly you bump up against the wall," Jonathan Campbell, a scholar of Chinese pop music, told NPR.

China Outlaws Lip-Synching

“In November 2008, in the wake of the international response to nine-year-old girl lip-synching during the Olympic opening ceremony, decided to outlaw lip-synching. The Ministry of Culture said it was outlawing the widespread practice during live performances, as well as clamping down on musicians who pretend to play their instruments during shows.” [Source:David Eimer, The Telegraph, November 14, 2008]

“There was an outpouring of anger following the revelation that child star Lin Miaoke had been miming when she sang “Ode To The Motherland” during the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The cute nine-year-old's performance captured the hearts of the Chinese, until organizers of the ceremony admitted she had been lip-synching. Another girl had sung the popular song, but had been judged not pretty enough to represent China in front of the world. Officials justified the decision as being in the “national interest”.”

“The Ministry of Culture said it would name and shame performers caught lip-synching. Those who are caught miming twice will have their performing licenses revoked, according to proposed new legislation. Sun Qiuxia, an official with the Ministry of Culture, said: “People who perform for profit should not cheat audiences with fake singing or by pretending to play instruments.”

“Lip-synching has long been common practice in China. One Chinese pop star claimed that less than 20 per cent of singers actually sang when performing live. Zheng Jun told local media: “I once met a well-known singer at a show who didn't even recognize his song was playing, because it had been so long since he performed it live.”

“In February, China's biggest movie star Zhang Ziyi was the subject of widespread derision after she mimed her way through a song while appearing on China's most-watched TV show on Chinese New Year's Eve.”

In April 2010, two Chinese singers have become the first people in the country to fall foul of new rules banning lip-synching. The two young women were spotted lip-synching during a concert in the south-western city of Chengdu last year, the official Xinhua news agency said on its website. “No signals were received from their microphones while the show was on,” it quoted an official with the local government's cultural affairs office as saying. The two have been fined 50,000 yuan (£4,763) each, Xinhua added. Some have wondered why these first fines were levelled against two unknown singers. “Why do they choose to keep their eyes closed when it's a famous singer miming?” one commentator wrote on the website of the Beijing Daily. [Source: The Guardian, Reuters, April 11, 2010]

Pop Music Scene in China in the 2010s

Andy Lau, another Four King
These days the pop music scene in China, like much of Asia, is dominated by K-Pop and cutesy “boy bands.” Fans are predominantly female, ranging from teenagers to recent college graduates. The term “husband” is used by such fans to describe male pop stars who are so charming they fantasize about marrying them. Female fans at concerts are sometimes reminiscent of the female fans during Beatlemania. They shriek and cry uncontrollably, drown out the songs, and lung forward to touch the hands of their idols and give them bouquets of flowers. [Source: Zheping Huang, Quartz, March 30, 2017]

After the hip group IN3 was detained for a week and their music was banned in 2015, AFP reported: “There are now dozens of commercial acts, but IN3's lyrics “are reflections of our generation and are real”, said DJ Wordy, a mainstay of the Beijing scene. “In hip hop, if you don't talk about the government and real stuff, you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Right now in Beijing it is not a good time for anything in music.[Source: AFP, December 31, 2015]

In the late 2010s, the Chinese government began increasing using music, videos and animation to convey its propaganda. In October 2015, according to the New York Times, the Fuxing Lushang Studio, a mysterious team that has produced several viral videos praising the party, released a song in English about China’s 13th Five-Year Plan. [Source: Vanessay Piao and Patrick Boehler, Sinosphere, New York Times, February 2, 2016]

In early 2016, a video extolling Xi Jinping’s ideology tapped into rap and Beethoven to get its message across. “It is everyone’s dream, to build a moderately prosperous society comprehensively,” goes the song in a cartoon video released by Xinhua, the state news agency. It then goes on to promote the “Four Comprehensives,” priorities that President Xi Jinping laid out in December 2014: 1) Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society; 2) Comprehensively deepen reform; 3) Comprehensively govern the country according to the law; and 4) Comprehensively apply strictness in governing the party.

“There will be no panic in our hearts, as long as food is not a concern and our hands are full of money,” the main singer shouts in a heavy Beijing accent. The video then cuts to the the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as the cartoon figures sing that, “with the Four Comprehensives, the China Dream will not be far away.” According to Xinhua the song will “both enrich your knowledge and help you achieve physical fitnes.”

Clampdown of the Pop Music Under Xi Jinping

In 2014, Communist leader Xi last year urged artists not to chase popularity with “vulgar works”. “Art and culture will emit the greatest positive energy when the Marxist view is firmly established,” he said in a speech which drew comparison with the diktats of Mao Zedong. In 2015, all of Beijing’s biggest popular music festivals were cancelled without notice throughout the year, he pointed out. [Source: AFP, December 31, 2015]

In 2015, the Ministry of Culture blacklisted 120 songs that it deemed “immoral.” The rap group IN3 claims they were grabbed by plain clothes police and detained for five days without charge. The atmosphere has become particularly repressive since Xi Jinping took power. Rocker Cui Jan told The Times of London:“The fear is always around. It’s like smoke.” [Source: Jamie Fullerton, The Times of London, August 2016]

According to The Atlantic: Although the laws governing the censorship were left deliberately vague, they were strictly enforced. Artists “whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble,” the Communist Party said, were no longer able to perform in public. "In China, you never know exactly what is forbidden,” says a Chinese rapper in David Verbeek’s short documentary Trapped in the City of a Thousand Mountains. “That’s actually a very clever tactic. It makes everyone more careful. Without a clear boundary, people will be more prone to self-censor."[Source: The Atlantic, Oct 11, 2019]

“According to Verbeek, censorship, digital espionage, and surveillance have had a widespread impact on Chinese youth. The situation “has numbed people’s brains to critical thought, and has, ironically, turned them into the perfect consumers for Western materialism,” he said. “But despite all the brainwashing, the Chinese remain soulful people, full of character and spirit. Their openness and generosity will always continue to surprise me — it’s in direct contrast to their government.”

Chinese Government Worries About BTS Idol Effect on Its Young Men

The government in Beijing has become worried that the popularity of BTS and other makle K-Pop groups was turning Chinese boys and young men into ‘sissy pants’ men who wear make-up and earrings. Associated Press reported: “China’s boy bands and celebrities are influenced by K-pop idols from South Korea like BTS. People such as Jackson Yee — with their delicate beauty, dyed hair and haute couture wardrobes — have a massive following among women in the country. But China’s state-run media condemns the young idols, calling them “sissy pants” and “young fresh meat”. The backlash deepened after a back-to-school TV programme featured the boy band F4. Angry parents attacked the Education Ministry’s decision to hold up the cosmetics-wearing young men as role models; state media warned that a “sick” and “decadent” culture threatened the future of the nation. [Source: Associated Press, May 8, 2019]

“The gender stereotyping is not just about gender identity itself,” said an author and researcher on Chinese masculinity. “It’s about the reproduction of the nation and how to properly cultivate the next generation.” Dr Song Geng of the University of Hong Kong said the fear partly reflects deep-seated insecurity about Chinese power, after historical humiliations such as the opium wars and domination of Chinese rulers by foreign imperial powers. “They’re worrying that if Chinese men are so effeminate … then we will become a weak country in future and we cannot compete with our rivals,” he said. “There’s anxiety about the virility of the nation being harmed by those effeminate male images.”

“In a nation where men dominate political and business leadership and campaigns for gender equality have gained little traction, the debate over what is “effeminate” has become a popular pastime among older conservative residents, and mostly among men. Screenwriter Wang Hailin says the young men resemble male prostitutes sought after by some affluent older women. “We need to be aware of this effeminacy before it’s too late and deal with it,” said Wang, 48. He has berated fellow screenwriters, saying they portray men as “wimps, cowards, losers and idiots” and that China should look to Hollywood for strong alpha male characters. “It has created the impression that Chinese men are all weak, irresponsible and indifferent,” he warned. “Male actors represent national ideology. We cannot encourage the younger generation to look up to them as role models.”

“Chinese military leaders seem to share fears about the nation’s men, with the army newspaper People’s Liberation Army Daily complaining that 20 per cent of recruits were not fit enough to pass the fitness test for admission because they were overweight, watched too many cellphone videos, drank too much or masturbated too often.

Books and Journals about Chinese pop music: ”Like a Knife” by Andrew Jones. Volume 32 - Issue 01 of the journal Popular Music (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=pmu) is dedicated to East Asian pop music. Articles: 1) Introduction: Special Issue – East Asian popular music and its (dis)contents by Hyunjoon Shin and Yoshitaka Mo-ri and Tunghung Ho pp 1-5; 2) “Strumming a place of one's own: gender, independence and the East Asian pop-rock screen” by Eva Tsai and Hyunjoon Shin pp 7-22; 3) “English and identity in East Asian popular music” by Phil Benson pp 23-33; 4) “Representing Japan: ‘national’ style among Japanese hip-hop DJs” by Noriko Manabe pp 35-50; 5) “The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders: Korean hip-hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’” by Hae-Kyung Um pp 51-64; 6) “Remapping Hong Kong popular music: covers, localisation and the waning hybridity of Cantopop” by Yiu-Wai Chu and Eve Leung pp 65-78; 7) Deliberating fandom and the new wave of Chinese pop: a case study of Chris Li by Anthony Fung pp 79-89; 8) Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music by Wendy F. Hsu pp 91-109; 9)‘A new stereophonic sound spectacular’: Shibuya-kei as transnational soundscape by Martin Roberts pp 111-123.

Image Sources: Fan blogs and websites

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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