20080303-Aaron Kwok.jpg
Aaron Kwok, one of the
Four Kings of Cantopop
The centers of Chinese pop music are Hong Kong and Taiwan not mainland China. Even Malaysia and Singapore often have 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]

Describing the gneral music scene in Beijing 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.”

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.

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

On the music scene in Shanghai, 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]

These days the pop music scene in China, like much of Asia, is dominated by cutesy “boy bands.” Female Chinese pop music fans are sometimes reminiscent of the female fans during Beatlemania. They shriek and cry uncontrollably during concerts, drown out the songs, and lung forward to touch the hands of their idols and give them bouquets of flowers.

Good Websites and Sources: Sinomania ; Chinese Popular Music Research ; Wikipedia article on C-Pop Wikipedia ; C-Pop English-language Commercial site ; Wikipedia article on Cantopop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Mandopop Wikipedia ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie ; Books and Journals about Chinese pop music: ”Like a Knife” by Andrew Jones. Volume 32 - Issue 01 of the journal Popular Music ( 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.


Music for the Little Emperor Generation

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.

Cantopop and Mandopop

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, "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."

Sources: Jeroen Groenewegen of wrote: “To my knowledge there is no English language academic book-length studydevoted 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. Then 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 ( is trying to get researchers of Asian popular music together.

Hong Kong Pop

Andy Lau, another Four King

Most popular pop songs in Asia are sung by Hong Kong artists, many of them homegrown. They release both Cantonese and Mandarin versions of their songs, and have been helped immensely by Channel V and MTV. Hong Kong pop stars also get 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.

There are 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 investigating 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.

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..."

Music Industry in China

20080303-Jacky Cheung 2.jpg
Jacky Cheung,
another Four King

The Chinese and Hong Kong music industry can draw a potential of audience of 1.4 billion Chinese in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Chinese communities in large cities around the world.

Sony Music Entertainment International, EMI Music Worldwide, BMG Entertainment International, MCA Music Entertainment Group, Polygram Holding Company and WEA International Services all want to get more involved in the Chinese market, promoting international recording artists and developing artists and markets in China.

As it stands now groups, musicians and singers on the mainland usually have to find an audience outside of China, usually in Hong Kong or Taiwan, if they want to make any money. In addition to being is infamous for pirated CDs and cassettes and China is also home to a music industry is notorious for ripping of its clients. Some artost make most of their money from endorsement deals.

Chinese musicians that make money generally do so through Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies. One of the more flamboyant figures in the Hong Kong entertainment business is Albert Yeang. The head of the Emperor Entertainment Group, he is a friend of Jackie Chan and a tireless promoter who made millions fashioning famous pop singers out of nobodies. He drives around in a gold Rolls Royce and once paid a million dollars for a license plate with the lucky number “9.”

Yeung survived a bold kidnaping attempt in central Hong Kong, owned part of a casino in North Korea and had several run-ins with the law. He spent nine months in jail for intimidating a famous jockey while he was recovering in the hospital and was forced to close down a magazine after he ran a semi-nude photograph of an actress taken after she was kidnaped. Once he was acquitted of charges of intimidation and false imprisonment after five witnesses who were going to testify against him said they couldn’t recall what he had done.

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’s Struggling Music Industry

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the The Guardian, “China's central government, concerned that progress in the country's film, music and drama sectors lag behind its economic development, has designated culture a top national priority and promised billions of pounds in subsidies for the arts. "Culture is the lifeblood of a nation," President Hu Jintao said at the start of the country's once-in-a-decade leadership transition in November. While some fields have flourished under state support – its output of films has quadrupled since 2003 – China's music industry is still fledgling, perennially constrained by rampant piracy and a stifling undercurrent of government control. While Gangnam Style cemented Korea's place on the world pop map, China is still struggling with how to keep many of its artists paid. "The industry is so small that we don't have enough writers, enough song creators, enough composers, we don't have enough bands," said Scarlett Li, the founder of music festival promoter Zebra Media.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, December 25, 2012 ////]

“Analysts say the music industry's problems are primarily economic. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has said that the country has a piracy rate of "virtually 100 percent". Yet many issues can be traced back to the heavy hand of the state. Television and radio stations are tightly regulated, giving artists little room to experiment with edgy content like the offbeat satire that propelled Gangnam Style's singer Psy to international fame. ////

“Rather than investing in talent, local governments frequently take cultural subsidies as a green light to build opera houses, performance arenas, and other high-profile property projects. "None of the money goes to the artists, it goes to middle men," Li said. "But the middle men are not at the centre of creating content. This makes no sense to me." ////

“The Chinese government has tried promoting folk heroes, with mixed results. In 2011, after a migrant worker duo achieved internet fame with a gruff cover of a Chinese pop song – think grainy mobile phone footage, empty beer bottles, cigarettes – the government invited them to perform at that year's spring festival gala, one of the world's most-viewed performances. But soon after their debut, the group caved in under the pressures of sudden fame and an unforgiving market. "People say that I shouldn't be using an iPhone because I'm a migrant worker," guitarist Liu Gang said last winter. "It drives me crazy." In September, Chinese media admonished Liu for driving an Audi and verbally abusing a pedestrian in a traffic dispute. ////

“International music labels are desperate to crack China's potentially massive market – Warner, Sony and Universal all have offices in Beijing. Yet for foreign investors in China's domestic media, the barriers to entry are sky-high. Take Beijing startup Rock the Web, an online American Idol-style talent show whose winners will record with A-list producers in Los Angeles. According to Ilya Agapkin, the company's Russian co-founder, gaining approval for the show was almost entirely dependent on his ability to navigate an intricate web of government contacts. "Of course, this area that we are working in is quite sensitive, because the media market is closed to foreign investments," he said. "The regulations are very complicated." Agapkin's team spent a year acquiring permits. "To be on the internet, you need a special licence. To be an agency you need a special licence. To be a culture company you need a special licence," said Xiong Jialin, the company's music director. Some of these licences require employees to attend classes and pass written tests at government institutions.” ////

Efforts to Improve China’s Music Industry

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the The Guardian, “Things are improving. Last year, the central government formed a committee for enforcing intellectual property rights laws headed by the vice-premier. Baidu Music and Tencent Music, two leading online free music suppliers, have agreed to begin charging for downloads at the beginning of 2013. China recorded £52 million in music sales in 2011, a rise of about 23 percent over 2010. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, December 25, 2012 ////]

“Over the past few years, there has been a boom in music festivals, multiple-day affairs rife with Converse footwear, neon-dyed hair and studded leather bracelets. Li said that despite their rough-edged aesthetic, many festivals are encouraged or even sponsored by local governments as a way to boost tourism revenue while increasing their cultural clout. The official presence at many festivals is unmistakable. Flocks of green-coated security guards stand by the stage and goose-step in formation through the audience. Many ban alcohol. ////

“Beijing officials have announced plans to spend more than 10 years and $2.3 billion turning the area into the "China Music Valley", a sprawling compound that will be home to recording studios, instrument makers, music schools, five-star hotels and an arena in the shape of a peach. The complex will be located in Pinggu village, an hour's drive from central Beijing, among Mao-era farmhouses and parched cabbage fields. Yet "Music is such an intangible kind of art," said Zhao Wei, a 30-year-old official who directed the initiative until last month. "Now with this project, we want to turn music into something that you can see, something that you can touch." ////

“Despite the odds, some artists have forged their own path. Yan Haisong, the lead singer of the veteran Beijing rock band P.K.14, said his band made a decent living performing at festivals and producing records for up-and-coming artists. Yan added that no one in his professional circle had much interest in projects such as the China Music Valley. "Combining music and politics is really strange, because the music you get out of it just won't be any good," he said. "If they really want to improve this culture, they need to open up a bit." ////

Pop Music and the Internet in China


Online music sites have become a major forum for new and rising talent. While radio and television are tightly controlled by the government almost anything goes online and anyone can get their songs published without censorship or restrictions. Some of China most popular song in recent years such as Mice Love Rice got their first airings online. There have been efforts to curb the industry after the national anthem was turned into a parody about stock investing.

At the end of the Communist Party Congress in 2007, an official with the Chinese Music Association denounced the “vulgur” pop music that was finding it way to China’s youth via the Internet.

In September 2012, Michael Kan of IDG News Service wrote: “Google is shutting a Chinese music search service that offered free licensed music downloads because it wasn't popular enough, the company said.The announcement came in a blog posting from senior engineering director Boon-Lock Yeo, who said the company was shutting down the service in order to focus on improving more influential Google products. [Source: Michael Kan, IDG News Service, September 21, 2012 ]

Google launched its free music service in China in 2009 as a way to compete with rival Baidu, which offers a similar service that makes it easy for users to locate free MP3 downloads. To provide the free music, the service relied on links to licensed downloads from the Google-funded, a Chinese online music provider that has signed licensing deals with various labels across the world. But despite the partnership, Yeo said in his blog, "the product's influence never quite reached as high as our expectations for it. Therefore, we have decided to transfer its resources to other products." "It's regrettable, and we feel sorry about the shutdown," said Gary Chen, CEO for

“The company initially had high hopes for Google's music service, which when launched exceeded's expectations for user numbers and advertising revenue. At the same time, the service was also important in pioneering a new business model for online music, at a time when most users in China were downloading pirated songs over the Internet. "This was the first licensed music service in China," Chen said. "We were very excited that Google wanted to build a music search service that could completely change China's music piracy landscape."

“But since 2010,'s site has declined in popularity, which Chen attributes to the shutdown of Google's China-based search engine. "We gave a lot of suggestions to Google," he said, noting that online music business was a politically safer option for the search giant to invest in. "There are also a lot of cases of companies using music to expand. Baidu has its MP3 search, Apple has its iPod and iTunes. They all used music to build up their services," Chen said.

“One of the suggestions Chen recommended included Google offering an Android-based music service for China. But despite the input from, Google never changed its strategy, Chen said, and instead has decided to focus its resources on other products. With the loss of Google's music search, plans on shifting gears and focusing on areas like China's mobile Internet space. But despite the company's struggles, Chen said and Google helped stop online music piracy in China by providing an alternative business model. Last year, Baidu also began paying record companies to offer licensed music, after years of facing criticism for hosting links to pirated songs. "More sites are providing licensed music downloads now. It's because we started this project, that this happened," Chen said.

Pirated Music in China

Piracy accounts for 95 percent of the music and CD sales in China. On the streets of Shanghai it possible to buy CDs by Western artists such Pink Floyd, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Sting, Leonard Bernstein, Bon Jovi and The Strokes for as little as 50 cents a piece. Local favorites, such as "Red Sun," a collection of popular Chinese revolutionary songs, are also available.

Pirated music grosses $2 billion a year and accounts for 5 percent of the $40 billion music industry. The pirated music trade is well organized and has ties with organized crime. China reportedly has 40 factories producing compacts discs, most of which are purchased domestically.

The sale of CDs and DVDs, including pirated copies, increased from 63.4 million in 1994 to 80 million in 2000 to 109 million in 2001.

Effect of Piracy on the Music Industry in China

Record companies don’t even bother with traditional album style record contracts or setting up distribution networks and instead concentrate more on talent management and making money in ways other than selling recordings. New artists have to spend their own money to promote themselves because record companies can’t do it.

Only 20 or so professional-quality albums are produced a year in China. Star musicians make their money from appearances, live performances and endorsement deals. Concerts have become big promotions, with several artists sharing the stage so sponsors get the most bang for their money. An industry-created all-girls group called Mei Mei group had a two year contract with M&M candy before any members had even been selected.

The singer Wang Lee Ho told the International Herald Tribune, “Pirates have already killed China’s music industry dead. It frustrates my life and destroys China’s creative future.” Hohas shown up at promotional appearances of a traditional sword up to an oversized CD with the Chinese character for theft

An executive with Warner Music Asia told the International Herald Tribune, “There is no income from the royalties, so artist in China record single songs for radio play instead of albums for consumers. Stars need to look elsewhere to finance the rock-star lifestyle.”

Chanel V and MTV

left right

Channel V is an MTV-like, Hong-Kong-based all music network that beams mostly Hong Kong pop music all over Asia. Most Westerners find the music — much of it syrupy ballads — and the videos to be pretty boring.

MTV Mandarin is MTV’s Chinese-language channel in China,. As of 2001, it was broadcast a maximum of six hours a day and reached 60 million homes through 40 or so Chinese cable systems. In 2000, 10,000 teens came from all over China to audition to be MTV veejays.

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin met with director of MTV. In the mid 2000s, MTV was lobbying for the right to broadcast 24 hours a day and access to the 80 million to 100 million homes with ordinary cable.

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]

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 January 2014

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