When faced with what music to listen to in China, I have never been at a loss. TV shows, sure. I can count the ones that aren’t terrible on one finger. But with an array of pop singers, folk music in hundreds of the country’s different languages, national hymns (though the words can be obnoxious, there are some great melodies to be found), and plenty of choices for live music of all types in cities big and small, you might catch yourself whistling a popular tune while on a crowded city bus, even if you don’t know the words.
Pop music in China is by far the most famous with young people. The Taiwanese singer and pianist, Jay Chou, is arguably the most popular, and beloved by Chinese girls from every corner of the globe. While his face is not recognized by many in the West, in the East it is probably more well-known than Lady Gaga’s. Other popular singers include Andy Lau, Deng Li Jun, Eason Chan, and Zhang Hui Mei. My personal favorite pop band is Chopstick Brothers, who also write, direct, and act in high quality short films (quality films in China are extremely rare). Some of these singers are from mainland China, but most of them are from Hong Kong and Tawain, and there are also a few from even Canada and the US.
Traditional Chinese music can be found all over China, popular in mega cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as secluded desert hamlets. In the video at the end of this post there is a segment containing a local Zhongshan group performing some traditional Cantonese music. Other types of traditional music include Chinese opera, and folk music (this can also be seen in the video below).
Young people studying the violin and piano are exposed to the same classical music we are in the West, including Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. The likes of Lang Lang came from this tradition. Classical music is as popular in China as it is in the US and Europe. Practicing piano in music stores was a weekly, sometimes daily event for me in China, and I can promise you Chinese primary school students get in lots and lots of practice outside of school.
Rock and Roll
Rock and roll and rap are not as popular in China as they are in the West, but most Chinese people I have met will know who The Beatles or Eminem are. Despite rock and roll not sharing the large audience that Chinese pop music has, more and more Chinese indie bands are performing all over China in cities like Beijing and Chengdu. And no post about rock and roll in China could be complete without mentioning Beyond, a band that came into being in the 1980s and was playing together, even after the death of their lead singer, Wong Ka Kui, into the mid 2000’s. The young Wong would learn guitar on his own, inspired by bands like Pink Floyd. And despite many people thinking him a freak for being so passionate about and focusing all his time on something as obscure as rock and roll at the time, he eventually formed the first successful and most well-known rock band in Asia to this day. Beyond kicks a lot of ass.
Before moving on, be sure to take a look at the video below showing some performances I recorded around Zhongshan. It should be noted I used to play second violin with the Zhongshan community orchestra shown here. I was told by one of the leaders I would not be able to perform with them because I was not good enough. Lol.
Feel free to leave a comment. Ask a question. Or share your experience with music of other cultures.
AUTHOR: NICK LENCZEWSKI
Nick Lenczewski (Len-chess-key) writes books and makes movies to help people discover the incredible life that living and traveling in China brings. He believes that listening to music, playing cards and drinking tea with friends is one of the best things in life. Nick is fluent in Mandarin.