Oldies but Goodies…Not in China

Posted in Pop Culture at 1:59 pm by Benjamin Ross

Chinese popular music is not for everyone. When I say “not for everyone,” I am referring to those citizens of the world who are neither a) part of China’s roughly 1.5 billion inhabitants or b) have been in China long enough to be desensitized to the point where they can open up to the idea that not all Chinese pop is as horrendous as that which dominates 99% of the radio waves.

This past weekend, a friend from Fuzhou came to visit me in Chicago. Accordingly, I set my iTunes to play some of my own personal favorite Chinese artists, including Zheng Zhi Hua, Wu Bai, and the now-defunct Hong Kong rock band Beyond. In the middle of Beyond’s anthem 抗战二十年, I asked my friend what she thought of the song.

“It’s so…old,” was her response. This would not be so significant if it weren’t for that this is the same response I get 99% of the time when asked by Chinese people who my favorite Chinese singers are. The “It’s so…old” is usually accompanied by a non-verbal but completely understood, “You are such a dork for listening to that stuff from the 80’s and 90’s.”

Old or not, I have found that most of the Chinese pop music I can stand to listen to does come from the previous two decades. Over the past decade most Chinese popular music has increasingly devolved into the shells of shallow American pop songs, with their words replaced by even sappier Chinese lyrics. The artists mentioned above, while not musically spectacular, do have a certain element of soul to their music which is absent in most contemporary Chinese pop.

So now consider the my situation had it been in the United States. If I were to tell several American friends that two of my favorite musical groups were U2 and the Talking Heads, would it elicit a response of “Gosh, those guys are so old”? My guess is probably not.

China is in currently the midst of a period of change more rapid than at any other point in its history. Many observers would argue that the greatest mass improvement in living standards in human history has also come at the expense of one of the world’s longest lasting cultures.

To say that the musical group Beyond is anything more than a footnote in China’s 5000 year history would be a stretch. But in terms of the short history of rock music in China, Beyond is as influential on the Chinese scene as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones would be to that of the West.

Discounting cultural works, especially music, on account of them being old (but not necessarily out of date), is nothing foreign to the China or the US. But the degree of street cred I lose from confessing to liking artists such as Beyond, Zheng Zhi Hua, and Wu Bai does leave me a little worried about the future of music in the Middle Kingdom. And if popular music is indeed a microcosm of Chinese culture itself, then we could be headed towards a period of even more drastic change than we have seen in the past few decades. As for me, I will still be listening to Beyond and the Talking Heads.


  1. malaprops United States said,

    November 22, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    That’s funny–when I got to China and people asked me about Chinese music, I’d mention that I liked Anita Mui and a few would say, “But she’s not pretty…you should listen to Beyond!”

  2. jasmine China said,

    November 23, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Hi, Ben
    It is being so long i haven’t hear from you. So you are back to Chicago now, huh? It is such a pity for all your friends in China, esp. in Fujian, but it probably better for you. And I am sure everybody will feel glad as i do when they know you still doing so well there. You got a great menmory and an amazing learning ablilty, you made the most of your 3.5 years China experience, we are so prond of once knowing you.
    Take care, and good luck with everything!

  3. Jet So China said,

    November 23, 2007 at 10:51 am

    The remarkable thing about your favourite bands are that they weren’t actually born and raised in the mainland itself! Both Anita Mui (梅艳芳) & Beyond were brought up in the mean streets of Mongkok of Hong Kong. Zheng Zhi Hua (郑智化) and Wu Bai ( 伍佰) are local Taiwanese. Not exactly home-grown talents in China. What about Cui Jian (崔健) or even Ai Jing (艾敬)?

    All in all, I enjoy your tastes (although I’m more particular to Wu Bai than ZZH) and agree with your assessment on the present “dribble” in the Chinese music scene.

  4. lynn China said,

    November 23, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Hi Ben,

    I just know you from one article in 21st Century. Happy to see your all fresh ideas about China which are in foreigner’s prospect. I’ll keep my eyes on your blog, and just leave me footprint here.:)

  5. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 24, 2007 at 3:21 am

    @ Malaprops

    Interesting, I never noticed Beyond to be especially good looking either, which is kind of why I respected them all the more, since they had to rely mostly on their musical ability (not sex appeal) to make it to the top. For a counterexample, consider S.H.E. Their voices have no distinguishing qualities. The melodies for most of their popular songs are directly stolen from Western pop songs…but hey, they’re hot. Sure makes those karaoke videos a little easier to sit though. .

  6. canrun China said,

    November 24, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    I tired discussing this article with a high-level adult class last week:


    A complete, total dud. When I first arrived six years ago, I tried really hard to expose my (adult) students to what would be considered the “most influential” music in the west over the past century. (i.e. using the list from Rolling Stone magazine, even though I despise Bob Dylan. But I digress…)

    Anyhow- for this first time in years and for a lark, I had them brainstorm “western” musicians they knew. Backstreet boys. Westlife. Carpenters. One 40 year-old businessman said “Richard..uh..um…plays the piano…” Oh yeah! F#$#@$in’ Clyderman.


    Anyone?? Anyone??? Going once?? Twice??? No sale…

    Head meets wall once again. Long live Michael Learns to Rock.

  7. lei United States said,

    November 24, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    i agreed with most of what u said about the chinese pop music scene, but as soon as u said S.H.E are hot, u lost all your creditability.

  8. Handan China said,

    November 24, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Good observation. Rings true to me and makes me think of the difficulty of getting DVDs of older movies here down in Shenzhen, which, as the Icelandic President curiosly put it while he was sitting side by side with Shenzhen mayor, is the place to go to feel how fast the world is changing.

    Well, I don’t know what benefits rapid changes bring, but it sure leaves the street vendors here utterly uninterested in selling any movie older than like two months. When I asked, sometimes furiously, why? Why only the latest ones? The answer was always, older ones don’t sell!

    Well, this makes economic sense but points to an absurd buyer mentality. I don’t get it. Do people here watch only the latest movies? So that they don’t feel out on a lunch table?

    Oh, and if I ask specifically for something 2, 3 years old, the vendor’d say, “That’s old. How come you didn’t watch it when it came out?” If it’s something dated way back, they’d just know nothing about it.

    Looks like movie and music in today’s China are just that latest Gucci bag.

  9. Rene United States said,

    November 28, 2007 at 4:23 am

    While I agree that there might be a lot of junk in China nowadays, I do think you are being a little unfair discounting all Chinese pop.

    “Many observers would argue that the greatest mass improvement in living standards in human history has also come at the expense of one of the world’s longest lasting cultures.”

    I’m not so sure I agree. I think a lot of artists are trying to meld traditional Chinese sounds with Western pop styles (e.g., Jay Zhou, Wang Leehom, and S.H.E.–who seem to be despised by everyone who has commented). In fact people are saying the same thing about the decline of so-called American cultural values. But change is not necessarily a bad thing. The more important thing is what is being changed.

    Personally, the thing that worries me most about Chinese pop is the general lack of political agency, but I don’t think Anita Mui had that either.

  10. canrun China said,

    November 28, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    “Personally, the thing that worries me most about Chinese pop is the general lack of political agency, but I don’t think Anita Mui had that either.”

    The 18-23 year-olds in my class literally had never heard of Cui Jian (崔健). No wonder they also have NO idea what I’m talking about when I vaguely make reference to “1989.”

  11. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 29, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Can canrun or anybody else recommend some good cui jian tunes? I have downloaded a few from baidu, but they were not the groundbreaking Chinese rock I had anticipated, and please note my liberal use of the word “groundbreaking.”

  12. canrun China said,

    November 29, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    I recently downloaded (what I thought to be ) Cui Jian’s version of 一块红布, but it turned out to be a very, very sweet melody be a singer who sounded somewhat like Lin Yi Lian (Sandy Lam.) I wonder if anyone knows who did this cover version? I would say that the lyrics of ‘A Piece of Red Cloth” are just about as moving as anything I have ever heard to describe the way the government…and society in general…treats ‘the people’ here in the Middle Kingdom.


  13. canrun China said,

    November 29, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Oh…glad I kept my copy of the ONLY edition of Chinese Rolling Stone!




    Ben…another place to look for “different” music:


  14. canrun China said,

    December 8, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Never got an “Atta Boy” from Ben for my musical insights. Humph. Poor me. :(

    Ok, then from now on I’ll suggest Celine Dion, Captain & Tennille, Zamfir and…nose flautist extraodinaire…Kenny G (my college voice teacher’s brother-Brian Gorelick. Really. Can’t make that up…)

  15. boyce China said,

    December 9, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Teresa Deng,

    I know lots of Chinese people who still love her pop music. There are tons of her releases in music shops and my co-workers sing her songs at KTV. And her stuff is “old.”

    Cheers, Boyce

    By the way, ifyou want to feel old, read Beloit College’s recent mindset list:


  16. Micah Sittig China said,

    December 13, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    “Do people here watch only the latest movies? So that they don’t feel out on a lunch table?”

    They’re not talking about movies over lunch, they’re talking… real estate.

    And seeing Kenny G perform in China is one of my all-time greatest musical memories. No joke. On par with the SUBS.

  17. claire China said,

    December 18, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    for my part, chinese pop music nowadays is rather disappointing. listening to them is much the same as drinking pure water, no taste…;( earlier music is worth-listening yet china is undergoing a sea change and most of their music is already out of young generation’s favour.

    btw, i like wubai for his exotic voice.. haha

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