A song for each year of the People’s Republic of China.
This is an attempt to distill the many diverse, fascinating currents of music in mainland China over the last 70 years into a primer, an invitation to dig deeper. From revolutionary operas and western classical to rock’n’roll, disco, punk and hip-hop — China blasted through 200 years of music history in just over half a century. In many ways, it offered a re-telling of conventional musical wisdom. Of what music could be and do. That’s worth listening to.
- These are not ’70 Chinese songs’ but rather 70 songs that defined music IN China in that year or since. They’re not necessarily the most popular but rather tracks that captured alternative currents, emergent trends and fissures in Chinese society.
- There are obvious deficiencies in this list: regional canon, such as the music of Yunnan or northwest China, is not adequately represented. Some genres are missing, and other choices are weird, based on research and not emotional, lived experience. This can be fixed! If anyone has any critique, suggestions or questions, please let me know at @krishraghav on Twitter!
- The Higher Brothers are missing from the list and that’s intentional.
The Full List:
1949: Tian Han田汉 / Nie Er 聂耳
义勇军进行曲 (March of the Volunteers)
1950: Cao Huoxing 曹火星
没有共产党就没有新中国 (Without the Party, There is no New China)
1951: Shankar Jaikishan / Raj Kapoor
Awara Hoon, from ‘Awaara’ (The Wanderer)
1952: Xian Xinghai 冼星海, the ‘People’s Composer’
黄河大合唱 Yellow River Cantata
1953: Tongfu 通福 / Wang Shuli 王树理, Wu Xiuyun吴秀云
敖包相会 (Meeting at the Fair) from 草原上的人们 (People on the Prairie)
1954: Shostakovich - Symphony No. 10 (as seen by Li Delun 李德伦)
1955: Liu Zhi 刘炽
让我们荡起双桨 （Let’s Swing Twin Oars）
1956: 我的祖国 from 上甘岭 (Battle on Shangganling Mountain)
1957: 九九艳阳天 from 柳堡的故事(The Story of Liubao Village)
1958: 李焕之 Li Huanzhi
社会主义好 (Socialism is Good)
1959: He Zhanhao何占豪 / Chen Gang陈钢
梁祝小提琴协奏曲 Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
1960: 五朵金花 from 五朶金花 (Five Golden Flowers)
1961: 娘子军连歌 (Song of the Women’s Detachment)
1962: Lata Mangeshkar
Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo (O' People of my Country)
1963: Yin Chengzong 殷承宗
红灯记 (Red Lantern Piano Piece)
1964: 大海航行靠舵手 (Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman)
1965: 白毛女 (The White Haired Girl), Ballet Version
1966: 东方红 (The East is Red)
1967: 万岁 毛主席 (Long Live Chairman Mao)
1968: 我爱北京天安门 (I Love Beijing Tiananmen)
1969: Xian Xinghai 冼星海, directed by Jiang Qing 江青
黄河协奏曲 Yellow River Piano Concerto
1970: Li Guyi 李谷一
边疆的泉水清又纯 (The Springs of the Frontiers are Clear and Pure)
1971: 全世界人民一定胜利 (The People of the World Will be Victorious)
Dzaypa’i Rinzin Wangmo (Beautiful Rinzin Wangmo)
1972: The People’s Liberation Army Marching Band
Home on the Range (Cover)
1973: 李双江 Li Shuangjiang
我爱五指山，我爱万泉河 (I love Wuzhishan, I love Wanquanhe)
1974: Red Star Shines 红星闪闪 from Shining Red Star 闪闪的红星
1975: Sam Hui 许冠杰
鬼馬雙星 (Games Gamblers Play)
1976: Richard Clayderman
'Ballade Pour Adeline’
1977: Teresa Teng邓丽君
月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents My Heart)
1978: 侯德健Hou Dejian
龙的传人 (Descendants of the Dragon)
The Beatles - Jey Jude (万里马王乐队 cover)
1980: Su Xiaoming 苏小明
军港之夜 (Night on a Naval Base)
1981: Jean-Michel Jarre
Souvenir de Chine
1982: Peng Li Yuan 彭丽媛
在希望的田野上 (On Fields of Hope)
1983: 张国荣 Leslie Cheung
风继续吹 (The Wind Blows)
1984: 张明敏 Zhang Minmin
我的中国心（My Chinese Heart）
1986: Cui Jian崔健
一无所有 (Nothing to My Name)
1987: Fei Xiang费翔
冬天里的一把火 (A Fire in Winter)
Zang Tian Shuo臧天朔
Also 1987 but really from THE FUTURE:
西游记片头 (Title Song from Journey to the West)
1988: Chang Yusheng张雨生
我的未来不是梦 (Your Life Is Not a Dream)
Rangzen Shonu རང་བཙན་གཞོན་ནུ
We Tibetan Nomads
1989: Concert for Democracy in China群星为八九民运创作的
为自由 (For Freedom)
1990: Kenny G
1991: Lo Da-Yu罗大佑
東方之珠 (Pearl of the Orient)
1992: Tang Dynasty唐朝
梦回唐朝 (A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty)
Don't Break My Heart
海阔天空 (Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies)
1994: Dou Wei 窦唯
噢！乖 (Be Good, Boy)
Zhang Chu 张楚
蚂蚁蚂蚁 (The Ant)
1995: Lao Lang老狼
同桌的你 (You, My Deskmate)
Mehman Bashlidim (I Brought Home a Guest)
1996: Jiang Kairu 蒋开儒
春天的故事 (A Story of Spring )
你是該死的！(Begone with You!)
Early 1999: The Bored Contingent无聊军队
朋克万岁 (Long Live Punk)
Mid 1999: The Flowers花儿乐队
Late 1999: Pu Shu朴树
New Boy from 我去2000年 (I Want to Go to the Year 2000)
2000: Faye Wong王菲
2001: Jay Chou 周杰倫
2002: Xu Wei许巍
蓝莲花 (Blue Lotus)
2003: Hang on the Box 挂在盒子上
2004: P.K. 14
燥眠夜 ("Zoomin' Night")
刀郎 Dao Lang
2002年的第一場雪 (The First Snows of 2002)
2005: Xiang Xiang香香
猪之歌 (The Pig Song)
Buddha Machine v1
2006: Khalil Fong 方大同
爱爱爱 (Love Love Love)
Bye Bye Disco
2007: Carsick Cars
2008: Yin San’er 阴三儿
北京晚报 (Beijing Evening News)
2009: Chris Lee 李宇春
三十年 （Thirty Years）
顶楼马戏团 Top Floor Circus
上海欢迎你 (Shanghai Welcomes You)
2010: Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店
杀死那个石家庄人 (Kill that Man from Shijiazhuang)
Hua Lun 花论
上海观光客 (Shanghai Tourist)
2011: Escape Plan 逃跑计划
夜空中最亮的星 (Brightest Star in the Sky)
2012: Hedgehog 刺猬乐队
乐队 (The Band)
2013: Duck Fight Goose 鸭打鹅
Future is a Cult
2014: EXO-M (Luhan 鹿晗 and Kris Wu)
央吉玛 Yunggie Ma
2015: Xiao Quan 萧全
社会摇 (Social Shake)
广东姑娘 (Canton Girl)
2016: No Party for Cao Dong 草东没有派对
2017: Abdurrehim Heyit ئابدۇرېھىم ھېيىت
2018: Lexie Liu 刘昱妤
2019: 願榮光歸香港 (Glory to Hong Kong)
1949 — March of the Volunteers
China’s national anthem, briefly suspended when lyricist Tian Han was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.
1950 — Without the Communist Party, There is no New China
Adapted from a 1943 chant in response to a Kuomintang slogan (Without the Kuomintang, there is no China), then modified by Mao Zedong in 1950. He added the word ‘新’ or ‘New’ before ‘China’.
1951 — Awara Hoon
A small number of Hindi films, and a few from Pakistan, somehow made it into China in the early Communist era — and an entire generation can hum ‘Awara Hoon’ to this day.
There’s a bigger story to be uncovered here. A small glimpse of the scale of this song’s popularity in China is seen in Vikram Seth’s ‘From Heaven Lake’, where he charms a police chief into letting him travel into Tibet *just* by singing this song.
1952 — Yellow River Cantata
Mao Yurun, formerly of the Shanghai Conservatory, has a fascinating paper on music under Mao, and the works of Xian Xinghai, the ‘People’s Composer’ in particular.
For more on the extraordinary story of western classical in Maoist China, I’d recommend Jindong Cai and Sheila Melvin’s ‘Rhapsody in Red’.
1953 — Meeting at the Fair
A recurring theme in the folksy red-adjacent songs of this time is the sheer diversity in setting and theme. As Julia Lovell has written in her (unmissable) new book ‘Maoism: A Global History’, a key objective at this time was to project the revolution as universal. The ‘frontiers’ of China were given special attention, with films and productions(like this one) set in..Prairies! Steppes! Hills! Islands!
1954 — Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10
The Soviet influence on early Communist China was all-important. In 1954, the composer Li Delun was sent to Moscow as one of thousands, to be trained at the Moscow Conservatory to build up China’s own classical institutions. The CCP’s political stance on this would shift sharply, soon, but Delun in Moscow was in heaven, going to concerts, galleries and museums. But he gets one little portent after attending the premiere of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony:
“I told [my professors] that this symphony had nothing to do with the modern USSR — it was so dark, and the USSR’s future was so bright!
My teacher did not say anything.”
1955 — Let’s Swing Twin Oars
A song beloved of many post-80s and post-90s kids in China, featuring the Beihai lake in Beijing.
A three-song triptych of the musical landscape in the mid 50s as artists, musicians and composers were tripped up in the cultural politics of the Anti-Rightists campaign. Patriotic songs in service of patriotic films, revolutionary songs in service of revolutionary films, and songs intended as public mantras to be chanted in the course of daily life.
1959 — Butterfly Lovers
A fascinating work that came out of the beleaguered Shanghai Conservatory. Zhanhao and Gang were both students, and embarked on a bold attempt to “nationalize the violin” by adapting the tale often called ‘China’s Romeo and Juliet’ to classical violin concerto. They adapted folk singing styles and Chinese instrumentation to the violin, creating a uniquely innovative fusion that even the People’s Daily hailed as ‘our own symphonic music.’
Then, their source material — decried as a ‘feudal tale’- was questioned and denounced, and the concerto fell into obscurity until it was resurrected after the Cultural Revolution.
1960 — Five Golden Flowers
Released right at the end of 1959, Five Golden Flowers is fascinating. A full color film set in a Bai 白族 commune in Dali, Yunnan. From my Kunming-based friend Ros:
“Its about a young 白族 lad who searches for his love, but also interwoven with 白族 custom is all this emergent communist ethos- meeting coal quotas, discussing exploitation etc. sooooo interesting.
1961 — The Women’s Detachment
The movie (and subsequent ballet in 1964) was based on an all-female brigade in the southern island province of Hainan that operated against Nationalists in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s been said that the main character, Wu Qinghua, “reflect[s] the hostility and resentment of male-dominated society inherent in the ideology of the Communist revolution.” The song, like the movie, is a clarion call for revolution.
1962 — Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon
Written just as the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was ending in a humiliating defeat for India, this tribute to the fallen soldiers of the war would, over time, become one of the most iconic Hindi songs ever sung.
The lead-up and ferment of the Cultural Revolution was a tough time for original Chinese music. Jindong Cai’s Beethoven in China has a brutal, melancholy chapter on what became of the the country’s fledgling crop of idealistic composers and classical musicians.
The landscape was dominated by the ‘Eight Model Plays’ (later 18), pre-approved productions that were repeated, adapted and replayed all over the country. Mao Yurun has this incredible paragraph on how music creation was intended to work in this era:
1969 — The Yellow River Piano Concerto
Created when Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) was in absolute control of musical output in China, this was an adaptation of Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata by a group of Central Philharmonic composers, under Jiang’s guidance. The musicians were sent to live along the Yellow River for weeks — staying in caves, rowing with boatman, all to ‘conceptualize’ a revolutionary symphony based on Mao’s idea of ‘people’s war.’
Pushed out relentlessly by the powers-that-be, it was a huge success, and the piece that introduced western-style orchestral music to millions of Chinese.
It was rather infamously reviewed by the New York Times in 1973:
“[It’s] movie music. A rehash of Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian, late romanticism, bastardized Chinese music and Warner Brothers climaxes.”
Two songs that symbolize the peak ‘expansive’ period of Maoist rule, when the regime was gleefully exporting global revolution through training, arms, guidance and foreign aid. Regions in the ‘frontier’ were of special interest, and many flamboyant (and kooky) foreign insurgents passed in and out of Beijing’s Friendship Hotel. Everyone really should read Julia Lovell’s ‘Maoism: A Global History.’
1971 — Beautiful Rinzin Wangmo
A fascinating little song.
Originally written in the early days of the Tibetan government-in-exile by a young Tibetan poet, the tune made its way back into Tibet where it’s now been ‘repackaged’ as a traditional folk tune (it’s anything but) with versions performed by popular singers like Yadong and Tseten Dolma. More here, and in Kiela Diehl’s book ‘Echoes from Dharamsala’.
1972 — ‘Home on the Range’
An alarming amount of hand-wringing, rule-bending and internal politics were necessary before the People’s Liberation Army Marching Band could practice the down-home American anthem ‘Home on the Range.’
They played it for a visiting Richard Nixon, and the details of that trip are an extremely entertaining read.
1975 — Sam Hui and Cantopop
The song that launched a Cantopop tidal wave, one that would crash China’s shores in less than a decade. Sam Hui’s theme song for Games Gamblers Play, a martial arts comedy, set the template for pop songs that reached a mass audience and its unique hybrid sound (Sam was a mainstay in the 60s rock’n’roll boom in Hong Kong) created a thousand imitators.
1976 — Richard Clayderman
The pianist Richard Clayderman has a strong claim to being the most popular musician in China, a claim he’s milked fairly well with repeated tours, collaborations and guest appearances on Chinese state TV. But his #1 China claim-to-fame dates back to the late 70s, when he composed the song that would become China Mobile’s default call-back tone.
1977 — The Moon Represents My Heart
An eternal classic. Teresa Teng’s story is stuff of legend, and her hold on mainland Chinese imagination was so strong in the late 70s that she was both ‘spiritual pollution’ AND on-par in stature with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
1978 — Descendants of the Dragon
There’s a book waiting to be written about this song.
Written as a nationalistic anthem for Taiwan, popularized as a pan-Chinese call for unification, recast (by the lyricist) as an anthem in support of the students at Tiananmen Square, and then subsequently used by both mainland and Taiwan broadcasters as a ‘patriotic’ song. In a final plot twist, it’s also been re-released as a paean to the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the US.
1979 — Hey Jude (Cover)
China’s oldest known ‘rock band’ — four university kids in Beijing who played covers of the Beatles, Beegees and Paul Simon. Not much else is known about them, no audio or video survives, but they set the stage for a lot of magic to come.
1980 — Night at a Naval Base
The beginning of the 80s were a strange transitional period in music. China was ‘opening up’, yes, but decades of knee-jerk Maoist responses are hard to undo, leading to situations such as the drama around ‘Night at a Naval Base’.
1981 — Souvenir de Chine
I’m not sure why (or how) Jean Michel Jarre became the first major western pop artist to play live in post-Cultural Revolution China. But it produced some of my favourite gig posters of all time:
1982 — On Fields of Hope
One of the songs on which China’s First Lady built her fame. Two brave people on Xiami have rated it 1 star.
One of the recurring themes of the 80s is the ‘gala song’ — the assured fame that follows a successful appearance on the annual CCTV Spring Gala. Peng Liyuan rode that wave early, becoming a household name by the mid-80s. Many of the singers of this era would also remain enduringly popular in the diaspora.
1983 — Leslie Cheung
Teen heartthrob turned acclaimed actor, Leslie Cheung was emblematic of the “港台” era when everything Hong Kong was ‘cool’ — the city a utopia of gilded dreams and untold riches.
1984 — My Chinese Heart
Cheung Ming-man was the first Hong Konger to sing at the CCTV Spring Gala. It was a political risk, one that paid off handsomely when his performance, a swooning patriotic ballad, made him a local superstar and the song the unofficial anthem of the diaspora.
1985 — Careless Whisper
I have three favourite things about Wham’s bizzaro China tour.
- The reason it happened. From the BBC:
In 1985, China was just opening up to the outside world. At the same time, Wham! were eager to prove that they were the world’s biggest pop band. A concert in China was just the ticket.
The duo’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, tried to convince various Chinese officials over lunch that the concert tour was a good idea.
His successful sales pitch hinged on how China would appear to the outside world if George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were allowed to play. Wham!’s presence would be proof, Mr Napier-Bell reasoned, of the Communist Party’s desire to welcome foreigners, and much-needed foreign investment.
The pitch worked.
2. The opening act, singer Cheng Fangyuan, who appears to have played Chinese-language covers of WHAM! hits, albeit with soaring socialist lyrics:
Wake me up before you go go.
Compete with the sky to go high, high.
Wake me up before you go go
Men fight to be first to reach the peak
Wake me up before you go go
Women are on the same journey and will not fall behind.
3. The official show merch:
1986 — Nothing to My Name
A staggering, monumental song.
There’s a tendency to place ‘Nothing to My Name’ as the single-point origin of all Chinese alternative music. Jonathan Campbell wrote an entire book on this premise. There is an anthemic weight attached to this song that, to me, distracts from just how…poignantly personal it is. It’s a shape-shifter, a sonic blast of yearning that has prophetically soundtracked so many tragedies — 1989, the Sichuan Earthquake — imbuing them with a glimmer of hope.
My favourite thing about the song is the fact that the ‘guitar solo’ is actually played on the suona, a pleasingly loud Chinese reeded flute. It just works *so well* with distorted guitars. it’s a tactic future bands like Jiajiatiao would use to great effect.
1987 — A Fire in Winter
If I had to choose, this would be my #1 song of the entire list. Fei Xiang burnt his entire career in Taiwan for the chance to be on the CCTV Spring Gala — and he’s got no choice but to turn it up to 11. This is the most fun the Gala has been in 32 years.
Zang Tianshuo — 朋友 (Friend)
R.I.P Zang Tianshuo. As proto-rockers go, he was the OG legend, and ‘Peng You’ his most potent contribution to Chinese rock canon.
1987, but also the FUTURE: Journey to the West
The title song for the 1987 TV version of ‘Journey to the West’ was every iconic 1980s TV theme song rolled into one. Think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Mahabharata. Everyone watched it, everyone knew it, and it’s forever cool as a proto-electronic BANGER.
1988 — My Future is Not a Dream
A Taiwanese Mandopop legend who died tragically young but blazed a trail of ultra-mega-hits in his all-too-brief career.
Rangzen Shonu རང་བཙན་གཞོན་ནུ — We Tibetan Nomads
The music of the Tibetan community in exile has a long, fascinating and melancholy history.
The government in exile, in the northern Indian town of Dharmshala, was initially more concerned with preservation and documenting of musical traditions. The modern Tibetan folk song emerged only in the late 70s. Created in exile, it was sparse, yearning and emotional from the beginning — filled with loss and nostalgia.
The ‘Freedom Youth’ (Rangzen Shonu) were something a little different. In 1988, these three refugee Tibetan kids recorded and produced the first known modern collection of Tibetan folk songs, influenced by the acoustic troubadors of the 1960s and Nepalese folk-rockers.
‘We Tibetan Nomads’ was the tape’s standout hit, even functioning as an unofficial National Anthem of the exiled Tibetan youth. Copies were even smuggled back into Lhasa, where it influenced pop singers like Dadon Dolma.
1989 — For Freedom
This extraordinary song was part of a May 1989 solidarity fundraiser in Hong Kong, standing with the student protestors then occupying Tiananmen Square. Teresa Teng (1977), Hou Dejian (1978), Cheung Mingman (1984) were all part of it, as were BEYOND (1992).
The group’s representative then flew to Beijing, where he was detained at the airport. The funds raised, over a million HKD, were confiscated and disappeared.
1990 — Going Home
Kenny G’s Going Home is as Chinese as lanzhou lamian — a continuous, unavoidable, pervasive part of the urban fabric. Malls will play it at closing times. Elevators will blast it at odd hours. It’ll waft from public speakers and PA systems in schools when classes are over. 500 million people have been conditioned to ‘go home’ with the simple three-note melody of this song. It is, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable pieces of music in China.
Kenny *moves* people here in a way that’s hard to describe. Best I can do is present the greatest Kenny G video of all time, recorded at one of his China gigs. I’ve been sitting on this for years:
1991 — Pearl of the Orient
Kimberly Jin in SupChina:
In 1986, Lo Ta-yu (罗大佑 Luō Dàyòu), a Taiwanese singer-songwriter and a cultural icon in Mandopop, went to Hong Kong and wrote a song called “Pearl of the Orient,” Hong Kong’s nickname. In the lyrics, he called Hong Kong his lover and admired the city’s splendor and “romantic demeanor.” More importantly, he sympathized with the city’s suffering under colonial rule and traced its cultural roots to China.
It’s a complicated song. Lo is holding ambiguous ideas of nation and culture in tension, but that ambiguity is dangerously fragile.
In the process of “termination” and “return,” the vast majority of Hong Kong people lost their grip on political decisions. Nor were they certain of their personal future. “History” failed to bring hope to this city; instead, it pushed it towards the nostalgia of the past. Three decades later, Lo’s “Pearl of the Orient” still resonates with many Hong Kongers questioning the city’s future.
1992 — Glam Rock Hair Metal!
Tang Dynasty — A Dream Return to the Tang Dynasty
Black Panther — Don’t Break My Heart
Hair metal glam rock excess in early-90s China. A lot has been written about them pretty much everywhere. Jonathan Campbell’s Red Rock is a good place to start! And end!
1993 — BEYOND
1994 — Dou Wei and Zhang Chu
“Husband of famous singer Faye Wong gleefully dabbles in works of music.”
What if I told you that Zhang Chu’s ‘The Ant’ was Part 2 of an epic musical trilogy adventure that spanned four continents and six decades? It’s true! You can read about it here.
1995 — Lao Lang
In 1976, a young Taiwanese musician named Lee Shuang-tze stormed a stage at a folk music festival in Taiwan’s Tamkang University, shouting “We should sing our own songs!”
Then he smashed a coke bottle and decried the excessive western influence on local music. This, the Tamkang Incident (淡江事件), led to the Campus Folk Movement (校園歌運動) that would produce startling, simple songs with a wounded heart and nostalgic mood.
Mainland China’s campus folk movement only took root 20 years later, but singers like Lao Lang and 高晓松 Gao Xiaosong seemed to channel that same spirit, albeit with traumas that were larger and more immediate.
The writer Madeleine O’Dea refers to a ‘wounded romantic spirit’ that took root in artists in this post-Tiananmen era. In her book ‘The Phoenix Years’:
Ömärjan Alim — Mehman Bashlidim (I Brought Home a Guest)
In 1995, the seminal Uyghur poet Abdurehim Ötkur died in Ürümchi, in the far-west province of Xinjiang. His funeral was an emotional affair — his novels and poetry were widely read and beloved, serving as powerful reminders of the ‘unfinished journey’ of the Uyghur people to claim their identity and dignity.
A number of musicians put out cassettes in tribute. They spread widely, quickly — Urumqi’s bazaar networks had developed a vibrant trade in cassette tapes and one stood out at this time: Ömärjan Alim. The ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris writes:
This song, in particular, anticipates some of the tensions underlying burgeoning Han migration to the region, likening as Harris puts it, “the tradition of hospitality — a founding principle of the Uyghur national
character — to gullibility”.
I invited a guest into my home
Asked him to sit on a soft cushion
And now I can’t get in
To the home I built myself
1996 - Spring Story
A Story of Spring offers an interesting counterpoint to songs from the revolutionary era. It’s a song about the end of Mao’s personality cult and yet ends up, ultimately, becoming a paean to another personality — Deng Xiaoping. From…um…FactsAndDetails.com:
These are lyrics penned by an ordinary man moved by Deng Xiaoping and the reform movement he represented. But the song gained in popularity only after 1996, as Deng Xiaoping fell gravely ill. It is perhaps impossible to know whether the paramount leader ever even heard A Story of Spring before he passed away in February 1997.
1997 — Tengger
I love Tengger. He was among the earliest breakout stars from the Mongolian musical traditions, seeding the sounds and timbre of the region to a prime-time audience before bands like Hanggai and Huun Huur Tu took it global.
Tengger was also among the few popular post-Mao non-Han musicians who resisted drawing on some idealized vision of their “traditional culture,” and attempted to build a musical identity beyond being spokespeople for their roots:
1998 — Wuhan Punk Rock
Wuhan Punk Rock Represent!
Formed in 1996 and fronted by the amazing Wu Wei, SMZB are punk pioneers. Sharp, uncompromising, staunchly DIY — they gave Wuhan its ‘punk rock’ branding that’s stood proudly for two decades. For more on Wuhan, get this issue of Maximum Rock & Roll which includes an annotated discography and a scene report from the city!
Early 1999 — The Bored Contingent
There’s two overlapping trends to unpack here.
One was dakou, when hundreds of thousands of unsold cassette and CD stock was dumped in China, gashed with a saw to prevent resale. These made their way in unsorted piles to streetside shops all over the country, leading to an entire generation discovering, almost at random, everything from Madonna and Bob Marley to Morrissey and Sonic Youth. Jeroen De Kloet’s book, China With a Cut, is a great place to learn more.
The second was boredom. The idleness of China’s so-called ‘wasted youth’, kids who’d dropped out or were asked to drop out of the narrow path to money and success led to a very particular kind of ferment — in art, in music, in writing. Beijing’s punk scene, especially the cluster of bands that formed around Scream Club in Haidian, were of this ilk and Wuliao JunDui (The Bored Contingent) laid the foundations for an entire country’s punk underground out of sheer boredom. The always brilliant Nathanel Amar has an essay on them here.
Mid 1999 — The Flowers
If you were a teenager in 1999, The Flowers were the band that made you want to pick up a guitar and shred.
Late 1999 — New Boy
The Beijing-based label Taihe Rye Music was signing up some of China’s most interesting artists in the late 1990s, Pu Shu among them. His debut, I Want to Go to the Year 2000 was a runaway success — selling over 300,000 legal copies and around a gazillion pirated ones. From Shanghai-based Finn Yan:
This album really represents that generation…the world was changing too fast in front of our eyes: the Internet, a whole new century, all kinds of new things flooding in. Pu Shu captured that rush — both our wide-eyed curiosity and our naive simplicity.
Fun fact: The song 冲出你的窗口 from this album was used to promote Microsoft’s Windows XP in China.
2000 — Faye Wong
Her impact, her reach, her stature. It’s impossible to reduce it to a song. Or even an album. This, her 17th studio album, is not her most popular or influential. But it captures what made her so fascinating.
The first five songs are explorations into Buddhist themes, with complex songwriting that seems to channel someone like Bjork. Then come the radio friendly unit-shifters, followed by two songs that somehow meld these two strands together. It’s Wong Faye at her most experimental, before her divisive 18th album and a long hiatus.
2001 — Jay Chou
This was the first Jay Chou song I ever heard, and I found it irritatingly jarring at the time. Who’s this average-looking boy sing-talking about his fondness for nunchucks, and doesn’t he know what a proper song should sound like? What I would soon learn was: No, Chou was not here to play by the rules. He’s a straight-up music genius who for a long time stayed ahead of the curve by writing songs like this, which, given a second chance, I’ve found to be insanely catchy.
Jay Chou was a sensation. The biggest Mandopop star of the 21st century. Even in 2019, a new Jay Chou song breaks streaming records and brings websites down.
2002 — Xu Wei
Hey, it was super popular and won every award!
2003 — Hang on the Box
20 years ago, Wang Yue, Yilinna and Yang Fan of the band Hang on the Box made the Beijing punk scene an international topic, posing in Tiananmen Square for a February 1999 cover of American magazine Newsweek. Crouched under the headline “China: The Limits on Freedom,” the three teenagers were put forward as bold iconoclasts, the new face of alternative Chinese youth.
They quickly became an international sensation, signing with a Japanese record label and becoming one of the first Chinese bands to perform at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, TX. Their original members — singer Wang Yue, better known as Gia; Yang Fan, who started on drums and later moved to guitar; Yilinna, the band’s original bassist; and Shen Jing, who replaced Yang Fan on drums in 1999 — all remain active musicians and cultural influencers.
The writer Josh Feola and I drew a whole comic about the story of Hang on the Box. You can read that right here!
Eat Truck — Sunday Morning
Audio unavailable, but coming soon!
Eat Truck, a short-lived, combustible, wildly creative punk band in Beijing, established the “drunk punk” style that would later break through into national fame with bands like Joyside and Bedstars. I’ve been promised an MP3, so watch this space!
2004 — P.K. 14’s 燥眠夜
There’s a quote about the Beijing band Chui Wan 吹万, attributed to Carsick Cars singer Zhang Shouwang:
“If they were from New York, everyone would be talking about them”
In 2004, both Chui Wan and Carsick Cars were far in the future and it was P.K. 14 — that towering art-rock institution, the conscience of the Chinese underground, the urban poets who spoke across generations — that everyone should have been talking about.
P.K. 14 are a national treasure. They’re the hardest working band in China. Criminally underknown despite a massive national fanbase. Staunchly DIY despite being indie rock royalty. They’ve mentored, helped, produced and supported hundreds of bands over two decades.
燥眠夜, literally “Sleepless and Impatient Night”, is a special song. ‘Zoomin’ Night’, a mangled transliteration of the song title, became the name of one of Beijing’s longest-running experimental nights…the open-minded radical platform that would eventually mentor, yes, Carsick Cars and Chui Wan.
Torturing Nurse — JUNKYISUZU
Josh Feola at Radii:
A household name in harsh noise circles around the world, Torturing Nurse has gone through many lineup changes in its lifespan to date, but it has since 2015 been the solo project of original co-founder Cao Junjun, better known as Junky. Cao got his start as a musician playing drums in Junkyard, a near-mythical Shanghai band that formed in 2001 and managed to fire off one album, Junk & Retain Junk, before its members split off in different directions. Very different directions. Two of Junkyard’s members, B6 and Ma Haiping (aka MHP), have gone on to become two of Shanghai’s most polished, accomplished electronic music producers. Junky, on the other hand, “wanted to make something more extreme.”
It’s fair to say that Torturing Nurse is the most extreme band in China, with performances that have included bondage, S&M and varying grades of violence. It may be hard to understand the point of Harsh Noise, but think of it as elemental particles…experiments by groups like Torturing Nurse form the primordial soup of sound from which more…palatable bands draw.
刀郎 Dao Lang — 2002年的第一場雪
Dao Lang is the pseudonym of Luo Lin, a Han Chinese singer from Sichuan. The detail about his ethnicity is important.
This song, from his debut album as ‘Dao Lang’, the name of a Uyghur people who live on the rim of the Taklimakan desert, was a sensation. A power ballad to end all power ballads, driven by his signature hoarse voice and moody, distant vibe. The song made him a superstar, and a lot of press focused on his rise as being ‘out of the blue’ — an image and narrative that’s attached to Dao Lang to this day.
What Dao Lang built his fame on amounts to nothing less than cultural appropriation — a narrative of power, exoticisation and ‘packaging’ of the frontier for a majority Han Chinese audience.
“[Dao Lang’s] life trajectory…is analogous to that of a high school dropout from Missouri moving to Flagstaff, renaming himself Apache (or some other group of “noble savages”), and coming to be known as the King of the Southwest”
Joanne Smith Finley writes, on Dao Lang’s ‘packaging’ and artwork:
2005 — The Pig Song
Loreli’s Dan Rothwell on China’s first ‘viral’ star:
The year’s 2005, and according to Internet Live Chart, only 8.5% of the population in China has access to the internet at home, connected via “any device type and connection.” One of the 8.5%, Wang Jinmei王瑾玫, decided to hook up a headset to a computer, don the moniker Xiāng Xiāng 香香 (literally, “fragrant fragrant”), and record a song about a pig in the hope of getting signed.
Knowing that intellectual property rights weren’t necessarily at the top of the e-pirates’ priorities, putting the track online for free soon lead to more than 1 billion downloads, a record deal generating over 40 million RMB ($6 million) in record sales, and being forever known as China’s first internet pop icon.
FM3 — Buddha Machine
“Calm on the Box”?
FM3 pulled off a minor miracle with their ‘Buddha Machine’, their little plastic box that blasted snatches of drone and ambient music recorded around Beijing. It got the attention of Brian Eno, Throbbing Gristle and Talking Heads’ David Byrne (he called it “the future of music” which….come on, dude).
FM3, like so much music in China, were masters of adaptation. They were making electronic music before alternative nightclubs, in the height of the SARS epidemic under a curfew. The Buddha Machine was their clever chabuduo hack, a little piece of magic that punched above its weight — much like FM3 themselves.
2006 — Khalil Fong
A thoughtful, multilingual pop star who fused Mandopop with soul and RnB, and embraced a more ‘DIY’ approach to pop production. Khalil is a treasure, and this song was his breakout smash hit.
New Pants 新裤子 — Bye Bye Disco
An enduring indie hit. The ‘Shins — New Slang’ of Chinese music. (sorry)
2007 — Carsick Cars
The word ‘scene’ is overused in China (I’m guilty as charged).
If you really dig into it, very few clusters of bands in China became a ‘scene’ — which I loosely define as a self-contained bubble of music, ideas, fashion, writing and film that bounced off individual members and was rooted in a particular place and time.
While acknowledging that it was perhaps a bit too courting of media attention, the music that came out of D-22 (a tiny dive bar in Beijing) was one of China’s few halcyon ‘scenes’. These kids sparked a small revolution in pre-Olympics Beijing and captured a time, and a mood, that has not been replicated since. Just those five years (2007–2012) produced so many colliding ideas across mediums. It was heady, it was charged, it was special.
Here’s a photo of Carsick Cars by Ren Hang (RIP):
Zuriaake 葬尸湖— God of Scotch Mist
Zuriaake invented Chinese black metal. They are a spectacular live act, wearing costumes meant to evoke distant figures in old Chinese landscape paintings.
From an interview with core members Bloodfire and Bloodsea, by the AFP:
“If you’ve understood the essence of a Western genre and are still just imitating the form, you’ll slowly become mediocre. We’re playing pure Western metal, but we’re unique.
In China, horror is “more subtle and veiled, about the unknown” rather than gore. I want to express Chinese-style horror, and ancient Chinese-style withdrawal from society, nobility and virtue.
To do that, the band turned to the chaotic Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods from around 771 to 221BC for inspiration — the last time Chinese literature held an emotional intensity and despair that paired well with the black metal aesthetic.
From that time on, Chinese poetry became more and more formalised, and became increasingly sunny — it lacked darkness.”
The idea that 2000 years of Chinese history has been discarded for not being ‘metal’ enough is a thought that gives me joy on dark days.
2008 — Yin San’er
From Jeremy Goldkorn in SupChina:
Yin San’r formed in 2007 in Beijing and have released a bunch of songs online. Their rhymes are sung in dirty, Beijing- accented Chinese. They rap about hypocrisies and daily injustices in society, and sometimes they just like to let loose a volley of curse words. In 2015, they were blacklisted by the Ministry of Culture for vulgarity, and their songs were removed from online stores and music platforms.
‘Beijing Evening News’ (a local tabloid) is about the gap between what you can read in the newspaper and what is really going on in society. About how so much of what goes on in Beijing is “hanging up a sheep head but selling dog meat” (挂羊头卖狗肉 ) — trickery, deception, and passing off dodgy dealings as honest business.
The song is also about feeling alienated in Beijing. And how when you live in Beijing, sometimes a familiar smell or a sound — like the newspaper vendor calling out “Beijing Wanbao” — suddenly makes you feel at home.
2009 — Chris Lee
Chris Lee was a new kind of pop star. She won a reality TV show, charming both the judges and the crowd with her spiky, androgynous look and non-traditional fashion (“loose jeans and button-down shirts, with no make-up”).
She exists now in the strange liminal space afforded to the upper echelon of pop stars in China- transcending her music to be a style icon and ambassador for a dizzying number of brands and organizations.
This shamelessly confident ripoff of MIKA’s Lollipop was one of Chris Lee’s earliest calling cards- her annual concert tours are still called ‘Why Me’.
ShanRen山人 — 30 Years
Shanren began as an indie rock band that channeled folk songs from the traditions of the Yi People in Yunnan. Their popularity made them shift gears, expanding their vision to represent a much larger set of music from the region. They spent years living with and learning from the Nu, and the Wa in rural Yunnan. They were now a self-described ‘agricultural rock band’, championing the rural masses and critiquing excessive urbanization.
Xiaorong Yuan in his Thesis on Shanren and ‘authenticity’:
Their song Thirty Years reflects the challenges rural people face living in large urban areas. Instead of singing about how happy they are about the economic development of China, like mainstream media’s minority songs, they express doubt and mock themselves throughout their songs, as well as reveal an intense desire to be honest with themselves.
顶楼马戏团 Top Floor Circus — 上海欢迎你
顶楼马戏团 Top Floor Circus - 上海欢迎你
Stream 顶楼马戏团 Top Floor Circus - 上海欢迎你 by Krish from desktop or your mobile device
A sharp, hilarious parody of the cloying 2008 Olympics anthem, Shanghai band Top Floor Circus created a brief viral buzz with this song (which sneered at the then-upcoming Shanghai Expo), before facing a brief ban.
they were a rare band: complex art-punk sung all in local Shanghainese, unafraid to call out bullshit, and like the best punk bands anywhere, dedicated to capturing the mood of a city, of a place, of a time.
Shanghai welcomes you, welcomes you to come buy things
Don’t forget to bring millions of yuan
Shanghai welcomes you, what was so great about the Olympics?
Let Expo bring us together
Shanghai welcomes you, welcomes you to come buy things
We don’t have any culture, but we’ve got Renminbi
2010 — Omnipotent Youth Society
There has never been a more majestic album of indie music in China.
Shijiazhuang’s Omnipotent Youth Society made a document of everyday joys, surreal humour and dark underbellies — bright brass tempered by crunchy guitars over earthy vocals. It was so good the band hasn’t written a single thing since, and continue to play the same 9 songs to huge audiences that haven’t tired of them one bit.
Hua Lun花论 — Shanghai Tourists
There was always something perfect about the popularity of ‘post-rock’ in China — a genre of cyclical booms and busts, temperamental sentimentality and the conjuring of dread, existential malaise and desolate beauty.
Bands like Hua Lun and Dalian’s Wang Wen 惘闻 owned the genre, finding reserves of energy and innovation long after the rest of the world had discarded the sound. Hua Lun, in particular, were masters of mood with uneven pacing— this 2010 album is like an old Jia Zhangke film in audio form.
Hua Lun went on to write the score for An Elephant Sitting Still, a bleak film underscored by tragedy: director Hu Bo committed suicide soon after finishing the film, age 29. As tribute, as elegy, as memory, as grief: Hua Lun and Chinese post-rock are a vital counterpoint to China’s syrupy pop positivity.
2011 — Escape Plan
Escape Plan represent a dream. A trajectory of fame unique to music in China.
I first saw Escape Plan play their Coldplay-esque Britpop at Beijing’s old Mao Livehouse in 2011, to a crowd of roughly 100 folks. They were already 5 years old at this point, having just changed their name from ‘Perdel.’
By 2014, they were on primetime TV, buoyed by the huge success of their single 夜空中最亮的星 (The Brightest Star in the Sky). They were well-suited to mainstream attention — headlining festivals, playing commercial opportunities, signing deals, dropping in on reality TV shows.
In 2019, they were on the CCTV Spring Gala.
Whatever your opinion of their music, the existence of this ladder — from dive bars to the biggest stage in China- built purely on music and nothing else, is worth celebrating, even as it appears that it’s been kicked down.
2012 — Hedgehog
The Little Big Band that could.
Hedgehog were the underdog football team. The ones that made it despite the odds. For fans who’ve stuck with them since the early days — we’ve seen it all. Glorious, transcendent shows. Shitty, nightmare shows. Amazing albums. Meh albums. The good times and the bad. A long hiatus, kids and families. and finally, a….reality TV show triumph that ultimately sealed their legacy?
China’s weird. But if it means more Hedgehog for everyone, we’ll take it.
2013 — Duck Fight Goose
Duck Fight Goose are a great example of how elemental particles (like Torturing Nurse and other painfully abstract music) produce, down the line, works of extraordinary clarity and immediate relevance.
Also, their bassist 33EMYBW is going to be a future star.
2014 — EXO-M
Where would China’s music be without Luhan and Kris Wu?
It would…probably be exactly in the same place musically.
But the aesthetics of pop music in China were changed forever with the ascent of Luhan, Kris Wu and others collectively called 小鲜肉 or ‘Little Fresh Meats’. Their immaculate grooming and androgynous looks sit at an odd intersection — between legions of adoring fans, and a growing displeasure from China’s culture barons at their perceived ‘sissiness’ and ‘lack of masculinity’.
Lauren Teixeira in Foreign Policy:
For party elders raised on an ideology of hardness and struggle, the growing influence of xiao xian rou is hard to accept, especially as the military steps up recruitment with increasingly macho propaganda aimed at young men. But while young men are the future of China’s military, young women play an increasingly important role in maintaining the country’s economic might — and soft boys are part of the deal.
2014: 央吉玛 Yunggiema — Green Tara
Yunggie Ma represents a sublime set of contradictions, making her one of the country’s most fascinating musicians.
A singer from the Monba people of Southwest Tibet, she was the ‘preservationist’ world music icon that, instead, chose to create new music. She was the ‘traditional’ singer from one of China’s ethnic minorities who defiantly played ‘modern’ music, infusing her songs with influences from PJ Harvey and Portishead.
She was the reality TV star who went ‘indie’, foregoing the fame that might have come from her breakout TV appearance to attach herself to China’s scattered underground and independent music communities.
2015 — Social Shake
From Tianyu Fang in SupChina:
Remember when the world was obsessed with Psy’s K-pop single Gangnam Style, which spread like a virus? Young people in China, especially in rural areas, are having a similar craze with the shehui 社会 subculture, translated literally as “society,” referring to a type of rough-and-tumble street culture.
Xiao Quan’s 2015 song worked like a ‘greatest hits’ version of different ‘social shake’ dances, a symbol of the ‘shehui’ lifestyle. Needless to say, it went very viral, and is a good example of the modus operandi that drives China’s social media fame economy.
Wutiaoren五条人 — Canton Girl
Sometimes you need the grandiose. And sometimes you need the intimate.
Wutiaoren are the latter — just lovely, understated, heartfelt songs about everyday concerns and daily observations, sung in a lilting regional haifeng hua dialect. Guangdong has an entire trajectory of alternative music parallel from the rest of China, and whatever strands collided to produce Wutiaoren: thank you.
2016 — No Party for Cao Dong
The band that gives this music industry hope.
Taipei’s No Party for Cao Dong are massive in China — they went from small shows in dive bars to filling out stadiums. You can find their songs in KTV booths nationwide.
But fame hasn’t diluted them one single bit. Still as loud, harsh, uncompromising, intelligent and emotionally resonant as ever — this is that rarest of bands that is universally acclaimed for no reason other than the force of their songwriting.
Hyph11e — Leaf
Shanghai, for a while, was one of Asia’s club capitals.
It hosted new sounds (like South African Gqom) long before many other cities in the region did. Its spiderweb of small labels and collectives forged cross-continent friendships and collaborations with fellow up-and-comers in clubs around the world. It began to generate its own, unmistakable sound.
Hyph11e (aka Tess) was the co-founder of one of those collectives. The fashion-forward Genome 6.66 Mbp. Her breakneck beats, propulsive start-stop rhythms and chitinous artwork were a perfect storm — the entire scene, defined, in one single song: her 2016 single 叶子 (Leaf).
Abdurehim Heyit: the Uyghur Bob Dylan.
Heyit, born in Kashgar in 1964, was a virtuoso composer whose versions of old Uyghur folk songs were so beloved that bootleg cassettes far outstripped official supply. He was a sensation on the long-necked dutar lute, and an icon of the Uyghur nation.
He radiated a cocky boldness (even his dutar was bigger than anyone else’s), far removed from the Chinese state’s preferred image of ethnic minorities as smiling, welcoming hosts to their Han “big brothers.” Like Dylan and New York in the 1960s and 70s, Heyit’s life in song was part of a mosaic of pop, folk and underground music in Xinjiang.
But that changed after the summer of 2009, when interethnic tensions exploded into riots that left at least 200 dead in Urumchi. Over the next few years, an intense security crackdown straitjacketed the region, resulting in a widespread cultural freeze and, by 2017, detentions of an estimated one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities — many of them Uyghurs — in a vast network of “re-education” camps.
Heyit was arrested in 2017 too, and disappeared from public view. Some sources say it was because of a performance of this song — ‘Fathers’.
His music, even in captivity, would have a strange and powerful calling. In February 2019, rumours of his death swirled in nearby Turkey, where his music is beloved, forcing the Chinese government to release a video claiming to show Heyit in good health. But shaved of his trademark moustache and boundless confidence, the star Uyghurs had known was gone.
The video sparked a furious and spontaneous social media movement. Activists and ordinary Uyghurs took to Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #MeTooUyghur to ask for proof that their loved ones, too, were still alive.
Heyit’s current status is unknown, and his music now soundtracks a landscape of grief and loss.
David Boring — I Can’t
David Boring’s debut album was a crystal ball. A jagged, sharp, screeching work of Hong Kong ennui and Hong Kong anger.
Everything is beautiful and everywhere hurts.
Everyone’s a victim.
Everything is boring.
Their world - withdrawn, alienating, gloriously noisy- was a “self-indulgent celebration of new age sufferings.” It was a mood-board for the frustration and anger of the post-Occupy years. Their anger then is the anger we see now on the streets of Hong Kong — a grief and rage, considered and thoughtful and impatient and untamed.
They’re my absolute favourite band in the world right now.
2018 — Lexie Liu
The Higher Brothers are cancelled.
Lexie Liu, the multi-incarnate cyberpunk hip-hopstress, is the Chinese rap artist that I think defines the current wave. There’s pride and uncertainty in her songs, there’s defiance and acceptance, and there’s vision…a thousand ideas on where Chinese hip-hop could go. NADA, from 2018, seems to draw on atleast 10 artists in this list — Duck Fight Goose chief among them — and it’s sense of lineage combined with a relentless striving towards the future that I find exciting about Lexie.
She’s called Chinese hip-hop a ‘sausage party’ and wants to break that. She finds macho swagger unsettling, and wants to bring more introspection into the genre. Plus she’s signed to 88Rising, a phenomenon in pan-Asian if there ever was one.
Lexie Liu > Higher Brothers. @ me all you want.
2019 — Glory to Hong Kong
From this Crimethinc Interview on the last three months in Hong Kong:
That’s it! Thanks for reading. I hope you discovered something cool.
Remember: everything here is a work-in-progress. I’d love to hear critique, feedback and suggestions. I’m @krishraghav on Twitter, or krish DOT raghav at the Google mails.
If you liked this project, do check out this forthcoming comic book history of the Beijing music underground!