The Paradox of Chinese Pop Music

Why is it about Chinese history? Why isn’t it popular in America? Did I just answer my own question?

By Gabriel Aguilar, University of Texas at San Antonio


Last summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in China, and while there I was struck with a revelation.

For a country with the largest population in the world, one of the strongest global economies and wall-building capabilities that make Donald Trump pant, their international dominance seems conspicuously lacking in one deafeningly silent arena: pop music.

Think about it—have you ever heard of C-Pop?

It shares none of the popularity that Japanese and Korean pop enjoy, both having long ago broken the American sound barrier.

To the naked ear, C-Pop offers no apparent explanation for its utter lack of commercial success. When I was in Beijing, I listened to Chinese music constantly: pop stations on the radio, street songs warbled by scabby panhandlers and melodies crooning in coffee houses, but I never found any answers.

Yes, I can’t speak Mandarin, and so yes, it all sounded like gibberish—but the hooks and choruses were just as catchy as your standard grade industrial pop. The songs last between three-and-a-half and four minutes, and the melodies are catchy as hell, so the formulae behind the noise seemed nearly identical. Based on just the superficial sound of C-pop, it has a level of catchiness that should warrant at least a fledgling underground scene in America, or at least there was no musical reason why it shouldn’t.

No, I decided, it was something else, some unknowable factor, some lost-in-translation chemical X that was responsible, and I was going to figure out what it was. Like an N’SYNC from an alternate Chinese universe, I wondered: what’s the deal was with this pop life, and when’s it going to pan out?

Like anything truly important in life, I learned it on the basketball court. In Beijing, I used to hoop with the locals, and when they put music on, I would always ask what the song was about. Just about every time, they would reply zhonguo—China.

Later, when my host family was listening to music and I asked what it was about, they would also say zhonguo. And when my Mandarin teacher rode the subway to Beijing with me, he told me the musicians playing in the carts were singing about the origins of China. Everywhere I looked I found China lurking in Chinese music, and the vibe got pretty cultish. Tell me with a straight face that if American DJ’s blasted “Yankee Doodle” in the club you wouldn’t bat an eye.

I asked my friend Zhang Huan what was going on. She lives in Beijing and has never visited America, a fact I immediately intuited when she was surprised to hear that Hilary Duff was no longer relevant. Her commitment to Aughts culture convinced me she was the perfect person to ask about Chinese pop, as she clearly hadn’t been wasting any time keeping up with American media.

“The bigger cities tend to be where the music happens,” Huan explained. “Think Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai. Most artists are from smaller provinces but migrate to bigger cities for their shot.”

She explained that in the same way that American hip-hop is geographically idiosyncratic—think Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York—music in China differs based on where it’s made. Beijing, where I lived, is more stubborn about maintaining cultural traditions, which means that patriotic music is more popular there.

“But Shanghai, because it’s more westernized, finds music about human things more relatable than Beijing,” said Huan. “The population in Beijing is much more rooted in the history of China, while the people in Shanghai are more focused on the human elements of day-to-day life.”

Kaiyun Lambert, a UTSA student who spent most of her life in Shanghai, explained more. She told me that Chinese society has a tendency to overlook its faults instead of critiquing them, a concept at odds with the American concept of government and self-improvement. In China, this lack of self-criticism is apparent in every aspect of society and politics, including music.

It’s nearly impossible to find a Chinese musician writing pieces about anything even close to anti-establishment, let alone a protest or even critique. There are a few exceptions—Hong Kong, for instance—where the government doesn’t have as tight of control on the media, but in general, music is either pro-China or non-existent.

What’s more: the people of China not only turn a blind-eye to the censorship, but accept their societal limitations obediently, even happily. There is a pride in Chinese society that comes from playing your part, fulfilling your role and not questioning the bigger picture. This stems partially from the lack of any concept analogous to the American Dream, no rags to riches si se puede mantra that advocates pushing forward and upward mobility. Questioning censorship is a sign of individualism, even selfishness, and any seemingly ego-motivated action is condemned in Chinese culture—not by the government, but by the people.

Lambert said that many artists even go so far as to write as China in order to express emotion, so discouraged is self-expression in Chinese society. If an artist wants to write a song about a break up, instead of the lyrics being about “me” and “you,” they’ll be in third person, using China as a doppelganger for the writer. They then convey their messages by referencing Chinese history that illustrates the same concept.

“We use these emotions like love and hate in context with Chinese history,” explains Lambert, “because in China, we care a lot about our neighbors. We care a lot about community, and so we’re OK with giving up a certain part of ourselves for the better of the community. This love for neighbors and respect for the culture bleeds into media censorship. Chinese people have a strong sense of loyalty and love for their nation and belief in their government.”

For instance, imagine if instead of writing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor Swift had written “The Declaration of Independence,” where she’s the 13 Colonies and Jake Gyllenhaal is England.

This means that artists write songs that replace the narrator with China, and the events with nationalist history, effectively double-burying any personal expression. The complex societal pressures caused by Chinese groupthink explain both the music’s odd format, as well as its inability to capture mainstream commercial success. For now, C-Pop can stay in China.

“Basically, what works in America, works for America,” says Lambert. “What works in China, works for China.”