Sunday, January 6, 2013

Five good Chinese songs

In this post I am going to share some of my favourite Chinese songs with you.

I am doing this partly because I am aware of how few Westerners listen to any Chinese music, even ones who understand Chinese and live in China. To be fair, I can understand why this is. Much of modern Chinese music, especially the most popular stuff, consists of extremely commercial and sugary pop songs, lacking in personality, style and depth.
There is, however, some decent and meaningful Chinese music out there too. And I am not talking about ancient music or Chinese opera, which is very much an acquired taste. I am talking about modern rock and pop music. Below are five Chinese songs which I actually listen to regularly because I enjoy them.

1)  One night in 北京 (One night in Beijing) by 信乐团 (Xin Yue Tuan)

This is my favourite song by Xin Yue Tuan (also known as Shin in English), which has to be my favourite Chinese rock band. The band is in fact Taiwanese, and it distinguishes itself from the rest of the Chinese music scene because it plays loud, expressive and emotional rock music. The real soul of the band was the lead singer Su Jian Xin, whose powerful and wide ranging voice is a rarity in Chinese music. He unfortunately left the group in 2007.

This song, which is sung entirely in Chinese except for the “One night in Beijing” line, is actually a cover of a song by Taiwanese singer Bobby Chen. The cover version has now become more famous than the original, and it is extremely well known throughout China. The lyrics are actually quite mysterious, and it is not immediately clear what the song is supposed to mean. Although it is a modern rock song, the chorus is sung in a falsetto voice which parodies Beijing opera. You can find the lyrics and an English translation here.

2) 一无所有 (Nothing to my name) by 崔健 (Cui Jian)

This is the trademark song by Cui Jian, the only real rock star Mainland China has ever known. A Beijinger of Korean ancestry, Cui Jian became famous towards the end of the eighties. He was probably one of the first Chinese professional rock musicians. Like all good rock stars, he was also a rebel and an anti-establishment figure. It’s a pity that China’s music scene seems unable to produce such figures nowadays. Interestingly, his first band included a Hungarian and a Madagascan who worked in foreign embassies in Beijing.

Cui Jian songs were often covertly political, and sometimes parodied old government slogans. He became one of the icons of the protesting students in ’89, and appeared at the protests before they were broken up. After the crackdown he went into hiding for a while, but he was soon able to return to Beijing. His first tour was however stopped short by the authorities after he started performing his political song “a Piece of Red Cloth” with a red blindfold across his eyes. From then on he was prevented from playing in big venues for many years. State radio and television also wouldn’t broadcast his songs for quite a while. Although his music is now played without any fuss, one of his songs, called “the Last Bullet”, is so openly political that it is still banned nowadays.

The song I am introducing here is by far Cui Jian’s most well-known piece, which propelled him to stardom in 1986. The title is difficult to translate, but it is a chéngyǔ (a Chinese saying which usually consists of four characters) which basically means “not to have a penny to one’s name”. The lyrics seem to be addressed to a girl who is scorning the singer because he has no possessions. Many have seen it as actually addressing the Chinese government or Chinese society in the name of the restless youth of the time. Although most of Cui Jian’s music has aged rather badly in my view, this song really rocks. The video below is of a famous live version. For the original, click here. For the lyrics and their English translation, click here.

3) 睡在我上铺的兄弟 (Brother who slept on the bunk above me) by 老狼 Lao Lang, or Old Wolf

An old hit from 1994 by Beijing singer Lao Lang (meaning “Old Wolf”). The song is a nostalgic recollection of the singer’s university days, addressed to his old roommate (the “brother who slept in the bunk above”). It is particularly poignant in China, where for many people being an undergraduate student is their only moment of relaxation and freedom, which comes after they have spent their school days cramming like mad to pass the Gao Kao (end of high school examination), and before they graduate and have to face the pressure of working and fulfilling their family’s huge expectations.

4) 龙的传人 (descendants of the dragon) by 力宏 (Wang Leehom)

This piece by Chinese-American singer Wang Leehom is actually a cover version of the famous 1978 Taiwanese song written by Hou Dejian, and first sung by Li Jianfu. The original version is a patriotic ode to China, which expresses the singer's yearning for the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, even though he may never see them (something especially relevant in Taiwan). It also makes reference to China's defeat during the Opium Wars, and ends with an exhortation for the mighty dragon which is China to "open its eyes".

Wang Leehom's version dates from the year 2000. It turns the original ballad into a rap song, and modifies the content. Some English rap verses are added in the middle, where the singer talks about how his parents emigrated from Taiwan to the US. The final verses are also changed, and talk about the yearning of Chinese emigrants in other countries for the motherland. Curiously, Leehom is the second cousin of Li Jianfu, the original singer. To see the lyrics and their English translation, click here.

5) 天路 (Sky Road) by 韩红 (Hán Hóng)

This song talks about the historic railroad which the Chinese have built from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. It's sung by Hán Hóng, a famous Chinese singer with a Tibetan mother and a Han father, who was born in Tibet. It is certainly a beautiful song, and very well known in China. At the same time, it is of course unashamedly patriotic and aims to glorify the Chinese authorities' efforts to develop Tibet. It also presents Tibet as the romantic land of mystery which the Chinese imagine it to be.


Paul said...

Really interesting article as always, thanks! The subject matter brought to mind an article I read the other day in a UK newspaper about the Chinese music industry:

Jonathan said...

Thanks for sharing these. Very interesting.

Tang Xiaoyan said...

Before read your article, i never knew the political meaning of a piece of red cloth. The song of Cui Jian is the symbol of the generation.