Rough Guide to the Music of China Vol.1

Everything about China is so big, it’s daunting. The size of the country, stretching from the southern Himalayas to the Mongolian steppe in the north to the tropical coast of the South China sea. The population, numbering over a billion Han Chinese, (92% of the population) more than Europe and North America put together. Their history, dating back 2000 years to the time of the Roman Empire. But whereas Rome was eventually overwhelmed, China, was to rise again into a centralized empire. Younger civilizations didn’t supplant aging ones, but civilization progressed, lurching from excessive order to excessive disorder and back again. Sixty to a hundred years of unrest between dynasties, the present, half obliterating the past. In China, the past doesn’t loom in front of you in the shape of statues of generals, and there are few old buildings. Yet whereas ancient history is somehow vivid, more recent history can be murky.

Culture did not prosper during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-69. Instead intellectuals learned to keep quiet, and students went to class to make their teacher parade up and down wearing a dunce cap. Just about everything in the arts old or new, Chinese or Western was banned for it’s ‘feudal’ or ‘bourgeois’ ideas. A bubble of pent up creativity burst at the beginning of the 1970s with the downfall of the Gang of Four, in all art forms, including music.

Music in China is inextricably linked to its history, and political ideology has played a central role. When the Qing dynasty was overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911, it ended the long history of a court music tradition. China then modeled its educational system to that of the west and only westernized music was taught. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, an effort was made to encourage, research and collect folk music. Emphasis was placed on rigorous training and political content was infused into music. Post Mao China is not so obsessed with excluding the outside world and the old culture is not being excluded either. Instead musicians are increasingly drawing from both western and Chinese influences.
This CD offers a snapshot of a myriad of Chinese music, each track displaying the emotions and attitudes of its own place in time and circumstance, from Cantonese opera to Beijing punk, from ancient traditions to revolutionary rock, from 1930s pop swing to 1990s pop folk. Chinese musicians who have gone to live overseas have generally been freer to experiment and combine the modern with the traditional, the east and the west. Several of the best of these artists are included. As are the minorities represented by contemporary music from Inner Mongolia and traditional music from Xinjiang. Excluded is music of the people who might not consider themselves as part of China, (Taiwan) or as Chinese (Tibet).

The law of averages would suggest there is more latent talent and musical possibilities in China than anywhere else in the world. Musicians still operate under restrictions and limitations, so perhaps the best is yet to come. But here, is a part of the evolution and revolution in Chinese music until now.


Cui Jian first burst upon the Chinese music scene in 1986 at a nationally televised pop music competition staged at Beijing Worker’s Stadium. The other acts were mostly bland Cantonese pop, or crass imitators of American MOR rock, which made the contrast of seeing the then 25 year old Cui Jian, swaggering on stage dressed in army greens and gyrating to his pulsating electric guitar, all the more illuminating. The rock revolution had arrived. Bootlegs of Cui Jian’s televised debut circulated around the country like wildfire. ‘Nothing to My Name’ became an anthem for students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Born in 1961 to parents of Korean descent, he was a trumpet player with the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra before becoming smitten with smuggled tapes of western rock music. In post-Mao China, Cui Jian was John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain rolled into one, a one-man rock and roll revolution, blending in Chinese folk music and traditional Chinese instruments, such as the oboe-like Suona, heard on this song. Pushed to the margins of the Chinese music scene, where he is seen as the bad boy of rock ‘n’ roll, Cui Jian was not allowed to play public concerts in Beijing, until 2003 when he supported the Rolling Stones.


Born into a family of livestock farmers in the southwest of Inner Mongolia, Urna’s formative years were ingrained with a feeling of the endless expanse of the steppe, raised among horses and sheep and head-high grass and sand dunes. She learned traditional Mongolian songs from her grandmother and parents, and still today collects songs and stories from the elder singers of her homeland. She studied yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where she joined Robert Zollitsch’s Gaoshan Liushui ensemble as the featured singer. She still collaborates today with Robert including on this track, their arrangement of a traditional tune. Urna’s music mixes elements of Mongolian folk with a variety of other influences to create an original and fresh sound. At the centre, is always her voice, improvising, soaring and striking in its range and beauty.

JIU KUANG “The Drinking Song”

Guqin (old qin) was generally in the past called simply the qin, the seven stringed zither. (see track 12). Yao Gongbai, from Shanghai, was born in 1948 and is the son of the noted scholar and musician Yao Bingyan. His father is credited for reconstructing “lost” qin pieces after devising a way in 1959 to read ancient manuscripts and tablature, particularly in discovering the originally intended rhythms of the pieces. “The Drinking Song” is thought to be approximately 1,700 years old and was passed down through the generations via such ancient manuscripts. Yao Gongbai learnt from his father, who initially didn’t want to teach him the qin, but recognized his talent. He has now developed his own sense of rhythm and style of playing.


Born in 1919, Bai Hong was one of China’s original pre-1949 idols as a singing movie and stage star in Shanghai. At the age of 11 she joined the Bright Moon Song and Dance Troupe, the era’s premier breeding ground for talent. In 1934, a Shanghai newspaper named her ‘Queen of Song’ and as a 15 year old she made her motion picture debut in ‘A Mortal Fairy’ one of China’s earliest musicals. In 1936 she married Lin Jinhui, leader of the ‘Great China Song and Dance Troupe’ and joined their year long tour of southeast Asia. She returned to cinema in 1938 and appeared in several pictures during the Japanese occupation, including the all-star ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’, before retiring from the screen in 1948. She re-married stage actor Mao Yanhua in 1950, and together they performed in revolutionary plays throughout China. Her golden years as a singer were all but forgotten by the subsequent generation. She made her last stage appearance in 1979 and died in 1992. Her death resulted in a resurgence of interest in her in southeast Asia, and in 2001, guitarist Gary Lucas, best known for his work with Captain Beefheart, recorded an album. ‘The Edge of Heaven’ that included many of Bai Hong’s songs.

MY 1997

‘My 1997’, the title track to Ai Jing’s first album, caused quite a controversy when it was released in 1992. The song, ostensibly a love song, relates to the return of Hong Kong to China, alluding to undertones of freedom. It also became a hit in Japan, where it is still the best ever selling Mandarin album. Born in 1969 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, Ai Jing grew up with music, her father being a traditional musician and her mother a dancer. She learnt to sing, play guitar and started to write songs while still at school. In 1987 she moved to the capital, where she joined the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe, turning solo in 1988. She is almost unique in China as a female singer songwriter, away from the Mando-pop mainstream. Although influenced by western music, such as Suzanne Vega and Bjork, she believes her music has at its root the traditional Chinese music she grew up with. Still creating controversy, her latest album, “Made in China’ was banned by the Chinese authorities for it’s lyrical content.


From Nanjing, Min Xiao Fen is a virtuoso on the pipa and ruan, two types of plucked lutes, which she learnt from her father, a pipa master.. She was a pipa soloist with the Nanjing National Music Orchestra, won several competitions, and performed with the Shanghai National Music and Symphony Orchestras before relocating to the USA in 1992. She has since performed with many top American symphony orchestras, has worked with top Chinese and American contemporary composers, and improvised with avant garde and experimental musicians and guitarist Gary Lucas. Stone Forest Nocturne is a modern composition inspired by the Stone Forest, a spectacular rock formation in Yunnan province. Min Xiao-Fen performs this piece on the ruan, which has a more mellow tone and a lower range than the pipa.


Chinese opera dates back to the Tang dynasty with Emperor Ming Huang (712-755 AD), while Cantonese opera can be traced back to the southern Soong dynasty (1179-1276 AD) when hundreds of thousands of Soong people migrated into the province of Canton, following the invasion of the Mongols. In the mid Qing dynasty, (1855), the ruling Manchu government banned Cantonese opera, following an unsuccessful anti Manchu coup led by a Cantonese opera performer. Cantonese opera troupes disbanded, only a few continuing to perform their art in the streets under the threat of imprisonment. The ban was lifted in 1871, but their opera could still not be performed in Cantonese. In the 1920s, the use of Cantonese was re-established, the all male and all female troupes merged, the tradition of men playing the lead female role ended and the focal point shifted from the bearded face Mo Saung (male warrior) to a more scholarly, clean cut warrior. Cantonese opera is popular today among Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong, Singapore and those living overseas. The traditional plots are often based on literary classics, with themes of forbidden love and scenes of secret rendevous. Combining singing, speech and mime, the music is generally more upbeat than the more widely known Beijing opera. ‘Hong Niang Hui Zhang Sheng’ is an excerpt from a Cantonese opera based on Xi Xiang Ji.


Silk Road Music was formed in 1991 in Vancouver, Canada by pipa player Qiu Xia He. They have established themselves as a leading ensemble playing various kinds of Chinese music and instruments, and for cleverly incorporating a variety of other influences. Qui Xia He was born in Baoji, Shaanxi province, where she taught at the Xian Academy of Music and toured with the Shaanxi Music and Dance Troupe. Since moving to Canada, she has performed with various orchestras, ensembles and musicians from a variety of countries. ‘Shaanxi Air’ is Qui Xia’s arrangement of a traditional tune from her home region, that features her vocals and pipa playing as well as the erhu (a two stringed stick fiddle) of Shirley Yuan from southern China, and the da ruan, (bass round bodied lute) of Zhi Min Yu.


In March 1999 in Beijing, female high school students Wang Yue, a budding vocalist met up with guitarist Yang Fan, and bassist Yilina. They shared a common love of rock and punk music and decided to form a band. A few months later, they played their first gig at Beijing’s Screaming Club, singing their own original songs in their own version of English, littered with expletives. Thus, China’s only all girl punk band was born. Sixteen year old drummer Sheng Jing joined soon after and they were snapped up a record company, and released their first album, titled ‘Yellow Banana’.


Kin Taii whose father is Chinese and mother Japanese, went to live in Japan in 1979 when he was 15. Until this time, he had only listened to Russian classical composers and Chinese revolutionary songs. His first shock came when he listened to the Rolling Stones and then the Smiths before hearing the technopop of Japan’s YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra) and Kraftwerk. He bought himself a synthesizer, but finding that western rhythms were not a natural expression for him, he set about composing Chinese sounding melodies. He combined these melodies with electronic rhythms such as on ‘Nocturnal Light’ featuring the erhu (Chinese fiddle) playing of Tei Noka.


The life of Li Xiang Lan is an extraordinary story. She is heralded as one of the top singers of the shidaiqu era (popular Mandarin songs) that captivated especially Shanghai from the 1920s until 1949 when the communist party took control of the city. Both her parents were Japanese, and she was born Yoshiko Yamaguchi in Manchuria in 1920. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria she adopted a Chinese name, Li Xiang Lan (in Japanese, Ri Ko Ran), and appeared in propaganda films and other movies produced by the Japanese. Following World War II she avoided execution for treason by revealing her Japanese identity, and established a career as Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood and on Broadway, appearing in films during the 1950s in Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S. She moved back to Japan, becoming a television reporter, covering stories in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Middle East. Now, Yoshiko Otaka, following her marriage to a Japanese diplomat, she was a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Japanese parliament. ‘Lang Guei Ji Ji’ is still a popular song in China and Japan, and she remains a well known figure in both countries.


The qin, (pronounced chin), a seven stringed zither, is probably the most revered of all Chinese music instruments. The qin was the chosen instrument of the Chinese literati, who played for personal enjoyment and cultural study.. The demise of the literati as a class led to a considerable decrease in the number of players, even more so after 1949 and its association with the scholar/mandarin class, encapsulated during the Cultural Revolution. Instead it came to be described as a folk instrument. Since 1949 nearly all players used metal strings, however, on this piece, Tse Chun Yan, reverts to the traditional silk strings. From Hong Kong, Tse Chun Yan is a recognized virtuoso, who has performed in Shanghai and London.


Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far north west, is one of China’s least hospitable and remotest regions, 3000km from any coastline, consisting of oasis towns that once strung out along the northern Silk Road. The Uighur (pronounced Weeg-yur) comprising about 45% of the population, are the easternmost branch of the Turkic peoples who inhabit most of Central Asia. In Xinjiang, temples are replaced by mosques, and it’s easier to find kebabs than steamed dumplings. The Uighur and and other minorities that include the Kazakh and Kirghiz are ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese, speaking their own languages. Their music too is equally distinct. the Uighur music consists of a large variety of classical genres, dance tunes and folk songs performed on various percussion instruments and long necked lutes. The performer on this track, Muhemmetjan Shakir, from the Hotan area, is playing the dutar, a two stringed lute, and the most popular instrument in Xinjiang.


The ensemble Wu Xing is made up of six musicians from China and Germany, mixing Chinese classical and contemporary styles, as synthesizers and percussion compliment Chinese and European stringed instruments. Wu Xing is a project of Robert Zollitsch who plays Bavarian zither and composes all the tunes. Singer Gong Linna has been soloist with Zhonyang Minzu Yuetan, China’s most revered traditional music orchestra, and won the Chinese National Singing competition in 2000 voted for by an audience of over a million television viewers. With Wu Xing she is pioneering a blend of traditional vocal styles within modern musical forms.


With the rise of an urban middle class, especially Shanghai, in the 1920s, western music arrived in China in the shape of a number of singing stage and screen stars. The music merged swing and big band with traditional Chinese instrumentation and melodies. The female singers were revered as idols, in a comparative age of decadence. The effect of the 1949 communist take over of the city was dramatic. Such entertainment was denounced, and the former stars either took on new roles or moved to Hong Kong. The Shanghai pop stars of this period, led to the eventual emergence in the 1970s of Hong Kong Cantopop. Gong Chio Xia was one of the biggest stars of her era.


From Hong Kong, Tats Lau has been an important figure in the Chinese pop and rock music scene for the past 18 years, as a well known and influential musician and composer. Like Hong Kong itself, Lau mixes the old and new, the east with the west, one of a handful of musicians in Hong Kong to embrace his Chinese roots in a contemporary sound. He began his musical career in the mid 1980s, with the seminal Tat Ming Pair, who combined rock and electronic music along with Chinese and oriental music. As a solo musician, he composed music for films, including the award winning ‘Temptation Of A Monk’. On his 1996 groundbreaking album ‘Numb’ he worked with Cantopop stars Faye Wong and Shirley Kwan and Xinjianese singer/musician Ascar, still regarded as a classic for it’s mix of Chinese elements and local pop. He has continued to work with top local singers including Jacky Cheung, Paul Wong (lead singer and guitarist with Beyond) and singers from Taiwan and Singapore, always adding a strong, often neglected, Chinese identity.


Liu Fang was born in 1974 into a musical family in Kunming in Yunnan province. She started learning pipa when she was six and when she was eleven performed for the Queen of England. She recovered from this experience to graduate from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before moving to Canada in 1996, from where she has established herself as one of the world’s leading pipa players. The pipa is a pear shaped lute with up to twenty four frets and four strings and is used for instrumental music and accompaniment for singing genres. An early form of the instrument appeared around 221 BC, while an archetype of the modern pipa originated in Central Asia arriving in China around the 4th century. It therefore seemed entirely appropriate for a collaboration between Liu Fang and Syrian musician Farhan Sabbagh, who accompanies the pipa on mazhar an open frame drum. This piece was inspired by the music and dance of a festival in Yunnan province.

Go the Rough Guide to China Vol.1 CD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s