China, and the world’s perception of China, has changed immeasurably since the first edition of the Rough Guide to the Music of China, nearly ten years ago. Today China is set to become the world’s largest economy, probably within the next five to ten years. The influence of China on everyone in the West is obvious – we only need to take a look at all the products in our homes that are made there, and increasingly innovated there. In Brazil, Australia and large swathes of Africa, that influence is even more palpable as China invests and imports huge amounts of raw materials to fuel the economic miracle.
Yet despite this influence and arguable over dependency, on China, most in the West know little about China and its people. Hopefully, this Rough Guide can offer an insight into the ancient, modern and contemporary history of China, and perhaps even a glimpse to the future.
Instruments such as the erhu, pipa and guzheng can be dated back some 3,000 years, and were introduced to China via the Silk Road trading routes from ancient Persia. These instruments are performed in traditional style by the great masters, and in contemporary style by radical new innovators.
The music of pre-Communist 1930s to 1940s Shanghai reflected a large foreign population, which allowed the city to become known as ‘The Paris of the East’. Chinese folk was mixed with jazz to create some of the most evocative music in the country’s history, this fusion laid the foundations for much of today’s pop music.
The music of the Mao years, when nearly all songs had a message about the revolution, workers, peasants, soldiers, or the virtues of Chairman Mao and the Communist system, equally convey the sound of a bygone era. This album features one of the greatest tunes of this era, which is even still popular today.
Following the death of Mao, under Deng Xiaoping, China embarked upon a policy of reform and opening up to the outside world. This policy would have a direct effect on the music scene in China, especially Beijing. Included are artists from the 1980s rock explosion and the 1990s punk boom.
The music of the Chinese minorities and the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang are represented by artists who are updating their roots traditions, in much the same way as artists in other parts of the world, perhaps the nearest China has to what is called ‘world music’.
There is also music made by the Chinese expat communities around the world. It’s usually these artists that have gained most exposure outside of China, and have collaborated with artists from other cultures.
Finally, this album spotlights new sounds from the Chinese underground – artists who are confident and proud of the Chinese elements in their music, yet who are as savvy as anyone about music from anywhere, digesting and incorporating diverse elements, and creating something definably ‘Chinese’.
Like China itself, this Rough Guide, in attempting to give an overview of Chinese music over 3,000 years, is subject to many contradictions, dichotomies and anomalies. Just how does capitalist economy thrive under Communism? How is it possible to keep 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population, with at least fifty ethnic minorities, under a single government?
Or how did a 1980s rebellious rocker end up experimenting with a traditional instrument of the old China, the guzheng, and then adding Jamaican reggae to it?
Appropriately, for the Middle Kingdom, the answers probably lie somewhere in the middle. Today China is both an economic superpower and intrinsically unstable. Its music is at once a moment in time, a product of a complicated past and an uncertain future.
ZHANG YI WEN – The music of 1920s to 1940s Shanghai, also called shidaiqu, mixed Chinese folk with American jazz. During the 1930s some 70,000 foreign nationals resident in Shanghai lived safely in prosperous parts of the city – some shidaiqu songs reflect on their extravagant lifestyles. Others relate to events such as the second Sino-Japanese War. Zhang Yi-Wen took part in the 1946 ‘Miss Shanghai’ competition, placing second. Like many of her peers, she emigrated to Hong Kong in 1949.
SHANREN – Formed in Yunnan province in 2000, Shanren, meaning ‘Mountain People’, are a group from different ethnic backgrounds – Han, Wa and Buyi. They play and promote the music of the ethnic minority groups of Yunnan and Guihzou provinces, such as the music of the Yi people of Yunnan, who play four-stringed plucked instruments including xiangzi and qinqin and a type of drum called xianggu. They have performed at many events in China and Europe.
XIE TIAN XIAO – Xie Tian Xiao (or XTX as he is commonly called) is one of China’s biggest rock stars. He began playing guitar as a teenager and played in various bands, including the grunge-influenced Cold Blooded Animals, who were the first Chinese rock band to play the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Here he combines the guzheng with reggae, culminating in this new style of music and his latest album.
JAH WOBBLE & THE CHINESE DUB ORCHESTRA – Maverick UK bass player Jah Wobble and guzheng (zither) player Zi Lan Liao were originally asked to put together a performance as one of the events of the 2008 Liverpool Capital of Culture. That project soon mushroomed into something much bigger, resulting in a full UK tour. Guzheng and yanqin (dulcimer) are combined with bass, keyboards, beats, and various pipes and flutes.
RED CHAMBER – Red Chamber are four Canada-based Chinese virtuosi of plucked stringed instruments. Their line-up comprises zheng, pipa, ruan and sanxian. ‘Sunny Spring And White Snow’ is an ancient piece that is thought to have been composed during what is known as the Spring and Autumn Period (722 bc – 481 bc) of Chinese history.
MIN HUIFEN – Min Huifen is one of China’s greatest exponents of the erhu, the two-stringed bowed fiddle (erh means ‘two’ and hu, ‘barbarian’). The instrument, used in classical and folk music, produces one of the most instantly recognizable Chinese sounds. Born in 1945, Min has enjoyed success as erhu soloist with China National Art Troupe and the Shanghai Chinese Music Orchestra. She is also a prolific composer, and ‘Yangguan Pass Melody’ is probably her best-known piece.
SECOND HAND ROSE – Formed in Beijing in 2000, Second Hand Rose combine traditional Chinese instruments, such as the suona (oboe), with rock. Lead singer and guitarist Liang Long is from Heilongjiang province in northeast China, and is influenced by er ren zhuan (storytelling from the northeast). They are firmly part of the Chinese underground scene, and have performed in Switzerland and Holland.
URNA – Urna Chahar-Tugchi grew up on the steps of the Ordos grasslands of Inner Mongolia, one of the autonomous regions of China. She started off learning yanqin in the capital city, Hohhot, before moving to Shanghai to study singing at the Conservatory of Music. By using novel vocal techniques and collaborating with musicians from different cultures, her music still evokes the grasslands of her homeland, while creating an original and fresh sound.
MIEKO MIYAZAKI & GUO GAN – Erhu player Guo Gan, originally from Shenyang, met Japanese koto (zither) player Mieko Miyazaki in France, where they currently live. Together, they push the boundaries of their respective traditions in a combination that is entirely natural; the koto itself was derived from China. ‘Sai Ma’ (‘Horse Racing’) is a well-known tune for the erhu, here it is given a quite radical reworking yet still conveying the energetic and majestic galloping of horses.
CHANG JING – Guzheng player Chang Jing is one of the leading lights of the new generation of Chinese traditional musicians. From Sichuan province, she graduated from the China Conservatory of Music in 1995, and soon after joined the China National Song & Dance Ensemble. Later she began to explore the possibilities of her instrument, adding electronic sounds and rhythms and creating videos for her songs more akin to a pop star.
LI GUYI – Li Guyi is sometimes referred to as the first Chinese pop singer. However, her career has not always been as smooth for this unlikely rebel. Despite beginning her career as a classical musician, in the early 1980s she started to sing pop songs, and became the object of much criticism for being supposedly lewd and decadent. Despite some songs being banned, she continued to sing them due to overwhelming public demand. Blending Western pop with Chinese folk, she opened the doors for the subsequent generation of pop stars, and in 1999 received a Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala organized by China Central Television and MTV.
PANJIR – Panjir predominantly play the music of the Uyghurs from Xinjiang, the largest administrative area of China, in the heart of Central Asia. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people whose music includes influences from Persia, India and the Far East. With its rich mix of percussion (qang-dulcimer and dap), strings (tambur, dutar, satar, saz) and wind instruments (ney), the music lends itself well to the improvisation that Panjir experiment with.
COLD FAIRYLAND – From Shanghai, Cold Fairyland were put together in 2001 by female pipa player, keyboardist and singer Lin Di. She began playing pipa aged 4, and studied traditional Chinese music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was a shock to those around her when, taking influences from progressive rock and trip-hop among others, she decided to accompany her pipa with cello, bass, drums and keyboards, within a sometimes dark framework. Cold Fairyland became popular at all the Chinese festivals and have performed in Europe and Japan.
HANG ON THE BOX – Teenage classmates Wang Yue and Yilana met like-minded Yang Fan, and, without practising, announced they were Beijing’s first all-girl punk band. Shortly after, they embarked on their first performance and left the audience at Scream (China’s first underground club) unsure whether to laugh or jeer. The group recruited a drummer, rehearsed and were soon wowing the audiences with their audacious lyrics and fast-paced music.
THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT – This ensemble is the brainchild of Chinese-American musician Dave Liang, who draws his inspiration from the 1930s to 1940s Shanghai scene. On the album Remixed and Restored Vol. 1, he set about remixing some of the classic tracks that inspire him, including the song sampled here. Originally called ‘Ye Shang Hai’, it was recorded by Zhou Xuan, one of the so-called ’Seven Great Singing Stars’ of early twentieth-century China.
BAI GUANG – Born in Beijing in 1921, Bai Guang was one of China’s ‘Seven Great Singing Stars’ who doubled up as the most famous film stars of the day in Shanghai. Known as ‘White Light’, she had a slightly deeper voice than her contemporaries and brought a seductive tone to her records. ‘Qiu Ye (Autumn Night)’ was one of her biggest hits. Bai moved to Hong Kong following the Communist takeover in 1949, eventually settling in Malaysia.
LIU FANG – Liu Fang was born in Yunnan province and began playing pipa aged 6. At age 22 she moved to Canada and began to collaborate with other musicians from other cultures. While remaining true to tradition on her acclaimed trilogy of solo pipa albums, a number of side projects have seen her working with folk and experimental musicians from around the world. ‘Dao Chui Lian’ is her interpretation of a folk tune from Guangdong, southern China.
GUO LANYING – ‘My Motherland’, sung by Guo Lanying, is one of China’s best-known songs. It was written for the 1956 film about the Korean War, Battle on Shangganling Mountain. The popularity of the song far outstripped that of the film. Its relatively subtle message, compared to other patriotic songs of the time, reminded the soldiers of the beauty of their homeland. Guo Lanying first studied Shanxi opera style, and was eventually elevated to chief performer in the Song and Dance Theatre after Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This role took her to the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia and even Japan, where she was celebrated as an example of Chinese musical talent.