Min Xiao-Fen performing with her pipa. As well as playing the pipa, Min Xiao-Fen is also known as vocalist, and for her work in traditional Chinese music, jazz, and contemporary classical music. PHOTO BY HELMUT LACKINGER.

Chinese contemporary music encompasses a huge popular music industry spanning most of East Asia, a vibrant concert music scene in all of the major cities, and modern arrangements of traditional material.

Contemporary Chinese popular and classical music, although often incorporating Western elements such as symphonic form or rhythmic patterns, remains grounded in Chinese culture through the use of traditional instruments or melodies, through the use of subject matter from Chinese history, and through the use of modalities that allude to Chinese arts or philosophy.

Modern Interpretations of Traditional Chinese Music

By the early twentieth century, Chinese traditional music had already been influenced by increased international communication, especially in the large Eastern cities. Musicians such as Liu Tianhua 刘 天 华, who also studied Western music, composed new pieces for erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and pipa (lute). During the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist forces, Mao Zedong outlined a new agenda for the arts, which he felt should serve the common people and the Party. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this plan was implemented throughout the nation, with the exception of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other areas outside of Communist control. Because traditional music was thought to be useful for education and propaganda, conservatories in the major cities created departments and began offering programs in these genres, along with Western music. Although many forms of traditional music thrived with government support, repertoires and instruments that were associated with religious practices and Confucian elitism, such as the guqin (a plucked seven-stringed instrument), were less fortunate. Ideological focus in music and other art forms reached an extreme point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when the performing arts under Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) were largely restricted to music associated with the “model pieces” (yangbanxi 样板戏 These works combined traditional opera instruments and styles with Western ballet and symphonic music and featured heroic proletarian figures and large-scale choreography with dancers bearing rifles. After the fall of the Gang of Four, traditional music again enjoyed government sponsorship, and experimentation with modern adaptations continued, but without overt political requirements.

Popular Music

In terms of musical structure, Chinese popular music generally adheres to international norms of style, and most of its unique features are related to language and vocal inflections. The two most common languages used in popular music are Mandarin (in “Mandopop”) and Cantonese (in “Cantopop”), but other dialects are also used. The earliest genre of Chinese popular music, known as Shidaiqu 时代曲, was developed in Shanghai by Li Jinhui 黎锦辉 and others during the 1920s, and spread to other regions, even during the chaotic years of Japanese occupation and civil war. Often using traditional-sounding melodies accompanied by Western instruments such as piano and woodwinds, Shidaiqu was one of the earliest international popular music styles. After 1949 popular music with Western influence was discouraged in mainland China, where it was labeled as immoral, and it was quickly displaced by government-sponsored music more consistent with Marxist ideology. During this time, however, Chinese popular music continued to thrive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other enclaves. These areas became an essential part of a huge pan-Asian popular music culture which now spans almost all of East Asia—as reflected by a lively concert scene in the cities, a growing recording industry, fan clubs, karaoke bars and marketing targeted to promote the culture through the full range of electronic and print media

One of many performers whose career illustrates the pan-Asian trend is vocalist Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun 邓丽君), who became a pop music icon. Born in Taiwan in 1953, Teng rose to fame in the 1960s and became popular in Japan after signing a recording contract with Polydor Japan in 1973. Teresa Teng’s recordings in the Mandarin language were very popular in mainland China as well as Taiwan; she also recorded in Cantonese, Japanese, and English. Toward the end of the twentieth century, harder-edged forms of popular music also became prominent, including the work of rock musicians like Cui Jian 崔健. Even louder genres such as heavy metal soon appeared. Although censorship of lyrics and visual content is still a factor in China, an increasingly broad range of styles are available to audiences as popular music continues to diversify and become more accessible.

Western and Symphonic Music

In the early twentieth century, the study of Western music was encouraged by participants in the New Culture Movement (Xin Wenhua Yundong 新文化运动) who associated Western music with the transformational possibilities of Western democracy and science. In 1927 the National College of Music, which was later to become the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, was established, and more Chinese musicians were able to study Western music within China. Other musicians decided to study Western music in Europe. One of the most well-known of these was Xian Xinghai 冼星海, who studied in France, and returned to China to teach and write music, including his Yellow River Cantata (1939), which used the metaphor of the mighty river to inspire resistance to the Japanese invasion. This work integrates Chinese instruments and echoes of Chinese traditional music, such as martial music and local folk song, into a Western symphonic structure.

The stylistic gap between familiar popular and folk styles on one hand and more dissonant academic music on the other was more noticeable outside of the People’s Republic of China until the end of the Cultural Revolution. For example the composer Chou Wen-chung (Zhou Wenzhong 周文中), who grew up in China but studied and worked in the United States, was able to develop a highly individualized modern style inspired by Chinese calligraphy. A younger Chinese composer who successfully merged modern compositional techniques with traditional aesthetics is Tan Dun 谭盾, who studied at the Central Conservatory in Beijing after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and who quickly rose to international fame. Whether to use the term “Western” to describe these composers is debatable, since they are so firmly grounded in Chinese culture. For example, Tan Dun’s 2006 opera, The First Emperor, is based on characters from the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), and Chou Wen-chung has created a musical modality based on transformations that characterize the I Ching. Dun also used the medium of film to blur the distinctions between classical and popular music, composing the score for director Ang Lee’s (Li An 李安) martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000. Through film and other media, more international audiences have been exposed to music by Chinese composers and performances by Chinese musicians.

Further Reading

Baranovitch, N. (2003). China’s new voices: Popular music, ethnicity, gender and politics, 1978–1997. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Chou Weng-chung. (1966). Pien notation. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

Chun, Allen, Rossiter, N., & Shoesmith, B. (Eds.). (2004). Refashioning pop music in Asia: Cosmopolitan flows, political tempos, and aesthetic industries. London: Routledge.

Everett, Yayoi Uno, & Lau, Frederick, (Eds.). (2004). Locating East Asia in western art music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Jones, A. (1992). Like a knife: Ideology and genre in contemporary Chinese music. Cornell East Asia Series 57. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kraus, R. (1989). Pianos and politics in China: Middle-class ambitions and the struggle over western music. New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Mao Zedong. (1942). Zai Yan’an wenyi zuotanhui shang di jianghua [Talks at the Yan’an forum on literature and art] from Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, reprinted 1967.

Source: Myers, John. (2009). Music, Contemporary. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1527–1530. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A pop singer giving a performance at a hotel in Hefei, Anhui Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Three young girls dressed in pop-star style. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Music, Contemporary (D?ngdài y?nyuè ????)|D?ngdài y?nyuè ???? (Music, Contemporary)

Download the PDF of this article