Majors and Minors: From Jay Chou to Peking opera with Shirley

This is Shirley Wang, a first-year from Tianjin, China, a city about an hour away from Beijing. She’s planning to major in international relations, with a potential double major in education. She has played piano for more than 10 years, she enjoys eating a Tianjin-style crispy cookie dough-like breakfast food and she also enjoys watching cat videos on YouTube. Shirley shared her insight into music today in China.

Haruka (H): What’s pop music in China like? What genre and which artists are most popular right now?

Shirley (S): The most common genre is pop. Most songs in China have catchy lyrics and have an upbeat rhythm. Themes in pop are romance and have been for a while. Jay Chou is at the top of the rankings on an app that Chinese people use to listen to music that’s similar to Spotify. Zhiqian [Joker] Xue is another popular artist. Rap is an emerging genre.

Country music is also popular, but it’s more widely listened to in the South than in the North, where I’m from. I don’t really listen to that genre of music but I know a lot of my friends are into that.  Country music is characterized by slow tempos and the lyrics are often beautiful.

H: How do certain singers gain popularity over others in China?

S: Oftentimes, the most popular artists also have strong [connections to national] political networks in China. Of course, Chinese singers have to be good as artists and in tune with the trend in order to be successful like other performers in other countries. There are a lot of singing competitions and some who win those competitions gain popularity.

H: What’s traditional Chinese music like?

S: Peking opera incorporates traditional music, and this is all my elderly neighbors listen to. Chinese traditional music in general tends to be slow and the lyrics focus on romance.

H: Does modern music incorporate more traditional styles?

S: It depends. The theme of romance has been kept constant — even today, songs aren’t often about political agendas like American songs can be. Pop music performers like Jay Chou have moved away from the slower, more traditional styles, while country music maintains that to a certain extent.

H: Is music in Tianjin — or more broadly, in northern China — distinct from that of the rest of the country?

S: Music in China can be divided roughly into Northern and Southern styles, with Northern music being more pop-heavy and Southern music more traditionally charged. Lyrics are affected by dialects. In Beijing, people speak Mandarin and in Tianjin, Mandarin with a slight accent, so I wouldn’t say there are any specific traits that influence music in Tianjin. In Shanghai, people speak Shanghainese, so when I listen to music from those regions sometimes I need to look lyrics up because I can’t fully understand what the lyrics mean. In Guangzhou, people speak Cantonese, which originated in Hong Kong. People in Guangzhou listen to music from Hong Kong because they are [geographically and linguistically] closer. I don’t, though, because I don’t know Cantonese.