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A Look into the Modern History of China through Pop Music Evolution of the lives of Chinese people as represented by pop songs

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Before the National Day of 1951, the Mongolian songwriter Meiliqige (美丽其格) retired to play the morin khuur in his room all day long. He wanted to write a song that speaks the mind of the Mongolian people who love peace, love their hometown, and want to celebrate their new life under a new government. A few days later, the classic Mongolian folk tune “The Never-Setting Sun Rises Over the Prairie” (《草原上升起不落的太阳》) was born and remains one of the most widely recognized songs in China until today.

In the 50s, China has just gone through years of horrific wars. Everything’s in ruin waiting to be rebuilt. People dress in Mao suits and get on with their busy lives in parks, streets, and factories. Many movie soundtracks gained popularity with along with the film they are attached to, such as “Let’s Start Rowing the Oars,”(《让我们荡起双浆》) “Moscow Nights,” (《莫斯科郊外的晚上》 “99 Crimson Sky,”(《九九艳阳天》and “Playing My Favorite Pipa.” (《弹起我心爱的土琵琶》)

The 60s was an era of great passion. Composer Lei Zhenbang wrote the song “Why Are the Flowers So Red” based on Tajik folk tune for the film “Visitors on the Icy Mountain” (《冰山上的来客》). The film tells a beautiful love story between a border patrol agent stationed in Xinjiang and a local girl. The song achieved such longevity that the millennials and Gen Zs in CMBN’s office all have it memorized.

In the late 70s, Taiwanese songs began to enter the mainland music market, and the theme of the songs are shifting from politics, the party, war, building a new society to more personal subjects such as romantic relationships and family. The most famous singer of that era was Teresa Teng(邓丽君). Her songs, such as “The Moon Represents my Heart” and “Small Town Story,” defined the era.

In the 1980s, President Deng Xiaoping began talks with British Priminister Margaret Thatcher regarding the handover of Hong Kong. During the negotiation, Hongkongnese singer Cheung Ming-man(张明敏) released the patriotic mandarin song “My Chinese Heart” (《我的中国心》). The song sold more than a million copies. In 1984, Cheung got invited by CCTV to sing this song on its New Year’s Gala. He became the first hong kong singer to perform in mainland China, which marks the beginning of the dominance of Taiwanese and hong-kongnese pop culture influence in mainland China. While the economic reform brought in money, goods, and technology from outside of China, Disco, cassette players, and bell-bottoms.

In 1997, the UK handed over Hong Kong, sparking patriotism in China which gave birth to songs patriotic songs like “Meet me in 1998,” (《相约一九九八》)”Pearl of the East,”(《东方明珠》)and “Grand China.”(《大中国》)

At the same time, with an increased level of living standards, pop songs began to talk more about the prosperity of everyday lives. Among the most prominent of those are “Good Days” (《好日子》)and “Often Go Home to Visit Parents.”(《常回家看看》)

The 2000s was a good time for Mandarin pop music. Jay Chou’s influence reached every corner of the Mandarin-speaking world, along with plenty of other singers such as S.H.E. and Phoenix Legend. Chinese people experienced a boost in confidence in their home country and can now proudly sing the line “The whole world is learning Chinese” by S.H.E.

In the 2010s, millennials, the first generation to enjoy material comfort from their birth, began their mid-life crisis. People started to reflect on the way of life of mindlessly chasing after money and seek meaning. Many songs express confusion and regret, such as “Where did the Time Go” (《时间都去哪了》)and “Ordinary Path.”(《平凡之路》)

Since 2010, the music industry in China experienced a recovery with the appearance of streaming platforms. Pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, EDM, ancient Chinese style, Jazz, world music, an abundance of variety flushed the market and gained a foothold in the country.

Music plays a significant role in the collective memories of a nation. We hope the Chinese music industry will continue to thrive as our country thrives.

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