We’ve created several articles in the past that gave you some Chinese songs and artists to listen to and learn Chinese with. This time, we’re delving into a ‘niche’ genre of Chinese music, ‘zhong guo feng’, that provides us with not only a fun and entertaining language learning resource but also a cultural one!
Traditional Chinese Music and Instruments
You may already be aware of some of China’s traditional styles of music, as well as some of its instruments. Confucius, who lived around 2500 years ago, was said to be a skilled musician and set the ‘guidelines’ for good quality music.
Unlike western style music, traditional Chinese music was not meant to be danced to and was instead meant to ‘promote tranquillity’. Because of this, Chinese music does not tend to have any emphasis on beat or rhythm.
Here are some of the instruments common to traditional Chinese music:
二胡 (èr hú) – a two stringed violin type instrument that is used to expressed sadness and to imitate birds and singing.
古筝 (gǔ zhēng) – an 18-23 stringed instrument that is plucked horizontally. It is usually played solo, by a female musician at an opera or concert.
琵琶 (pí pa) – 4 stringed instrument, similar to a medieval lute. The instrument was popular in Chengdu, the capital during the Tang Dynasty and is now most commonly seen in performances.
笛子 (dí zi) – a flute made from bamboo with around 6 finger holes. One hole was covered with paper to create a raspy noise.
中国风 (zhōng guó fēng) Zhong Guo Feng ‘Chinese Style’
The songs and artists found in Chinese music charts in the modern day are mostly pop and hip hop following trends from the west as well as Korea and Japan.
中国风 (zhōng guó fēng) Zhongguo feng mixes elements of traditional Chinese music, Chinese opera and poetry with modern pop music. 中国风 (zhōng guó fēng) comes from 中国风格的 (zhōng guó fēng gé de) meaning ‘Chinese Style’ and was first seen in 2003, when Jay Chou 周杰伦 (zhōu jié lún), the Taiwanese Pop star released ‘East Wind Breaks’ 东风破 (dōng fēng pò). The song is a modern R&B song with the traditional instruments of the 二胡 (èr hú) and 琵琶 (pí pa). ‘East Wind Breaks’ uses a traditional element of Chinese music, known as the pentatonic scale. A pentatonic scale has 5 notes per octave, as oppose to a heptatonic scale that has 7. Heptatonic scales are more commonly found in western style music.
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Jay Chou’s ‘East Wind Breaks.
Chou and song writer Vincent Fang 方文山 (fāng wén shān), had been creating these traditionally influenced songs for many years before ‘East Wind Breaks’ became popular.
When interviewed about ‘zhong guo feng’, Fang said he was
“always [concerned] about the subjects about nation, tradition and culture. When this cultural consciousness is combined with music, lyrics with so called “China Wind” element are naturally created.”
One of the first songs that Chou and Fang developed with a traditional influence was ‘Wife’ 娘子(niáng zi). Whilst the music is modern and jazzy, the lyrics juxtapose the rap and guitar with traditional references of a wife waiting for her husband.
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Jay Chou’s ‘Wife’.
Another of his songs, ‘Tea That Grandpa Makes’ 爺爺泡的茶 (yé ye pào de chá) , released in 2002, retained a western pop melody, but combined the Chinese cultural themes of brewing tea and family values.
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Jay Chou’s ‘Tea that Grandpa Makes’
One of Chou and Fang’s most famous collaborations, was ‘Chrysanthemum Terrace’ 菊花台 ( jú huā tái) and can be found in the soundtrack to the Zhang YiMou movie, ‘The Curse Of The Golden Flower’ 滿城盡帶黃金甲 (mǎn chéng jìn dài huáng jīn jiǎ). The chrysanthemum flower is used a metaphor for love.
The song ‘Fireworks Cool So Easily’ 煙花易冷 (yān huā yì lěng) does not use traditional instruments, but has a noticeable Chinese melody, along with lyrics from Vincent Fang, describing a monk who laments his lost lover.
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Jay Chou’s ‘Fireworks Cool So Easily’
Other singers, such as Ray Ma 马天宇 (mǎ tiān yǔ) have also been influenced by the ‘China Wind’ and incorporated traditional Chinese instruments and cultural references, including Beijing Opera into his song and music video ‘青衣’ (qīng yī).
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Ray Ma’s ‘青衣’.
Chinese-American musician, Leehom Wang, has also introduced elements of ‘China Wind’ into some of his music, especially in his song ‘The Flower Field Mistake’ 花田错 (huā tián cuò). The song goes further than standard ‘zhong guo feng’, and is even sung in the way of Beijing Opera.
Wang also plays many traditional instruments, such as the 二胡 (èr hú) and incorporates his modern more western upbringing with his traditional Chinese roots.
Wang stated that his idea was that:
“The relationship between East and West needs to be and can be fixed via pop culture”
See the lyrics in Chinese, Pinyin and English for Leehom Wang’s ‘The Flower Field Mistake’
Taiwanese singer-songwriter, David Tao 陶喆 (táo zhé), covered Teresa Teng’s song, ‘Moon Represents My Heart’ 月亮代表誰的心 (yuè liang dài biǎo shéi de xīn), blending the original with traditional Chinese instruments.
Other ‘zhong guo feng’ songs to look at include:
Jay Chou: Nunchucks, Hair Like Snow, Faraway.
Using Zhong Guo Feng to Study Chinese and Chinese Culture
‘China wave’ music not only provides some insight into Chinese culture and traditional music, as well as allowing you to study Chinese. One of the reasons why I think ‘zhong guo feng’ might be more enjoyable to study than standard Chinese pop music, is that whilst the music itself is often still modern, the song lyrics are more traditional and often use metaphors to describe love, tragedy and sadness. Whilst some of the songs don’t always look at ‘ancient’ Chinese ways, songs like Jay Chou’s 爷爷的泡茶 looks at the importance of tea ceremonies even in the modern day.
For more Chinese songs and artists, you can visit our ‘Chinese Music Vault‘ for a growing list.
- Chinese Musical Instruments – China Highlights
- A Guide to Chinese Musical Styles – Beijing Timeout
- Sounds Very Chinese – China Daily
- Chou Style: Traditional Chinese style zhong guo feng 中国风 – Jay Chou Diaoness
- A List of Jay Chou’s Chinese Style Songs (Zhong Guo Feng) – Klinsman Hinjaya’s Blog