Songs of the Middle Kingdom

I was listening to the radio yesterday when they played the ending theme of Bu Bu Jing Xin (步步惊心), which is apparently known as Scarlet Heart in English. But it got me thinking that Chinese songs have a distinct flavour that is different from songs of other languages, such as Japanese or English. I like Chinese songs, though not as much as Japanese, and I think it’s mainly because I listened to them a lot on the radio.

Generally songs from China are different from the mainstream Taiwanese songs. The former place great emphasis on lyrics, where a careful study of their lyrics will give you a sense of poetic beauty. On the other hand, the latter can range from pretty nice lyrics to things like “I had coffee in the morning stop bothering me” or some such thing. I don’t listen to many songs from China, so I’ll talk more on the mainstream side.

Most Chinese songs are sung by individuals rather than bands — which is the norm in Japan and Korea — and most of their themes revolve around love and romance. I swear, 90% of their songs are really just about romance. Bittersweet romance, secret crushes, breaking up. Every stage of romance is represented. And also because of the lack of bands, music tends to lean towards ballads rather than rock. Instrumentals are simple and the emphasis is on the vocals.

And I suppose it is because of the whole idea of romance that Chinese songs are very pure. Very G-rated. Even their videos are kid-friendly. Anything with controversial themes immediately summon up publicity as being a “break into a new realm”. Not that the singers will be lambasted, but it will definitely be a selling point because it deviates from the norm so much. The idea of music to Chinese listeners is that it must be peaceful, meaningful, touching, pleasant. Everyone loves hints of sex as long as they are pleasant and not discomfiting. Speaking of which, Chinese videos love to portray a story, and best if it’s a story about love or filial piety, that kind of thing, that induces tears at the end.

That’s not to say every single song is like that. Of course in a category as vast as a language, all types of songs thrive even if they do not follow the prescribed winning formula. For example, bands like Mayday and FIR exist to cater to J-rock lovers like me (though their lyrics are still quite pleasant). Similarly, I believe there are now Chinese bands that follow the K-pop genre and have very computer-generated voices. There is also a fanbase in Taiwan for dance-pop such as Show Luo and Jolin Tsai, or R&B like Tao Zhe (I think his English name is David or some such thing). They do exist, but my personal feeling is that such genres have better counterparts in other languages.

When I listen to Chinese songs, in the perspective of a J-rock fan, my first impression to them is “boring”. There are no heavy drum beats which J-rock is popular for, no shouting. However, good Chinese songs are like rivers. They flow at their own pace and force you to slow down and join them, and you may inadvertently, without knowing, be sucked into the song such that it snaps you back to reality once the song ends or someone abruptly cuts it off.

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