Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations

25 years ago Liang Mingyue wrote an overview of the several thousand year old music traditions of China entitled Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. The author focused his attention almost entirely upon the folk and traditional musics of China that remained uninfluenced by contact with the West. However, even in 1985 he had to acknowledge that "hybridized pop music" from Taiwan and Hong Kong had spread all over China nearly overwhelmed interest in these traditions.

At present popular songs written with Mandarin Chinese lyrics are the actual "music of the billion" and perhaps represent the most widely listened to music in the world. This makes Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow by Marc L. Moskovitz an important book in helping Western readers understand the history and cultural significance of Western-influenced popular song in the Chinese speaking world.

Moskovitz writes primarily about the music produced in Taiwan over the past four decades or so that has proven very influential in the Chinese speaking world. This was because popular music was banned from China during the rule of Mao Tse Tung and up to the 1980s could only be produced in the Chinese communities outside the Mainland like Taiwan and Hong Kong. This music is a transnational commercial force that is popular in Chinese communities all over the globe. He argues that the music brings a “commonality” to these scattered, disparate communities in the same way that Hollywood movies might to an English-language community.

This music which he calls Mandopop (other writers have used the term Mandapop) does not strive to use an authentically Chinese musical language and unabashedly incorporates Western influences. Moskowitz finds the significance of this genre primarily in the lyrics and how the meanings therein help listeners in their adjusting to new situations they encounter the modern, globalized world.

He notes that in “traditional Chinese etiquette” it is difficult, even rude to speak directly. Yet in these songs, the protagonists articulate often suppressed thoughts, especially thoughts of an intimate nature. He writes that “Mandopop can be used as a means of expressing oneself more directly, which provides a safety buffer should one's confession be met with rejection or awkwardness.”

Moskowitz also examines topics gender roles and nationalism as well as the music’s relationship to the culturally conservative Communist Chinese state. From his personal homepage he also links to videos to which he provides lyrics with English language translations. If you want to learn about the music that a plurality of the earth’s people listen to Moskowitz’s book and webpage are an excellent starting point.

Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations by Marc L. Moskowitz (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

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