周深 (Zhou Shen)

周珍妮 (Jane Zhou)

Chinese male singer Zhou Shen began his journey to fame in 2010 as an online singer in a Chinese video-based social network called YY.com. He was born on September 29, 1992 in Hunan, China and raised in Guiyang, Guizhou, China. Graduated from Lviv National Music Academy in Ukraine, Zhou Shen studied bel canto, which is a style of operatic singing originated from Italy that is based on “an exact control of the intensity of vocal tone… and a demand for vocal agility and clear articulation of notes and enunciation of words” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Zhou Shen’s official debut was not until 2014 when he participated in the third season of《中国好声音》(The Voice of China), a Chinese reality television singing competition for aspiring singers chosen from public auditions, where his beautiful, female-like voice enraptured China. (“Zhou Shen”)

Zhou Shen

With now 2,237,130 followers on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, and his first and second concert tours in 2018 and 2019, Zhou Shen is an established singer. His success can be attributed to his natural unique voice and style that set him apart from most singers, and combined with his professional musical training that elevates his technical skills far above any hobbyist online singer, Zhou Shen’s voice is irreplaceable in the current Chinese music industry. His delicate, angelic, feminine voice typical of divas such as Sandy Lam, Chyi Yu, Faye Wong, Na Ying, and Angela Chang is already somewhat rare in Chinese music, and his identity as a male adds an additional layer of awe and intrigue. Those with a high vocal register, especially males, can easily be labeled as fake and regarded with annoyance and disgust, but with Zhou Shen, it has not presented itself as a major concern. Some may believe that he is purposefully trying to imitate a female singer, but the purity of youth that his voice carries is enough to win over most. Zhou Shen is, in fact, what classical singers classify as a countertenor and what the Chinese call a “双声系” (dual voice) singer, meaning that he can sing in both a male and female voice. Along with other “dual voice” singers, including Wu Qingfeng, Li Yugang, and Huo Zun, Zhou Shen is one of the few who bring the countertenor voice into Mandopop. (周深の微笑)

Zhou Shen’s Weibo account

The soft timbre and lyricality of Zhou Shen’s voice are perfect for ballads and traditional Chinese style songs, which are some of the most popular genres listened to among Chinese audiences. Zhou Shen’s first big breakthrough after his debut was《大鱼》(“Big Fish”), the impression song of the 2016 Chinese animation film《大鱼海棠》(Big Fish and Begonia), and the song remains one of his best-known works today.

impression song of 2016 Chinese animation Big Fish and Begonia “Big Fish”
with English translated lyrics

The first half of “Big Fish” features a simple piano and Western orchestral accompaniment, with the addition of percussion in the second half after the end of the intermediate instrumental break. Even though “Big Fish” does not use any traditional Chinese instruments, it can still be categorized as a Chinese style song as the lyrics allude to a Chinese folktale. Big Fish and Begonia is inspired by a myth from the ancient Chinese Daoist classic《庄子》(Zhuangzi) named after the author and philosopher Zhuangzi, from which the iconic line “北冥有鱼,其名为鲲。鲲之大,不知其几千里也。” taken from the chapter《逍遥游》(“Free and Easy Wandering”) sets the initial foundation for the story (张佳韵). Translated into English, the quote says, “There is a fish in the Northern Sea that goes by the name of Kun. Kun is large; just how many Chinese miles it spans in size, we do not know.”

Big Fish and Begonia follows the story of a young girl named Chun who comes from a mystical realm that exists between the heavens and the human world. She is part of a community of magical beings who regulate the life and energy of nature – her grandfather was the master of plants and was able to develop rare medicines from his herbs, her grandmother was the guardian of birds, and her mother is the caretaker of begonias, who she is the successor of. During her trip to the human world as part of her coming-of-age ritual, Chun, in the form of a red dolphin, gets trapped in a fisherman’s net and is saved by a boy named Kun who jumps into the ocean to cut her free from the ropes. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the boy drowns, and Chun, feeling guilty for his death, seeks out the soul keeper and makes a deal to give up half of her lifespan in return for obtaining possession of the small fish that is Kun’s soul. Her goal is to raise him to maturity and then send him back to the human world, but because her actions defy the laws of nature, her entire village is punished by the severe consequences. Seeing the destruction that befalls her home, but unwilling to give up and abandon Kun, Chun decides to sacrifice the remaining of her spiritual and life energy to save her family and friends and to fulfill her promise of returning Kun to his own home and family.

The myriad of emotions Chun experiences throughout the story is excellently captured by the song “Big Fish.” The piece begins with a piano and orchestral melody that paints a picture of a young fish exploring the deep, calm waters of the sea with innocent curiosity. As Zhou Shen sings, the smoothness and clarity of his voice reflect the admiration that Chun holds for Kun as she watches him grow day by day, but with the peak of the first chorus, Zhou Shen’s voice betrays Chun’s inner struggle that develops from her attachment to Kun and reluctance to part from him, mirroring her sadness if she were to let Kun go and her fear for Kun’s safety if he were to stay with her. The steady percussion that is introduced in the second verse represents the turning point in the story as the now fully grown fish swims toward the surface of the ocean, and Chun steels her resolve to save both Kun and her home. Her determination and courage, despite her insecurity, is evident in the increased power of Zhou Shen’s voice. After the final chorus, there are eight measures of piano instrumental that push the emotional intensity to a climax. The beat drops suddenly as a moment’s silence engulfs the last of a series of accented chords. The big fish finally breaks through the surface of the water, and for a split second time freezes as the world holds its breath in awe at the magnificence of the beautiful legendary creature. The fish soars into the sky while Zhou Shen continues with an ethereal wordless melody that embodies a quality of timelessness, which perfectly illustrates the finale of the movie. Kun enters the pillar of water connecting the different realms and is carried upwards back to the human world, and Chun’s best friend Qiu, after reviving Chun, makes the ultimate sacrifice of his own life to open another portal to send Chun after Kun. In their final moments together, Qiu comforts Chun, telling her to think of him when she sees the wind and rain, and he will be there by her side, always. Not only can the audience vividly sense the love, yearning, sadness, resignation, and resolution of the story’s characters seep from Zhou Shen’s voice into their hearts, the Chineseness of the lyrics also evokes feelings of warmth and familiarity that bring Chinese listeners closer to their culture.

Due to the extreme popularity and success of “Big Fish,” Zhou Shen has performed it live multiple times in various shows and events. One of the most notable renditions is his live performance of “Big Fish” in a Yue (Shaoxing) opera style.

“Big Fish” 2017 live performance (Yue/Shaoxing opera version)

The first half of the song is sung no differently from the original version, with the only change being the shortened piano introduction. However, after the first chorus, the song takes on a dramatic shift. The original piano solo sinks into the background and is replaced by a prominent pipa and erhu melody with a hint of flute. The melody also switches to a Yue opera style. While the general structure of the song is maintained, on the whole, the tune of “Big Fish” is modified quite heavily, such as the increased complexity of the ending melisma. Zhou Shen also sings the lyrics in a regional accent rather than standard Mandarin Chinese and adds a final line to the song that vocalizes Qiu’s selfless love for Chun, “I am willing to turn into the wind and rain of the human world and remain by your side.” All of these changes contribute to the strong Yue opera flavor in this version of “Big Fish,” and the rendition was well-received by the public. Given the pure love Chun has for Kun and the unrequited, yet unwavering love Qiu has for Chun, the story of Big Fish and Begonia itself provides for good Yue opera material.  

With his gentle, feminine voice, Zhou Shen appears to be well suited for Yue operas, which are characterized by their soft, romantic style devoid of any military or acrobatic scenes and their focus on love stories. In 2019, Zhou Shen released a call-and-response duet with another male singer Zhu Qi of the title《楼台》(“Butterfly Lovers”) that is based on one of the most famous Yue operas Butterfly Lovers, which narrates the love story between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who both die tragically and are transformed into butterflies. Expectedly enough, Zhou Shen takes on the lyrics of Zhu Yingtai in this love song, and his sweet soprano-like voice does not cease to amaze. Unlike the Yue opera version of “Big Fish,” “Butterfly Lovers” does not employ any operatic elements. Instead, it utilizes a familiar melody as its instrumental – the violin solo that is played during the middle section of the song is an excerpt from The Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto, one of the most renowned pieces of Chinese music written for a Western orchestra.

“Butterfly Lovers” 2019 live performance

Zhou Shen’s expansion into the Yue opera genre is possibly in part a strategic decision as most Yue operas feature entirely female casts much like William Sun’s play Aspirations Sky High and gain a majority female fan base, which coincides with Zhou Shen’s own following of female listeners. By singing in the Yue opera style, Zhou Shen can reach a wider audience of older females who enjoy Yue operas. Besides Yue opera, Zhou Shen also incorporates more generic operatic elements into some of his other songs such as《直破穹苍》(“Break through the Heaven”). The 戏腔 (operatic vocal style) is popular in traditional Chinese style music and is often the anticipated highlight of a song if the singer has a talented operatic voice. Zhou Shen holds an advantage in this vocal style with his bel canto background.

“Break through the Heaven” 2019 live performance

The operatic vocal style is only one facet of traditional Chinese style music. After Jay Chou popularized his type of music that infuses Chinese elements with pop, hip hop, R&B, and other Western styles, Chineseness became an important aspect of Mandopop. The appeal of traditional Chinese elements in popular music among Chinese audiences is in the emotional intimacy and nostalgia they bring.

More and more musicians are starting to use traditional Chinese elements to make music… This, has allowed us to hear the sounds of our nation once more. Erhu, pipa, flute, and many other traditional instruments that seemed to have drifted far away from us, are now slowly beginning to return to our side.

“On the Evolution of Contemporary Chinese Popular Music”

As seen in Jay Chou’s《爸,我回来了》(“Dad, I’m Home”), another trend in Mandopop is the blending of Mandarin with local dialects, which is Taiwanese Hokkien in Jay Chou’s case. One of the songs that Zhou Shen chose to perform during his participation in the Chinese reality singing show《蒙面唱將猜猜猜》(Mask Singer) in 2016,《身骑白马》(“Riding a White Horse”) by female Taiwanese singer 徐佳莹 (Lala Hsu), does this as well.

Related image
Zhou Shen on Mask Singer first season (2016)

In Zhou Shen’s adaptation of “Riding a White Horse,” the song opens with an intense violin solo accompanied by piano, creating a drastic contrast against the entrance of Zhou Shen’s exquisite voice teeming with love and longing five measures later. The Chineseness of this song becomes apparent in the chorus that is sung in Taiwanese Hokkien, of which the lyrics and melody are adopted from the Taiwanese 歌仔戏 (Ke-Tse opera)《薛平贵与王宝钏》(Xue Pinggui and Wang Baochuan) (‘我身骑白马走三关’原出何处?).

Zhou Shen on Mask Singer:
“Riding a White Horse”
Identity reveal
Bel canto demonstration

Although having a unique and skilled voice is necessary to achieve success in the music industry, it is only the basis. Artists also have to be able to appeal to their audiences with their image, message, and musical styles, and in China specifically, they have to be “government-approved” as well. Jay Chou, being arguably the most famous Chinese singer in the Chinese-speaking world, is one such artist who was able to fulfill all the requirements and obtain success in China. Albeit not in the same manner as Jay Chou, Zhou Shen was also able to meet the requirements and has achieved considerable success since his official debut five years ago. Unlike Jay Chou who leans toward a more cool and flashy stage presence and reflects the spirit of an independent and rebellious teenager, Zhou Shen carries an air of elegance and perfection reminiscent of a noble’s son from imperial China who is well-mannered, well-educated in literature and the arts, and bears a dash of femininity (Fung). With his small stature, large eyes, and round cheeks, Zhou Shen’s youthful looks sculpt an image of “naivety, innocence, and gentleness” that complements his high-pitched voice (Jiang). In terms of musical content, Jay Chou’s works focus on real modern topics and situations, while Zhou Shen’s songs often are related to drama and film storylines and characters. Both Jay Chou and Zhou Shen are known for their traditional Chinese style popular music influenced by Western elements such as hip hop for Jay Chou and bel canto for Zhou Shen, and they are able to attract a wide following with their music.

Despite Jay Chou’s exploration of societal and personal issues and Zhou Shen’s androgyny, they do not clash with the government’s agendas. Although Jay Chou is a model of the cool image for young people with his independence and defiance, his persona is not “remote enough to alienate parents outright” and upheave the traditional Chinese domestic values and beliefs (Fung). Regarding the LGBTQ community, there still exists intolerance and unfriendliness; however, Zhou Shen’s androgyny has “less to do with the gender transgression of his body than his underdeveloped gender traits” caused by his youthful physical appearance and high-pitched voice (Jiang). Therefore, Zhou Shen is not rejected by society and is rather highly appreciated for his talent. His masterful command over his voice allows him to sing difficult songs with ease, and his advanced techniques are evident from the details in his songs that are cleanly executed with careful precision and emotion. Even his live performances and personal live broadcasts sound very much similar to his official studio recordings, with minimal intonation problems, good clear tonal quality, and steady breath support. In many ways, Zhou Shen’s musical style can be compared to the Gang-Tai pop favored by Chinese audiences – soft, apolitical, soulful, and moving. Some Gang-Tai pop supporters even argue that the fragile, feminine male goes better with the pop image and is “closer to traditional elite Chinese ideals of manhood” (Moskowitz). In any event, as long as Zhou Shen aligns with the politically correct ideology, the state will not intervene in his musical practices. If his music “conveys positive messages about Chinese culture and national identity” like Jay Chou’s, being invited to perform on the national stage is not uncommon either (Jiang).

Related image
Zhou Shen’s personal live broadcast

Zhou Shen’s voice, musical style, and adherence to government standards are what set him up for success, but with the ever-changing Chinese music industry, it is difficult to determine how long this success will last and whether Zhou Shen will one day become an iconic singer like Teresa Teng, Cui Jian, or Jay Chou. If he persists in his career with his initial mindset of doing what he loves without calculating for reward, he will certainly achieve personal satisfaction. And be it success or failure, no matter what happens he will have no regrets.

Works Cited

Scholarly sources:

Fung, Anthony Y. H. “Western Style, Chinese Pop: Jay Chou’s Rap and Hip-Hop in China.” Asian Music, vol. 39 no. 1, 2008, p. 69-80. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/amu.2007.0047.

何玉明. “浅谈中国当代流行音乐的演进.” 作家, no. 2, 2010, pp. 220–22.
“On the Evolution of Contemporary Chinese Popular Music”

Jiang, Xinxin. Whose Voice?: A Critical Analysis of Identity, Media, and Popular Music in the Voice of China. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1/1/2018. 

Marc L. Moskowitz. “China’s Mandopop Roots and Taiwan’s Gendered Counter-Invasion of the PRC.” Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow, University of Hawaii Press, 31/1/2010, p. 16.

张佳韵. “从《大鱼海棠》看国产动画电影的文化内涵.” 戏剧之家, no. 1, 2018, p. 107.
“The Cultural Connotation of Chinese Animation Film through Big Fish and Begonia

Other sources:

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Bel Canto.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Jan. 2016, www.britannica.com/art/bel-canto.

“‘我身骑白马走三关’原出何处?.” 知乎, 5 Feb. 2017, www.zhihu.com/question/21232640.
“Where did ‘I ride a white horse through three mountain passes’ originate from?”

周深の微笑 . “周深–被误解的男歌手.” 哔哩哔哩, 20 June 2018, http://www.bilibili.com/read/cv613083/.
“Zhou Shen – The Misunderstood Male Singer”

“Zhou Shen.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Dec. 2019, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhou_Shen.

Image links:

Featured https://ent.163.com/19/0702/17/EJ3IVKME00037VVV.html

Zhou Shen https://ent.163.com/19/0723/17/EKPMM63U00038FO9.html

Zhou Shen’s Weibo https://www.weibo.com/charlieper?topnav=1&wvr=6&topsug=1&is_hot=1

Quote from Zhuangzi https://zhidao.baidu.com/question/284036566.html

Zhou Shen on Mask Singer http://fj.people.com.cn/n2/2016/1028/c363308-29220348.html

Zhou Shen’s personal live broadcast http://www.sohu.com/a/344342737_120093893