Chinoiserie in Mandopop







Chinoiserie in Mandopop has evoked widely repercussion in Chinese music life under the condition that the western culture invades the Chinese-speaking community, so I take it as my research object. In this research paper, I will introduce the background of Chinoiserie in Mandopop, explore the techniques and the poetic image used in this Chinese style popular music and discuss the problems of this kind of music.



Before I go further my research, I would like to talk about the definition of the Chinoiserie in Mandopop. Actually, there is no official definition about it. By now, the most authoritative definition is that Chinoiserie in Mandopop is a music which has lyrics with Chinese culture, heighten the atmosphere by the use of a new breed of singing and song arranger skills and combine nostalgic Chinese song in the background with present rhythm, resulting in subtle, sad, elegant, light and other songs style. [1]



After 21st century, the Chinoiserie in Mandopop gradually obtains huge success.

In the 2003, Jay Chou,who is one of the representative of Chinese style pop music, released his fourth album and “Dong Feng PO”(东风破) which is one of the tile track and becomes the top 10 mandopop. Moreover, Jay Chou won the best composer prize in China. [2]

In 2004, Leehom Wang, who is another representative of Chinese style pop music, released a chinked-out-themed (Chinese-hip-pop-themed) album “Xin Zhong DE Ri YUE”(心中的日月)with one million sale volume. In this album, there are three songs which are significantly combination of traditional Chinese songs and western hip-hop, and proved to be the best three songs in this album. [3]

In the next fewer years, using Chinoiserie in a song gradually becomes a common phenomenon not only for singers who come from Taiwan but also for singers who share Chinese culture. For example, in 2006 JJ, who comes from Singapore release an album with name of “Cao Cao” who is a general in ancient China. Some singers coming from mainland China also start following this trend, for example, Yanbin HU, released an album “Emperor” and get 0.5 million sale volume. [4]

In recent years, in many China charts, this Chinese style music has occupied an important place.


Is Chinoiserie in Mandopop a new style?


Many people don’t think this Chinese style music can be regarded as a new style. They think what Jay Chou and Leehom do is just replacing the sentimental lyrics with classical Chinese or use some classical Chinese music techniques. There is no innovative thing happened.

Based on the Merriam-Webster dictionary, style is a distinctive manner of expression. [5] Under the influence of western pop music, Chinoiserie in Mandopop absorbs the element of traditional Culture and comprehensively uses various eastern music techniques. In this process, it forms a fairly typical music language. In addition, this music also highlights the indigenous feature, has profound era of banding and is widely accepted by the masses. It is a new style and we shouldn’t negate that Chinoiserie is a new style simply because this music is a combination of two kind of existing music in the creation of music. Combination and reference in a certain sense are also means of creation, this creative approach in other music and even the process of artistic creation has also been used. [6] For example, hip-hop, which derives from R&B and has much reference to other kind music, is also different type music from R&B. [7]

For example, in “Bo Ya Jue Xuan” (伯牙绝弦), which is sung by Leehom Wang, the accompany is played by the drum and Zheng, which is a classical instrument, while in the verse part, you will feel it is a hip-hop. However, no one will use Zheng in hip-hop if this is called hip-hop. Thus, the logic explanation is that Chinoiserie is a new style song.


Where is poetic image?


When we talk about Chinoiserie, people, who are familiar with China, would associate it with poetic image. Many people argue that in this kind of music it is hard to see poetic image.

I think it is hard to generalize this question, among those Chinese style songs, there are always some good songs which have poetic image and there is also some other Chinese style songs which are just simply splice, which means it is hard to form a poetic image. For example, they may also use some traditional Chinese culture element in their song, without knowing it very well. For example, in “Lao Tzu said”, which is sung by Kequn Wu, he mentioned “Lao Tzu”, who is ancient Chinese philosopher, and use harmonics to relate “Lao Tzu with “Lao Zi”, which is very oral and aggressive word and has same pronunciation and Chinese character. The integration between a mysterious ancient philosophy and a rude word destroys the poetic image, maybe when creating Chinoiserie song, he never consider poetic image.

However, some singer did a very excellent work to create the poetic image in pop music. In Jay’s “East Wind Breaks”, it depicts a man’s love towards the girl he loved before. The producer uses the Pipa and Erhu, two traditional musical instruments as the main accompaniment. Almost all of the climax use Pipa as a backdrop. Pipa playing time to break into the music rhythm even more rapid should be the climax of breaking the whole song.  Mounting to the climax by using Pipa is a common technique in Chinese classical music. The Pipa’s sound creates a poetic image with lyrics like the following: strong sadness, a pot of wandering, a few little words, tell the loneliness and desolation is extending endlessly. A painful thoughts, can’t steal time, deep and bitter sadness. [8] (Really try my best to translate the lyrics)

Creating a poetic image in a mandopop is a difficult task and not every song can form a poetic image successfully, but there is still some song that really makes it like “East Wind Breaks”


Ways of Using Traditional Chinese music elements in Mandopop


After the analyzing the big picture of the poetic image in mandopop, I will further analyze four relative Chinese classical music elements used in Mandopop.


This Chinese style will usually use Chinese classics or at will choose an ancient China scene as their background. Staring from this topic make people think of tradition Chinese culture.

For example, “blue-and-white porcelain” uses traditional China as background. “Chinese Herbal Manual” uses a traditional Chinese medical book as a name. Based on it, Jay Chou makes some extension and use hip-hop to perform this topic.  JJ, a Singapore singer, use red cliff as background to create song “ Zui Chi BI”(醉赤壁).

Traditional Chinese musical instrument:

Pipa (from Zhou Jian)

Just like “East Wind Breaks”, traditional has becomes an inevitable element in Chinoiserie music. In “Zai Mei Bian”, sung by Leehom Wang, cymbal, a Chinese percussion instrument, is used a lot in accompaniment. In “Huan Tian Cuo”, Erhu is not only used in accompaniment but appear in the MV.

Traditional Singing skills

In popular music creation, there are many musicians trying to find a breakthrough. Integration is one of the bold innovations, which reflected in the song genre and singing skills. Chinese musicians tries to graft traditional opera tunes onto modern pop music, namely, they combine Chinese opera tune with the rhythm of R & B, forming a new pop music model. Among singers whose songs widely use this kind of compounded musical skills, Jay Chou is the best representative. In his album “My Place” MV, he wears opera costume, dress like a monkey king and use Beijing Opera singing skills. In the “Huo Yuanjia”, he use directly use Huadan(花旦) singing skill which is a commonly used in Beijing Opera in the chorus.[9] The whole song has significantly traditional Chinese opera traits. Another outstanding Chinoiserie song is David Tao’s “Susan said “.  This song is well-known for its Peking Opera segment.  David adapted a famous Beijing Opera “Su San Qi Jie”, (苏三起解) created new lyrics based on the Su San’s story and use Beijing Opera to start a song.

Figural image in MV:

The producer not only tries to create Chinoiserie by the pure music but also by the figural image in MV. In the MV, they use classical Chinese musical element to set off the music.

A very good example is Bo YA Jue Xuan (伯牙绝弦), the MV makes audience feel they are watching Chinese ink painting, not just a pop music video. This song adapts Bo Ya and Jue Xuan’s story that two knowledgeable men build their friendship by the music. [10] In this Chinses style music, Leehom still use different type music to express the eager to find a person who can really understand each other. The whole song starts with calligraphy and use the Chinese ink painting as a background. A picture that beautiful lady wearing a white traditional Han Chinese Clothing and playing Zheng seems to bring audience to ancient China. The whole song interprets the story between Bo Ya and Jue Xuan in modern way but can still make audience feel the poetic image.

A sense of national identity:


Chinoiserie in Mandopop not only has the artistic value but also have a social meaning. This reflects in promoting the sense of national identity.  In China, many sociologists are worried that China will lose its own culture because of a fact that the western music style has dominated mandopop field for several music and most of teenagers don’t have much interest in Chinese classical music like Beijing Opera. On the other hand, for a long time, China doesn’t have its own pop culture. Many people even say Chinese is not creative enough to have its own pop music. However, Chinoiserie music seems to be a counterattack to this argument. [11]

This counterattack absorb western music element but also absorb the classical Chinese music element, creating a new style. This music makes many Chinese gradually recognize their culture and find the combination of their culture and Pop can be such beautiful thing. Knowing the beauty of a Chinese culture can promote the sense of national identity.

Problem and future development

Indeed, the Chinoiserie music starts from 2003 and is still very young. It is not still like hip or R&B, which already have a complete system. Many singers use traditional Chinese music elements in the pop music without understanding it, which make the music a little awkward. So maybe when singers create Chinoiserie music, they need to study the Chinese culture more first.

On the other hand, many singers, like Jay Chou and Leehom, also make a great achievement in Chinoiserie. With time go by, many of their song are still very popular. If you go KTV, many people will choose to sing Jay Chou’s song even if that song is released 10 years ago.

By now, Chinoiserie in mandopop not only make people enjoy the music but also help people understand Chinese culture. Moreover, based on the data I list in the background part, this kind of music also gains popularity.  To sum up, even though there are some problem, but it is indeed a successfully music.








[1]  Xiaoliang Huang, 2006. “中国风音乐史”;


[2] Zhihui Wang (2009) “中国风流行音乐的价值研究”;


[3] Zhihui Wang (2009) “中国风流行音乐的价值研究”;


[4] Zhihui Wang (2009) “中国风流行音乐的价值研究”;


[5] Merriam-Webster online dictionary,

[6] ] Zhihui Wang (2009) “中国风流行音乐的价值研究”;


[7] Wikipedia


[8] Jay Chou, 2003, “东风破”


[9] Xu Liang  (2011) “Research on Songs of Chinese style”



[10] Buwei Lv,(吕不韦)  239 B.C  “吕氏春秋-孝行览”,


[11] Lian Xi (2011) “The research of the new century ‘Chinese style’ Song”