Blowing in the China Wind: Engagements with Chineseness in Hong Kong’s Zhongguofeng Music Videos

Yiu Fai Chow, Jeroen de Kloet

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


So opens a cover story article featured in the July 22 issue of the Chinese-language Yazhou Zhoukan (Asiaweek) in 2007. Indeed, when you tune in to any pop station in any Chinese community, it is quite likely that you will come across a song which the local presenter will tell you is another zhongguofeng (China Wind) single. The best-selling Chinese pop3 idol at this moment, Jay Chou, whose song “Lady” (nianzi) featured in his debut album in 2000 which arguably earned him the reputation of “Father of China Wind, " pledged that he would have at least one China Wind song in his releases [Cao 2006]. As in other musical styles or genres, it is difficult if at all possible to pin down what exactly China Wind popular music is. It can be defined musically by its juxtaposition of classical Chinese melody and=or instruments with trendy global pop styles, particularly R&B and hip-hop. It can also be defined lyrically by its mobilization of “traditional” Chinese cultural elements such as legends, classics and language, implicitly or explicitly in contemporary contexts. While songs with distinct Chinese characteristics, whether musical or lyrical, have always been part of local pop history, the China Wind catchphrase is a novel phenomenon.4 Above all, China Wind owes its production and circulation as a discursive formation to its endorsement by mainstream artists, notably some from Taiwan, as much as to its popularity among audiences in Greater China. In fact, the term has become so in vogue that it is no longer exclusively or even predominantly applied to popular music but also to popular culture at large. Key the Chinese word zhongguofeng in any search engine, and one will be confronted with top hits covering a wide range of items from fashion accessories, design, animation, packaged tours, to anything else that is modern and yet traditional. While China Wind pop is yet to be systematically documented, researched and analyzed, popular and media attention has generally focused on: (a) Taiwan-based artists: in addition to Jay Chou, critics also regularly refer to music by Leehom Wang (who has coined the term “Chinked-out” in 2004 for his brand of China Wind), David Tao, Ken Wu, TANK and the girl group S.H.E., in their reports on China Wind [e.g., Cao 2006, Chen 2007, Fung 2006, Lan 2007]; and (b) lyrics: although China Wind is also defined musically, critics tend to zoom in on the lyrical dimension of the songs, citing substantial portions of the lyrics to illustrate China Wind’s evocation of the Three Kingdoms, Lao Zi, Confucius, and so forth. This resonates with a general tendency in popular music studies to privilege lyrics in the analysis, assuming wrongly, as Frith points out, that “words determine or form listeners’ beliefs and values” [Frith 1998: 164]. As if to underwrite the lyrical importance of China Wind, Fang Wenshan, generally considered the most important lyricist of China Wind pop, published a book in 2008 connecting 34 pieces of his China Wind lyrics to Chinese rhetoric, culture and tradition, or what he calls “guoxue, " the study of Chinese classics [Fang 2008]. Given the focus on Taiwan-based artists and the lyrical dimension, discussion of China Wind has been framed by the specific political entanglement across the Taiwan Straits. The Yazhou Zhoukan cover story, for instance, situates China Wind in the “de-sinification” (qu zhongguohua) policy implemented by the Taiwanese authorities, inferring from their temporal coincidence China Wind’s (potential) power to unite culturally what is severed politically. In the words of the Taiwanese scholar Xu Wenwei, “The [China Wind] phenomenon stitches up wounds inflicted by tearing apart. When politics tears apart, popular culture brings stability” [quoted in Lan 2007]. In a more general sense, China Wind has been credited with the attempt if not achievement of reinserting and reasserting sanctioned, sinocentric versions of culture and history for a younger generation. The “Chineseness” that China Wind has been articulating and constructing is largely assumed to be part and parcel of what the Chinese are supposed to learn about themselves and about their culture. As Eric Wolf notes, “the cultural assertion that the world is shaped in this way and not in some other has to be repeated and enacted, lest it be questioned and denied” [1990: 593]. Jay Chou’s rap number “Compendium of Materia Medica” (bencaogangmu)-the title draws from a Chinese medical classic allegedly dating from the Ming Dynasty-is an extreme but nonetheless indicative example. Hailed by China Newsweek, a Mainland publication, as a “progressive song in celebration of Chinese culture” [Cao 2006], the song sings, amidst the names of 16 ancient medicinal herbs: “If Master Hua Tuo were reborn, he would cure your favor-currying attitude toward foreigners=let foreign nations learn the Chinese language=stir up our nationalistic consciousness.” As Anthony Fung observes in his research on Jay Chou, “his most popular songs trigger the audience’s emotions in a celebration of Chinese tradition and values” [2008: 73]. Similarly Wang Peiwen, commenting on Fang Wenshan, Jay’s lyricist, notes “his works show a consistent creative ideal of restoring and returning to traditional Chinese culture” [2007: 51]. In this essay, rather than focusing on what is considered the main source of China Wind songs, namely Taiwan, we have chosen the China Wind songs that originated from Hong Kong and their music videos as the primary subject of enquiry. Although our analysis mainly draws on visual aspects of the music videos, we follow Sarah Pink’s observation that no experience is ever purely visual [Pink 2008]. Hence we will examine not only the visual but also the lyrical text of such videos. Our central concern is, how do Hong Kong’s China Wind music videos engage with hegemonic versions of Chineseness? The choice of Hong Kong is informed by our empirical interest in the complex entanglement of cultural and political power which the postcolonial city is presumably going through. On the one hand, many scholars of Hong Kong popular culture have observed a “process of re-nationalization” following or even prior to the political Handover to Beijing rule in 1997 [e.g., Erni 2001; Ho 2000]. On the other hand, as a hybrid city with no claims to “territorial propriety or cultural centrality, " which is embedded in its “in-betweenness” [Chow 1993], Hong Kong continues to show resilience in troubling dominant narratives of Chineseness by re-inventing local culture and identity [Abbas 1997; Chow and de Kloet 2008]. We are interested in finding out empirically how popular culture, in this case, China Wind pop, is shaping and being shaped by this tension between nationalistic longing and the city’s hybrid “capacity to think otherwise” [Chan 2005]. It can also be taken as a supplement to a number of studies on Chinese musical nationalism [e.g., Kagan 1963, Kouwenhoven 1997, Tuohy 2001, Wong 1984] which seek “to examine the mutually transformative process of making music national and of realizing the nation musically” [Tuohy 2001: 108]. At the same time, our choice of Hong Kong is more than empirically driven; it is, in theory and in praxis, a correspondence with the ongoing debates on Chineseness-debates on not only what but also who defines it [Ang 2001; Chow 1998; Lim 2006]. By privileging Hong Kong we are aligned with scholars who choose to interrogate dominant versions of Chineseness by invoking Hong Kong as a case study that troubles any essential claim on Chinenesess [Abbas 1997; Chow 1998; Leung 2008]. If China Wind, as a whole, shows signs of becoming what Tu Wei-ming may call a Cultural China project, Hong Kong’s variant is resisting, and this study can be seen as a tactic to contest China Wind’s culturalist strategies. In short, this essay is also meant to (re)claim a speaking position for Hong Kong, which can never take Chineseness for granted and whose Chineseness is never taken for granted, on questions of Chineseness [Chow 2009], to let the hybridized hybridize. For the purpose of this inquiry, we have scanned the pop chart of Commercial Radio Hong Kong from 2006 till the moment we finished collecting data for this study, the first week of October 2008 (Table 1).5 We have identified 18 songs that would be generally recognized as China Wind, of which eight originated from Hong Kong: two in 2006, four in 2007, and two so far in 2008. The rest were performed almost exclusively by artists from Taiwan who are known for their China Wind pop, including Jay Chou (6), Leehom Wang (2) and Ken Wu (1), and the remaining one by Ah-Niu, a Malaysian-born artist who reached pop stardom in Taiwan. Of the eight Hong Kong China Wind songs, six were released with accompanying music videos. While this group of songs and music videos formed the primary body of data, we have also made occasional comparison with the rest to enrich our visual and textual analysis. We will first show how the Hong Kong videos destabilize Chineseness by rendering it as distant, ambiguous and something to be struggling with. We will then concentrate on a conspicuous dimension of Hong Kong China Wind, that it is mostly embodied in female artists. We will conclude with some thoughts on further research.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHybrid Hong Kong
EditorsKwok-bun Chan
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781135755003, 9780203723296
ISBN (Print)9780415695541, 9780415754712
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2012

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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