A Brief History of Contemporary C-pop

You’re a newbie to C-pop? You have heard the names of many C-pop singers that you have no idea who they are, since when they emerged, and what their statuses are in C-pop history? This brief history of contemporary C-pop might give you some ideas.

General Information

C-pop is short for Chinese pop or Chinese popular music (汉语流行音乐), which refers to pop music using various variations of Chinese languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. The term first was introduced in the 1920s by composer Li Jinhui who was the father of shidaiqu (時代曲 – lit. “music of the era”) – a fusion of Chinese folk and Western jazz. Although his music was extremely popular, it faced resistance from the communist government. However, it couldn’t stop his music from influencing the development of Cantopop and Mandopop eventually.

There are three main subgenres in C-pop: Cantopop, Mandopop, and Taiwanese/ Hokkien pop.


FactorCantopop
Other acronym HK-pop
Chinese name (Simplified)粤语流行音乐
Music originChinese shidaiqu (時代曲)
LanguageCantonese
Time and place of the establishment– 1920 – 1950s: in Shanghai (Republic of China) before leaving to Hong Kong, sang in Mandarin
– By the 1970s: began to sing in Cantonese and to form Cantopop genre
Popular regionsHong Kong, Guangdong (Mainland China), etc.
Popular artistsAnita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, Danny Chan, Four Heavenly Kings, Joey Yung, Twins, Eason Chan, etc.

FactorMandopop
Another acronymM-pop
Chinese name (Simplified)华语流行音乐
Music originChinese shidaiqu (時代曲)
LanguageMandarin
Time and place of the establishment– 1920 – 1950s: in Shanghai (Republic of China)
– 1978: The Economic Reform and Opening-up Policy ended the era of one monopoly (China Record Corporation) controlling music and opened a new era of Mandopop
Popular regionsMainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.
Popular artistsFaye Wong, Na Ying, Mao Amin, Tian Zhen, Liu Huan, Sun Nan, Jeff Chang, Jay Chou, JJ Lin, Wang Leehom, Jolin Tsai, Chris Lee, Jane Zhang, etc.

FactorHokkien pop
Other acronymT-pop
Chinese name (Simplified)台语流行音乐
Music originJapanese enka (演歌)
LanguageTaiwanese/ Hokkien
Time and place of the establishment– 1910s: in Taiwan (then Japanese Imperial colony)
– Restricted from 1949 to 1987 due to Martial Law in Taiwan
– Reintegration from 1990 to present
– Current Hokkien pop is more influenced by Mandopop
Popular regionsTaiwan
Popular artistsJody Chiang, Jeannie Hsieh, Chen Ying-git, Wu Bai, Phil Chang, etc.

The 1980s: The golden age of Cantopop and the emergence of Teresa Teng

In the 1980s, Cantopop observed immense success alongside the craze of Hong Kong movies and TV dramas. Many songs were used as soundtracks for big films which further spread the popularity of Cantopop. The music scene was dominated by pop icons Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, Danny Chan, etc. 

Teresa Teng – the “Queen of Mandarin songs

Mandopop as well saw its spring as the Chinese government became more open-minded about pop music. The emergence of the Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng created such a great influence that she was dubbed the “Queen of Mandarin songs.” Her mellow love songs attracted huge attention and love across Asia.

The 1990s: Four Heavenly Kings era and the rise of Mandopop

In the 1990s, the rise of the “Four Heavenly Kings” Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai, Andy Lau, and Jacky Cheung took Cantopop to another successful era. The Beijing-born, Hong Kong-raised diva Faye Wong also came to public attention with her Cantonese and Mandarin songs. 

The Four Heavenly Kings

After the 1997 handover, Mandarin became one of the standard languages under Basic Law, Mandarin pop gained more popularity. The “Four Heavenly Kings” also crossed over to Mandopop while Faye Wong started to record mostly in her native Mandarin.

From left to right: Faye Wong, Mao Amin and Na Ying
From left to right: Faye Wong, Mao Amin and Na Ying

The late 1990s recorded the flourishing mainland pop music scene with front-line singers ruling the music charts and awards such as Na Ying, Mao Amin, Tian Zhen, Liu Huan, and Sun Nan.  Besides that, the Taiwanese music scene also saw the emergence of famous singers like Stella Chang, Sky Wu, Wakin Chau, and Jeff Chang.

The 2000s: The explosion of Mandopop and Taiwanese dramas

The 2000s witnessed a transitional phase in the Cantopop music scene. The deaths of Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in 2003 shocked the industry. “Four Heavenly Kings” had passed their peak of popularity. The new era of Cantopop was continued with prominent names like Nicholas Tse, Eason Chan, Coco Lee, Juno Mak, Joey Yung, Twins, etc. 

From left to right: Nicholas Tse, Coco Lee, Eason Chan

Mandopop’s popularity hit the jackpot again with the rise of the Asian pop prince Jay Chou. Taiwanese dance-pop princess Jolin Tsai, Chinese-American singer-songwriter Wang Leehom, Singaporean pride JJ Lin, Singaporean singer-songwriter Stefanie Sun, Taiwanese bands Mayday and Sodagreen, etc. had also become household names. 

From left to right: Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai, JJ Lin, Wang Leehom
From left to right: Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai, JJ Lin, Wang Leehom

Moreover, the explosion of Taiwanese idol dramas in the 2000s marked the birth of popular idol singers and idol groups. The Mandopop theme songs from these idol dramas quickly became hits across Asia. The most popular C-pop idol groups at that time were all from Taiwan: F4, Fahrenheit, S.H.E, 183 Club, 5566, Lollipop, Hey Girl, etc.

S.H.E

In mainland China, music competitions such as The Show, Super Girl, Super Boy, The Voice of China, and Chinese Idol strongly boosted the influence of the “idol” concept. Many candidates from singing competitions emerged as successful singers such as Joker Xue, Jason Zhang, Chris Lee, Jane Zhang, etc.

From left to right: Kris Lee, Jane Zhang and Jason Zhang
From left to right: Chris Lee, Jane Zhang and Jason Zhang

The 2010s: A decade of no breakthrough 

The influence of the Hong Kong entertainment industry has become vulnerable over years. Cantopop’s annual record sales have declined from HK$1.6 billion in 1998 to HK$200 million in roughly two decades. As the Cantopop market shrinks, many talented Hong Kong musicians seek more opportunities by shifting their careers to mainland China, notably G.E.M Tang – a singer-songwriter that gained attention after her appearance in the mainland’s singing competition “I am a Singer.”

G.E.M Deng Ziqi

The Taiwanese drama fever has finally been over leading to a dull Taiwan pop scene. Many former popular Taiwanese idols like Show Lo, Ming Dao, Fahrenheit’s members, etc. have been trying to get more gigs from the mainland. 

Mainland China now seems to be a promised land because of its huge entertainment market. However, its music industry still suffers from a high rate of piracy due to the lack of digital copyright protection. Many singers have to earn money from other sources such as endorsement, fashion, film, and variety shows. 

From left to right: Mao Buyi, Zhou Shen, Zheng Yunlong and Ayanca.
From left to right: Mao Buyi, Zhou Shen, Zheng Yunlong and Ayanga.

In mainland China, famous Chinese singers Joker Xue, Jason Zhang, Chris Lee, Jane Zhang, etc. continue to shine alongside the rise of new waves of singers, namely Hua Chenyu, Zhang Bichen, Zhou Shen, Mao Buyi, Zheng Yunlong, Ayanga, etc.

From the idol segment, one of the biggest C-pop acts in the 2010s is TFBOYS – the young boy group debuting at ages 13 and 14, which brought a fresh breeze to the C-pop idol market. TFBOYS’ then ultimate competitor – Korean boy group EXO-M – was a foundation for its Chinese members, now solo artists Lu Han, Kris Wu, Lay Zhang, and Z.TAO, to go big in their motherland later on. The increasing number of idol survival shows has brought to the market bunches of new idols every year, notably Nine Percent, Rocket Girls, etc. 

TFBOYS

Regardless of talent, star quality, or dedication to the music profession, the new generation of musical artists is still considered as unable to replace the old generation just yet. Many of the new idols are nothing more than Chinese replicas of K-pop groups. C-pop has experienced a decade without a significant breakthrough and is still looking for a game-changer. 


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