History & Culture / Central Asia

The meteoric rise of modern Mandopop

by Gwyneth Cheng
Length 12 min

It’s almost February, and our Chinese radio stations are ready. They know what their audience wants: traditional feel-good Chinese New Year songs, mixed with a good number of the best Mandarin hits of the decade—the perfect package for listeners to loudly sing to in their cars as they drive around between house visits.

The usually high listenership of these radio stations—thanks to Singapore’s large Chinese population—gets even higher during this time of the year.

Truly, Chinese New Year is incomplete without Chinese pop hits. But even during most days, Mandarin popular music—or Mandopop—has become difficult to miss, even for those who don’t speak the language.

Mandopop today is a powerhouse genre in world music; it has paved the way for some of the biggest megastars we’ve ever known. Of course, it wasn’t always this big a deal—the genre has gathered momentum over the past century, blending history and numerous cultures to create the music that we have the pleasure of hearing on our radios today.

The gramophone and the birth of Shidaiqu (時代曲; 1903–1920s)

The world’s recorded music industry began with a bang when Thomas Edison’s invention of the gramophone revolutionised what producers could do with music. Its ability to record and produce audio was a never before seen spectacle—a step up from machines which were only capable of recording.

The meteoric rise of modern Mandopop

An illustration of a gramophone

As music makers around the world learnt how to use the gramophone, China joined in on the fun too. Its first ever recorded song was produced in March 1903, in the city of Shanghai, and the move sparked the flames of the local music industry.

Then the 1920s rolled by, and with it came two major changes.

At the time, standard Mandarin was considered educated and dignified compared to the commonly used dialects. Many cultural products in China began to use the language, and the music from Shanghai produced from this era onwards was all recorded in standard Mandarin.

Mandarin popular music of this era also developed a particular style—a unique blend of Western jazz and Chinese folk music. This music was aptly called Shidaiqu (時代曲), or “songs of the time”, reflecting the style’s popularity during this period.

Its fusion of Western and Chinese themes aside, Shidaiqu was special for the way it was sung. Often performed by female singers, its songs feature very-high-pitched singing, which some might describe as “childlike”; others, less kind, have said it resembles “a cat being strangled”. The 1927 hit “The Drizzle” (毛毛雨), widely regarded as the first Chinese popular song to ever exist, features this style prominently:

Over the next few decades, Shidaiqu increased in popularity, becoming a pioneer of Chinese modern popular music and a beacon of inspiration for later Mandarin pop releases.

Mandarin pop music goes overseas (1930s–1950s)

By the 1930s, the Chinese music industry had become a launchpad for megastars. Shidaiqu had also begun to evolve, transitioning from the less-well-trained, high-pitched vocals to more skilled singing styles, as singers began to hone their voices with professional training.

Singers Zhou Xuan, Gong Qiuxia, Bai Hong, Yao Lee, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, and Wu Yingyin—collectively known as the “Seven Great Singing Stars”—arose during this time, gaining fame so widespread and well-respected that they made Shidaiqu a household genre in the Republic of China and across East Asia.

Yao Lee, who debuted at the tender age of 14, became such a huge star in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong that she was hailed the “queen of popular singers” in 1958. Her “silver voice” made the song “Rose, Rose, I love you” (玫瑰玫瑰我爱你) a megahit. Her original song “Life is like a show” (人生就是戏) was even featured in the 2018 box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, proving her timelessness as a singer.

Alas, the rapid growth of Shidaiqu was short-lived.

In the Republic of China, the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War slowed down its rise considerably. But the Chinese Communist Party dealt the final blow—after establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it declared Mandarin pop music “Yellow Music”, condemning it as indecent content and forcing music lovers to stop listening to it.

This halted music production efforts in China. Singers had no choice but to move to Hong Kong, which meant that by the time the 1950s arrived, Hong Kong had replaced Shanghai as the hub of the Chinese music industry.

That said, Shanghai-style Mandarin music continued to be very popular in Hong Kong until the mid-1960s, as the singers who moved over were mostly from that city. However, many Shanghainese songwriters didn’t choose to move over, and the hiring of local and foreign songwriters in Hong Kong eventually led to a style change in later music releases. As Hong Kong-born singers began to rise to fame, Mandarin pop eventually evolved into a style distinguishable from its predecessor.

At that time, Taiwan’s music industry was a mere fledgling. Most of Taiwan’s pop songs were sung in the Hokkien dialect—the resident population’s main mother tongue—but their style was very similar to Japanese Enka music, from Japan’s occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The younger generation, however, had a big interest in music styles that were popular overseas, including Western styles.

But, much like the fate of popular music in China, martial law in 1949 meant that all songs had to be sung in standard Mandarin instead of Hokkien or even Japanese. In the end, this made Taiwanese pop music develop its own flavour: a hotpot of Chinese, Japanese, and Western music styles.

Taiwanese Mandopop takes the spotlight (1970s–1990s)

Once its sound came together, the Taiwanese music industry took flight quickly. Music produced in Taiwan and sung by Taiwanese singers saturated the Mandarin pop market in the 1970s, setting the stage for singers such as Tsai Chin, Fei Yu-Ching, Fong Fei Fei, and Teresa Teng.

Teresa Teng, in particular, became a goddess of sorts. Known as one of the most influential people in Asian popular culture, she had a huge impact on not only the music scene but also on politics and regional cultures. Her music was widely appreciated in all predominantly Chinese-speaking populations. It’s hardly a stretch, thanks to her ability to sing in seven different languages, to say that Teng managed to connect much of Asia together with her voice. Even in the modern era, she is still considered a regional icon, fondly known as “Asia’s eternal queen of pop”.

Teng is best known for her sweet and tender voice, once described by Taiwanese songwriter Tsuo Hung-yun as “seven parts sweetness, three parts tears”.

By the early 1980s, Taiwan’s music industry had become a pool of local talent that produced huge global hits. Mandopop lovers of today might recognise Lo Ta Yu’s “Tomorrow Will Be Better” and Hou Dejian’s “Descendants of the Dragon”, both released during this era.

It was also during this time that the term “Mandopop” started to become a popular descriptor of Mandarin popular music.

Chinese music also spread to Southeast Asia, and it was especially popular in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore already had a successful Chinese music industry then, further bolstered by the city-state’s Speak Mandarin Campaign. The 1980s saw local artists in Singapore create their own genre of Mandarin music, Xinyao (新谣)—a distinct style of ballads sung in standard Chinese, it was the brainchild of singer-songwriters Wong Hong Mok and Liang Wern Fook.

The Mandopop of the 1990s was a huge deal. Megastars sprouted left and right, and some are still active even today. Names such as Faye Wong and Na Ying were widely mentioned, but the main figures of this era were the “Four Heavenly Kings”: Cantopop powerhouses Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, Leon Lai, and Jacky Cheung.

The beginning of 21st Century Mandopop (2000s–2010s)

Mandopop’s meteoric rise had been ongoing for two decades at this point—but the best was yet to come.

If you were to ask your Mandopop-loving friends which years they consider the prime of the genre, most would probably mention the 2000s. Unsurprising, given that the 2000s were rife with songs that would become the most popular karaoke song choices for years after their release.

Perhaps it was the roads paved by Mandopop kings and queens of the 1980s that led to rookies of the 2000s enjoying more attention from the get-go. Perhaps it was that singers of this decade were also songwriters who created their own unique styles in the music they made. Whatever the reason, singers who debuted in this era went on to become huge successes in the current Mandopop scene.

In particular, Jay Chou—who released his first track in 2000—rose to become the king of modern Mandopop. While the title partly reflects his inability to release songs that didn’t become major hits, Chou earned it largely by being the leader of a modernised version of Zhongguofeng (中国风). Zhongguofeng blended traditional Chinese instruments with Western music styles—this can be seen in many of his works, such as the classic “Chrysanthemum Terrace” (菊花台).

The music of this decade was also particularly popular because of the rise of “quality idols” (優質偶像). These are singers who were good-looking, talented in music, and well-educated, making them perfect candidates for fans to love. Idols such as Leehom Wang and William Wei Li-an, as well as groups such as S.H.E. and Fahrenheit, became hugely popular. The creation of several idol singing competitions, riding on the concept’s wave, further boosted Mandopop’s reach in Asia.

Amidst the bustle and attention around idols, the quieter indie Mandopop scene found its time to flourish, thanks to the introduction of indie rock in China and Taiwan. Bands became a big deal, dominating nominations for Best Vocal Collaboration at the 2000 Golden Melody Awards—an award available to all types of vocalists in the industry. Taiwanese bands Mayday and Sodagreen are some of the all-time favourites.

The music we hear today

These days, albums aren’t as popular anymore. Digital streaming has taken over, with platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify providing more accurate data on a song’s popularity than album sales numbers ever could. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic further pushed listeners to go digital, as album shipments slowed down and physical copies became unavailable in many places around the world.

Mandopop has survived this transition—even thrived. It remains one of the most followed genres of Asian music today, falling just behind the behemoth popularity of Kpop.

It deserves the attention. Modern-day Mandopop is a fascinating mix of music styles, sung by singers from diverse backgrounds. Its most streamed artists in the past year alone include Taiwanese singers Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai, and Eric Chou, Hong Kong singer G.E.M., Malaysian singer Fish Leong, and Singaporean singer JJ Lin.

Clearly, there’s no time for a break in the upwards path for this powerhouse genre. Mandopop artists get bigger every year, and their music continues to define the decade, leaving listeners excited and curious to see what our megastars can bring to the table next.

As we wave goodbye to January and get ready for the lunar new year, we invite you to check out our curated Mandopop playlist as a complement—or even an alternative—to your usual tried and true Chinese New Year tunes. Hear for yourself how Mandarin popular music has changed over the century in our Spotify playlist of the genre’s greatest hits!