In the past few decades the artistic community in China has opened up a bit, allowing for some talented painters, singers, and directors to step onto the world stage. If you are currently learning Chinese, listening to music is one great way to boost your fluency in the language. Remembering lyrics and singing along to your favorite hits can greatly influence the speed with which you speak and interpret the language. In this article I will briefly discuss some of the more interesting grammatical structures you’ll hear in these songs. If you have further questions about a lyric in the song just send me a message, I’ll be happy to help. I’m not translating the full songs here in the interest of brevity. Whether you are learning Chinese or just interested in music from another part of the world, hopefully you can enjoy this list of 10 Chinese songs that I’ve personally enjoyed while studying the language over the years. If you would like an easy way to study these lyrics in the browser without consulting your dictionary, use the amazing browser plug-in Perapera Kun (pop-up dictionary):
1.) Large Stone Shatters the Pit of the Chest. [大石碎胸口] by Omnipotent Youth Society [万能青年旅店].
Omnipotent Youth Society is one of my personal favorites. Their guitarist shreds, the trumpet blasts, the cello drawls, the bass is naughty, everything flowing together in perfect harmony over the poetic lyrics. And they rock live. They produce rock that reminds me of some of the Western greats, and have lots of good songs. I also like the blues rock ballad “In Every Bar on this Planet [在这颗行星所有的酒馆]” and “Kill the One From ShiJiaZhuang [杀死那个石家庄人].” In Large Stone Shatters the Pit of The Chest, the lyrics and feel of the song remind me vaguely of Dogs by Pink Floyd. They both seem to be outlining the corruption of fast paced city life and explore themes of betrayal. In Dogs, Roger Waters sings, “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to, so that when they turn their backs on you, you get the chance to put the knife in.” In Large Stone, the lead vocalist sings:
卖掉武器 风暴和喉咙 换取饮食
Translation: The fat city hands him/ a traditional method to control panic/ sell off your weapons, storms and throat, and exchange them for food and water/ betrayal can let you gain freedom.
Some of Omipotent Youth Society’s lyrics are purposefully obscure and open to interpretation. The songwriter is wonderful at playing with words and idioms, which makes this band’s songs fun to analyse. Very poetic. Here this might be a commentary on China’s recent migration from the countryside into the “fat city.” This migration is completely unprecedented in terms of size, and many people in China openly talk about the degradation in morals that has come with modernization. People openly lie, cheat, and steal to get by. In this verse, 风暴 means storm, but is also a word that was used historically to describe revolution, crisis, and societal upheavals (革命风暴: the storm of revolution). So perhaps he is saying, people sell their weapons, chance of revolutionary reforms, and freedom of speech (喉咙 throat – might refer to speech) in order to exchange those things for simple necessities like food and drinks. Betrayal can let you gain freedom.
2.) Can’t Leave You [离不开你] originally by Liu Huan [刘欢].
- Rocked out version by ZhuKe [朱克].
- Famous version by powerful female singer Huang QiShan [黄绮珊].
- Original version by Liu Huan [刘欢].
I first heard this song on The Voice of China. A 41 year old man named Zhu Ke [朱克] sang a moving rendition after explaining the heartbreaking story of his wife’s death. Passionate vocals yelling out a melodic tune has been a sound I’ve loved since hearing Nirvana as a kid in the 90’s, although the original version of “Can’t Leave You” is more pop than grunge. But it stirs the emotions in people, as evinced by Huang Qishan [黄绮珊] belting out a more technically skilled version of this song on “I am a Singer [我是歌手].” This song is a bit easier to understand and interpret than an Omnipotent Youth Society song. The chorus:
Translation: We two, it’s too unfair. Love and hate, you control my everything. But today, I already can’t leave you. Whether or not you love me.
Here we can see one of the grammatical structures for 由, a versatile word that can mean “because of, from, by means of, through, via etc.” Love and hate, all “through 由” your control. We also see that 可 can be used by itself to mean “but/however.”
3.) Greenhouse Girl 花房姑娘 by “The Father of Chinese rock & roll” Cui Jian [崔健].
I used to listen to a Chinese friend of mine play a great acoustic version of this song in a local bar while I lived in HeNan [河南]. I’ve since heard it played in various live music venues around China. It’s a Chinese rock classic and fun to yell along with. Cui Jian also likes to use some older sounding Chinese grammar, for instance 何. In Greenhouse Girl you can learn what using this grammar looks like when Cui Jian sings this part:
Translation: You ask me where I am going. I point in the direction of the sea. (note: “where I am going” is where the grammar comes in: 向 towards 何 which, what 方 direction.)
In some of the more classical Chinese TV shows set in ancient times they will use 何 more often. As in 为何 (why?), 如何 (how?), 何必 (there is no need, why?) etc.
4.) Fly Higher [飞得更高] by rock superstar Wang Feng [汪峰].
This song played almost everywhere when I first came to China. Its massive popularity can’t be overstated. Mostly everyone knows this song in Mainland China. I got kind of sick of hearing it after a while actually, but Wang Feng actually has a lot of great tunes that shouldn’t be overlooked purely based on his obnoxious level of popularity. I like the reggae love ballad he plays called 我爱你的方式, along with some of his other popular hits like 怒放的生命 and 存在.
The lyrics in “Fly Higher” are nice, if a bit corny. The useful grammatical structure of 像 (to be like, to appear etc.) can be learned from the very first line:
Translation: Life is just like a river. Sometimes quiet, sometimes crazy. Reality is like a shackle, no way to get out.
So we can see 像 is used to compare similar things. For example: 他很像他的父亲 He looks like his father. 好像要下雨了. It looks like it’s going to rain.
5.) Two people travel [二人游] by Taiwan artist Fang DaTong [方大同].
Fang DaTong covers a huge array of genres throughout his albums, from rock, to blues, to pop, to R&B he’s bound to have something you like (and probably something you don’t). He has played live with Jason Mraz, to give you some idea of what kind of music to expect. This song is a smooth blues jam that sounds sort of like a Stevie Ray Vaughn tune, if Stevie hadn’t been so breathtakingly talented and gravitated more towards pop. Fang DaTong has covered the Chinese classic Red Bean [红豆], which has nice lyrics and a melodic tune to follow. One of his most famous pop hits is Love Song. In “Two people travel” we see a grammar that you probably encountered on one of the first days you began studying Chinese (不要):
Translation: Don’t come any closer, don’t get near me!
不要 here is a command telling someone not to do something.
6.) The Circle [圈] by The Gar.
This dissonant three piece from Beijing sounds like an 80’s style grunge band. They put on a fairly impressive and gritty live show. The guitarist can rock. In “The Cirlce,” the lyrics are great:
Translation: We don’t stop drawing a circle. The end of the circle is another starting point.
Here we see the grammar particle 着 which indicates continuous action and can be likened to the English grammar “be doing.” Example: 他穿着一身新衣服 He is wearing new clothes. On a side note: one of the most beautiful symbols in the world is a circle. Ralph Waldo Emerson described it in a way similar to this song, ” Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”
7.) One Hundred Thousand Hippies [十万嬉皮] by The Omnipotent Youth Society [万能青年旅店].
This song includes a lot of great idioms that you can learn and maintains a pretty easy rhythm throughout. Here are my favorite idioms in the song:
四体不勤，五谷不分: It means you are lazy and unlearned. Literally “your four limbs do no work, and you can’t even distinguish between the five grains (staple foods).”
不事劳作，一无所获: If you don’t work hard, you’ll never receive (gain) anything in life.
借酒消愁: Rely on alcohol to eliminate your worries.
一无所长: You have no special skill. You’re not good at anything.
敌视现实: You have a hostile attitude towards reality (can’t accept it).
8.) Red Army [十送红军] by Dao Lang [刀郎].
Mentioning Dao Lang to a young person typically results in laughter, and most people in their twenties don’t like this guy because he writes the popular rock anthems of the middle aged. Some of his songs are ridiculously cliché, but he can be an interesting window into mainstream Chinese culture. Regardless, I enjoy this cover of an old Chinese communist tune from the 1950’s. From a purely outsider’s perspective I think it’s fascinating to hear old propaganda from the rise of communism in China. The lyrics can tell you a lot about the national consciousness at that time. I originally wanted to post this great metal parody of another famous 1950’s communist propaganda song titled “Socialism is Good [社会主义好],” but decided it wasn’t serious enough to include in the list. Red Army has some weird pronunciation and poetic grammar, but it certainly does a good job of praising the communist army:
Translation: A hundred thousand common people brim with tears. It seems their gratitude is like a sea, they can never forget the red army. With the revolution successful they can head back to their homelands early. (Note: 介支个 is repeated throughout the song and pronounced weird “gai zhi ge.” I am not entirely sure what it means but guess it’s something like “maintain support,” as in constant support of the red army?)
9.) Youth [青春] by Wang Feng [汪峰].
I include this one because the lyrics are full of an idealistic romance that I like. It also tells a story, which is great for language learning.
Translation: Tonight I plan to set out at dusk. Hail a car and go to a faraway place. Where are my friends to give me a feast tonight (“going away feast”)? I hurriedly put my clothes on and push the door open to leave. The oppressive heat of the street’s desire confronts me. I lightly jump into the river of people.
10.) Penniless [一无所有] by Cui Jian [崔健].
No list of Chinese songs would be complete without this one. It’s the first song listed under “representative pieces” in the Baidu Encyclopedia entry for Chinese Rock [中国摇滚] .
Here again we can see Cui Jian’s use of 何 (review!):
Translation: When will you go with me? （何时: what time?）But you always laugh that I have absolutely nothing.
Hopefully you’ve found this list of songs and brief discussion of lyrics helpful! If you have any Chinese rock suggestions for me please let me know! I am always dying to find good new music.