Bored with the text books? Throw them out the window, and plug in your headphones. These 3 rock stars don’t only make killer music… they make killer music in Chinese! Follow along with the lyrics and you’ll learn some useful phrases to add to your vocabulary, and have a great time in the process.
XTX – 谢天笑 XièTiānXiào
Xie Tian Xiao or XTX is an incredibly versatile performer, spanning pop rock, grunge, and even reggae. His lyrics tend to be pretty simple – if a bit waffly and poetic at times – and contain useful phrases for the Chinese learners. Here are a couple of classics…
我不爱你 Wǒ Bù Ài Nǐ “I Don’t Love You”
This somewhat cliched grunge anthem has a disgruntled lover screaming ‘I don’t love you!’ whilst seeming to contradict himself with a series of pained declarations. It’s worth listening to the chorus, because he brings it home with style.
真的 我不能告诉你 Zhēn de wǒ bùnéng gàosù nǐ “Really, I cannot tell you”
真的 我不能靠近你 Zhēn de wǒ bùnéng kàojìn nǐ “Really, I cannot get close to you”
真的 我无法宠着你 Zhēn de wǒ wúfǎ chǒngzhe nǐ “Really, I’m unable to pamper you”
真的 我无法离开你 Zhēn de wǒ wúfǎ líkāi nǐ “Really, I’m unable to leave you”
我不爱你 我不爱你 Wǒ bù ài nǐ wǒ bù ài nǐ “I don’t love you, I don’t love you.”
不会改变 Bù Huì Gǎibiàn “It Won’t Change”
I first heard this song played by a cover band at a bar in Lhasa whilst struggling my way through some local ‘barley wine.’ It sounds great, and is one of XTX most popular tunes, although the splendor falls away somewhat once you decipher the lyrics.
With lines like 你就像花朵般美丽却从来都不畏惧风雨 Nǐ jiù xiàng huāduǒ bān měilì què cónglái dōu bù wèijù fēngyǔ “you’re as beautiful as a flower, and have never feared hardship” it’s hard to imagine an English version of this song getting much airplay. Still it’s a nice sounding tune, and worth a good listen.
One of the Chinese rock groups to get recognition in the west, this Beijing based group have toured Europe and even played with Sonic Youth. They have English songs, but are most convincing when they sing in their native tongue. Musically they’re astonishingly good and fantastic to listen to even without the language learning objective.
中南海 Zhōngnánhǎi “Middle South Sea”
Zhōngnánhǎi ambiguously refers to either the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing, or a popular brand of Chinese cigarettes. The song lets you draw your own conclusion whilst it hauntingly belts out the name over and over. The guitar is reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their best, making this a track that you’ll want to play time and time again.
The chorus: 中南海，中南海 抽烟只抽中南海 “Zhōngnánhǎi Zhōngnánhǎi chōuyān zhǐ chōu Zhōngnánhǎi,” is essentially an imperative , “if you smoke, only smoke Zhongnanhai” but the double meaning of that famous name is inescapable. With a light touch and no direct political statements, it still makes you think.
蘑菇蘑菇 Mógū Mógū － Mushroom Mushroom
Literally translated as “Mushroom, Mushroom,” the psychedelic lyrics describe someone picking mushrooms on a mountain and putting them in a wicker basket. When the village chief heads over to collect some of the mushrooms, the mushrooms change and turn red…Yeah maybe there’s another meaning to mushroom that we’re not considering. The strange, trippy lyrics will add some interesting phrases to your Chinese vocab.
何勇 Hé Yǒng
Lajichang 垃圾场 “Rubbish Dump”
The title track off his one and only album, “Rubbish Dump” is an angry, trash rock song with screaming vocals and slashing guitar. A furious protest against seemingly everyone and everything, it may not suit everybody’s taste, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by the passion of the singer.
The harsh lyrics, 我们生活的世界 就像一个垃圾场 “Wǒmen shēnghuó de shìjiè jiù xiàng yīgè lèsè chǎng” – the world we live in is a garbage dump, and 有人减肥 有人饿死没粮 , “Yǒurén jiǎnféi yǒurén è sǐ méi liáng “ – some people are losing weight, some people are starving to death without food – paint a bleak picture.
This bitter expression of outrage isn’t technically brilliant but its searing honesty make it an important song.
钟鼓楼 Zhōng Gǔlóu “Clock & Drum Tower”
In stark contrast to the previous tune – it’s hard to believe this is the same artist – Zhong Gulou is a beautiful, sweet opine to the Beijing of old. Almost like a folk song, the artist describes scenes from the everyday life of his hometown, accompanied by smooth, soft music.
The beautiful opening lines are almost worthy of Bob Dylan:
这里的人们有着那么多的时间 Zhèlǐ de rénmen yǒuzhe nàme duō de shíjiān
他们正在说着谁家的三长两短 tāmen zhèngzài shuōzhe shuí jiā de sānchángliǎngduǎn
他们正在看着你掏出什么牌子的烟 tāmen zhèngzài kànzhe nǐ tāo chū shénme páizi de yān
“The people around here have so much time. They talk about family gossip, and watch what brand of cigarettes you are smoking”
Further reading The Troubled Genius of He Yong
Tips To Get the Most Out of Chinese Music
- Look up the lyrics on Google / BaiDu by searching the song title and the word 歌词, gēcí, ‘lyrics.’
- Add PeraPera to your browser (Chrome or Firefox) and hover over the unfamiliar characters – it will translate them for you.
- Search for new characters in Pleco (see 10 Essential Apps for Expats in China) so they’ll be saved in your history, and see the example sentences to get an idea for how they are used in context.
- Be careful! Songs often have poetic lyrics, and employ phrases that will be strange in everyday life. Can you imagine learning English by listening to Stairway to Heaven? Not all that glitters is gold, so proceed with caution.
There’s a whole world of Chinese music to be discovered, and some of it really is quite brilliant. Go forward with an open mind, and you’ll soon be adding some great new tracks to your playlist.