minority pop musicians: the new generation

The popular music scene in China of the last decade boasts several famous young musicians of ethnic minority origin who live in Beijing and compose and perform songs in both Chinese and minority languages which highlight their different ethnicity. With their minority songs this group of musicians join a long tradition that has existed in the PRC at least since 1949. The CCP has always encouraged the production and popularization of songs about minority regions and peoples as part of its general effort to advance the integration of China’s ethnic minorities within the general Chinese culture. These songs have typically incorporated elements from minority music and language, described the local scenery and customs of minority people, and with the massive support of the government became an important component of mainstream culture. Yet despite the obvious continuity, in the context of the general political liberalization and the resurgence of ethnicity in the reform era, these minority musicians have also challenged this tradition in important ways.
The old-style minority songs have typically called for loyalty to the state and unity among China’s different nationalities. They also tended to exoticize minorities, idealize their lives, and depict them through the eyes of the Han majority. These characteristics derived in part from the highly politicized climate during the Maoist era and in part from the fact that many of the songs were created by Han Chinese. The new songs, by contrast, lack the orthodox official calls for loyalty and unity and express more diverse messages which in some cases go as far as to problematize the position and the orthodox representation of ethnic minority people in China.
The most prominent representative of the new generation of minority pop musicians is Teng Ge’er, a Mongol born in Inner Mongolia. Though in many of his songs he perpetuates the stereotypical exotic images of Mongolia, he has also expressed discontent over the loss of Mongolian identity and land, and longing for the times when the Mongols dominated China. Another representative is Askar (Chin.: Aisika’er), a Uighur born in 1964 in Xinjiang, who calls both himself and his heavy metal band Grey Wolf, after the famous symbol of pan-Turkic nationalism. Many of Askar’s songs express discontent over the position of Uighurs in China and the situation in Xinjiang, and are widely interpreted by Uighurs as calls for Uighur independence or autonomy. His famous songs include ‘Daolang’, ‘Laopo’ [Wife] and ‘Zhufu’ [Blessing]. Other famous minority musicians and groups of the new generation include Lolo (Yi), Han Hong (half Tibetan and half Han), Siqingerile (Mongol), Shanying [Mountain Eagle] and Yiren zhizao [A Product of the Yi People] (two groups of Yi musicians), and Afanti (a group of predominantly Uighur musicians).
With their biographies and artistic activity, the above-mentioned musicians reflect and shape two coexistent and contradictory trends that relate to China’s minorities in the reform era: the first is an enhanced sense of ethnic identity and nationalism among China’s minorities, and the second is an increased integration of minorities and minority cultures in the general Chinese cultural sphere.
Baranovitch, Nimrod (2003). China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harris, Rachel (2002). ‘Cassettes, Bazaars, and Saving the Nation: The Uyghur Music Industry in Xinjiang, China’. In Timothy Craig and Richard King (eds), Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 265–82.
NIMROD BARANOVITCH

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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