Mingbai (明白, meaning “understand”), written by Christian Føhrby and Deng Jie, is a newsletter that drops knowledge on things “everyone in China knows, but almost nobody outside the country knows.” Sign up for it at GetMingbai.com.
Mingbai appears in this space on the final Wednesday of each month.
Some countries just seem to spit out music that everyone in the world knows. The U.S. and the UK are of course the international pop music super heavyweights, but hey, South Korea has Psy and Canada has that Bieber guy. Even tiny Barbados can claim credit for Rihanna. China, however, has mostly only exported its music regionally, if at all, and so, this edition of Mingbai takes a look at some of the people who are ultra megastars in China but not too famous globally.
周杰伦 (zhōu jiélún), known internationally as Jay Chou, is one of the most famous singers of all time. Of Michael Jackson-esque fame and renown across East Asia, he is better-selling that Beyoncé, and hailed as the King of Pop.
Mixing the music of East and West, he writes his own songs, directs his owns music videos, and is widely recognized to have created his very own genre of music — a sleek mix of Chopin, Timberlake, and an Eminem who doesn’t swear.
Jay Chou can sing about love, but is also not afraid to branch into topics like domestic violence, war, loneliness, ninjas, nunchuks, and tea. He makes videos about everything from the mafia to the importance of listening to your mother.
Fans obviously follow Jay Chou zealously, and it sparked great amusement when the superstar revealed in an interview that he doesn’t like wearing underwear. Except during concerts. Just a fun fact.
Next up we have 张学友 (Zhāng Xuéyŏu), a singer so famous that other famous singers sing about him — including Jay Chou! A superstar from Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, he’s a hotshot actor and singer in one.
He is also a meme. In his 1988 Hong Kong blockbuster As Tears Go By, there is a particularly strong scene where his no-good mobster character, in a heated moment, tells another person to, well, eat shit. His facial expression while saying this is priceless, and so it has been cartoonified and turned into an army of memes.
Examples range from a simple “Cut it out, OK?” to an elaborately designed, “Young man, you should talk less and eat more shit.”
Zhang Xueyou’s most famous hit is “Goodbye Kiss” (吻别) from 1993, which resounded over all of East Asia, beating all records with its soft pop allure.
China’s rock ballad mama is 韩红 (Hán Hóng). Her voice can kill, and her out-of-this-world stage presence has made her one of China’s most famous singers.
Easily distinguishable by her Elton Johnesque short hair, men’s suit, and ever-changing sunglasses, she doesn’t look like a typical pop star, but she sounds like equal parts Adele, Aretha Franklin, and a roll of barbed wire.
Han Hong is of Tibetan origin, so her songs are often inspired by Tibetan folk tradition, and she is known for spearheading a number of Tibet-focused charities. She is a former air force commander, and has been a judge in talent shows like Voice of China.
When she compliments other female singers, it’s often with the phrase, “She’s a swell dude.”
A more recent addition to the pantheon of Chinese megastardom, 华晨宇 (Huà Chényŭ) is unusual both in popularity and style.
He is popularly known as “the Martian” because of his first appearance on a TV talent show where he sang/hummed/mewed an otherworldly tune with no lyrics and got one of the judges to sing along excitedly. Social media freaked out, and he partly adopted the extraterrestrial persona, calling his first big concert “the Mars Concert,” and a later album “Alien.”
Visibly and audibly unique, Hua Chenyu uses the entire vocal spectrum, from shrieking to whispering, while commanding the stage. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he usually gets other lyricists to interpret his Martian musings into intelligible Chinese.
In addition to digging his music, fans spend a lot of time trying to figure out where he stores all the food that he constantly consumes.
All of the above have created earworms just waiting to be enjoyed regardless of language skills — and hey, isn’t it the holidays? Aren’t you tired of Wham and Mariah Carey by now? You can thank us later.