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Mass and Propaganda Music


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Modern music entered China as choral music, in the Taiping rebellion, and more generally in churches,  schools and armies. Shanghai pops created the first individual voices and stars, but as the Second World War unfolded, music was again increasingly focused on mobilizing masses.

  • Nie Er’s 1935 composition “March of the Volunteers” was one of his many songs that appeared in Leftist cinema, were sung by a chorus and supported by bombastic instrumentation. It would later become the national anthem of the PRC.


When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949

  • It banned Shanghai pop, which it deemed colonial and decadent.
  • It instead patronized mass music based on Western art music, especially Russian romantic composers, such as Xian Xinghai’s “The Yellow River Cantata”, composed in 1939.
  • After 1958 a singing style based on Chinese folk emerged that vied bel canto as the musical language at official events. The so called ‘battle of the native and the foreign’ marks this emergence, after which conservatories established programs in Chinese folk singing. Although this singing style was based on various Chinese traditions and was relatively nasal, it absorbed elements of bel canto and Western art music in its competition for official recognition. This makes it distinctly different from rural folk singing traditions. Therefor, I will call this music official folk.


“The East is Red” and other songs adapted from folk songs during the 1930s and 1940s continued to be popular during the 1950s and 1960s and more ‘songs from the battlefield’ appeared, often composed collectively (see Urban Folk above).

A number of these folk songs re-appeared in the eight Model Operas (yangbanxi) that dominated the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s.

  1. The Legend of the Red Lantern
  2. Shajiabang (a symphony)
  3. Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy
  4. Raid on the White Tiger Regiment
  5. Ode of the Dragon River
  6. On the Dock
  7. Red Detachment of Women (a ballet)
  8. The White-Haired Girl (a ballet)


Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing overlooked the production and made sure that its social realist style was perfect: villains sounded gloomy, looked unhealthy and were shot in dark conditions, whereas heroes sounded invariably optimistic, and were shot from low angles in the brightest colors.

After the open-door policy started in 1978, official folk singing reemerged and TV became its major stage.

  • China Central Television (CCTV) has broadcast the Chinese New Year Gala every year since 1983 (see Talent Shows and Other Music-Related Television Programs).
  • The CCTV also broadcasts the Young Singers Television Contest, every other year since 1984. (Official) folk singing is one of the three, later four, major categories of this competition (see Talent Shows and Other Music-Related Television Programs).


Main Melody

  • ‘Main melody’ is a term in the PRC for the CCP party line. Later propaganda terms such as ‘harmonious society’ also have musical connotations. The scholar Nimrod Baranovitch has argued that propaganda singers lose their individuality and become interchangeable in the play of national symbols, choruses and bombastic orchestration.  
  • Nevertheless, a number of ‘main melody’ singers have been able to become celebrities, most notable Peng Liyuan and Song Zuying. Peng was successful in the 1980s, but retired after she married Xi Jinping. Song became third in the CCTV Young Singers Television Contest, but has performed almost yearly at the CCTV Chinese New Year Gala since 1992.



With the rise of pop music in the 1980s and 1990s, the state has not only made use of singers of the official folk singing style but also of pop singers. The army has trained and employed pop singers such as Teng Ge’er and Han Hong.

  • The less static and more modern sound of these artists was able to capture large audiences.
  • Almost all these singers are so called ‘ethnic minorities’. That Teng Ge’er is Mongolian makes his glorification of the Chinese nation extra powerful.


In recent years the PRC has tended to have less artists on the payroll and to outsource musical production to mainstream pop stars (see Commission and State Music).


For the complete chapter, please download the PDF below