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“Country Roads” to Globalization: Sociological Models for Understanding American Popular Music in China



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‘Country Roads’’ to Globalization:
Sociological Models for Understanding
American Popular Music in China
western educational theory, is taking students’ needs and in-
terests into account when planning for classes. When I began
to teach English to Chinese students in a private school in western
China in August 2001, I asked my eighth-grade students what they
enjoyed most about their previous English classes.
‘‘Music,’’ one student replied.
‘‘Learning American songs,’’ clarified another.
‘‘This could be enjoyable,’’ I thought, thinking of the CDs I had
brought from the United States and the insight into adolescent music
tastes gained from teaching high school students the year before.
‘‘What is your favorite American song?’’ I asked.
‘‘‘Yesterday Once More’’’ Wang Xiaowang, the class leader, asserted
without hesitation.
‘‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know that one,’’ I said, puzzled. ‘‘Could you
sing it for me?’’
Wang Xiaowang gave the starting note and the other twelve stu-
dents in the class joined in, some of them closing their eyes to sing
with passion Karen Carpenter’s ballad of lost love. As they sang, I
wondered how all of these students knew this tune when I had never
heard it. As I taught this class and others during my two years in
China, I enjoyed singing American songs with my students, though I
quickly learned that some tunes would go over well with my students,
while others would induce little enthusiasm from them. The students
The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2009
r2009, Copyright the Authors
Journal compilation r2009, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
had definitive tastes in American music, unexpected tastes which defied
my own preferences and those of teenagers I had previously taught in
the United States. After much trial and error, I narrowed the ‘‘surefire’’
genres of American music for Chinese students to easy listening,
country, and softer covers of ‘‘oldies.’
Personal Context
Our interest in this topic was sparked by Rupke’s experience living and
teaching in the People’s Republic of China from 2001 to 2003. She
taught for one year in the western city of Dujiangyan and one year in
Hefei, a city in central China. During this time, she had ample op-
portunity to interact with Chinese teachers, students, and to some
extent, members of the communities where she lived.
While living in China, she observed a rapidly changing nation, full
of seeming incongruities. Dirt roads connected to paved highways, and
diners could choose between tiny noodle shops and the shiny McDon-
ald’s next door. Still considered a ‘‘developing’’ country, China has
progressed from a mainly peasant society to an increasingly urban
culture over the last twenty-five years. Standards of living, as well as
China’s GNP, have been rising steadily since Deng Xiaoping’s sweep-
ing economic reforms, which began in 1978. This ‘‘opening’’ to the
West has included major exportation of goods, but western products
and ideas have been coming into China as well. Particularly interesting
is the influx of popular culture, and, more specifically, American music,
and the ways that it is received in Chinese society. Rather than con-
suming only music that is current or popular in the West, Chinese seem
to select American music according to their own tastes, choosing songs
that affirm their historical values and contemporary life experiences.
Globalization processes disseminate American popular culture far
from its origins. Some intellectuals in Europe and America have
equated popular culture with cultural imperialism. In this view Amer-
ican popular culture manipulates the personal tastes of people in other
countries. It destroys local, traditional values while promoting global
homogenization based on American values like mass consumption and
mass entertainment, which are provided by big corporations and geared
to the lowest common denominator. The response of young Chinese to
American popular music is a case study of how these global processes
American Music in China 127
work out in a local setting. Does the spread of American music un-
dermine the integrity of Chinese culture and music?
Many of Rupke’s Chinese students and friends held views of Amer-
icans that included simultaneous admiration and distaste. They ad-
mired the beauty and wealth of perceived American lifestyles but
disliked seeming American domination and arrogance. Given these two
assessments, it should have come as little surprise that Chinese students
held strong opposing views of American music: some was beautiful,
some was terrible. In general, music drawn from easy listening, oldies,
and country genres was widely accepted by students, but other types of
music were scorned, including most of the current hits on American
charts. Though socially sophisticated in many respects, her Chinese
students preferred music that, in American society, is associated with
low levels of education and status (Peterson and DiMaggio). The pop-
ularity of easy listening and country genres above all other genres
suggests there are problems with the notion that American cultural
imperialists graft their musical tastes directly into Chinese youth.
More complex processes are at work. To understand the influence of
popular culture we look at the wider attractions of music beyond its
value as entertainment. We can understand why unlikely American
genres are so popular by looking at the meaning that they have for
Chinese youth.
Given our concern with meaning, our central discussion focuses on
Chinese young people’s reception of American popular music, with only
passing comments about production and distribution.
We do not
comment on Chinese popular music, which often seems similar to
current American tastes. Much Chinese pop sounds like familiar boy
band beats with Chinese words. Further, lyrics are particularly em-
phasized in addition to melodies and pace because they show some of
the clearest connections with Chinese values and themes.
Rupke’s teaching experience was with two groups of students from
the interior provinces of China, one group consisting of students in
grades K-12, children of wealthy—by Chinese standards—business-
people. They hailed from a variety of hometowns, though most were
from Sichuan, a rich agricultural province that borders Tibet to the
east. The city where the school was located, Dujiangyan, was an hour’s
drive from Chengdu, a provincial capital with nine million inhabitants.
Chengdu was a four-hour flight or a forty-hour train ride to Beijing.
Students from her second year of teaching were rural schoolteachers
128 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
from Anhui, a province whose main trade is agriculture, and whose
residents are relatively poor compared with people from coastal prov-
inces or Beijing.
Unlike in the West, these students did not generally experience
music privately, through personal music players or extensive CD col-
lections. Even if they had money for such items, it was more common
and more consistent with Chinese culture to experience music in
communal ways—karaoke or loudspeakers, for example—than via in-
dividual media using headphones or speakers.
The American music
selections she heard were not performed as covers by Chinese bands,
but rather American CDs were experienced collectively. The impor-
tance of the communal experience is described in more detail below.
Chinese students know American music primarily from recordings.
Live American musical performances are of little importance. These
students had no direct access to western music, such as via radio
broadcasts, including short-wave radios. This may distinguish the
primarily agricultural interior provinces from the rapidly developing
regions nearer the coast where western influences are more direct, e.g.,
Shanghai or Hong Kong.
Two sociological models can supply insight into Chinese behavior
patterns with regards to American popular music: Pierre Bourdieu’s
theory of cultural capital and Michael Schudson’s model of the power of
cultural symbols. Taking into account China’s national history, and
allowing some leeway for cross-cultural differences, these models dem-
onstrate the tension between the China’s past and present, and its
current dilemma of preserving nationalism in an increasingly global
Historical and Political Background
Chinese government has traditionally consisted of a single power cen-
ter—an emperor who was absolute ruler. The emperor was called a ‘‘son
of heaven’’ and held a divine right to rule. The Chinese people de-
pended upon their emperor for everything from wartime protection to
favorable weather for their crops. The absolute power of single rulers is
one factor consistent with the development of a collectivist society.
Only in the last century—less than 1/40 of China’s national history—
has power been diffused among a political party rather than invested in
American Music in China 129
a single person. Yet the Chinese Communist government, even today,
emphasizes unity above individual rights. The collective nature of
Chinese society and its adherence to central control are two factors that
also shed light on the relative homogeneity of Chinese answers to open-
ended questions about music preferences.
In order for westerners to grasp aspects of the Chinese mind-set,
they must appreciate underlying values of Chinese culture. The single
most influential figure in the development of Chinese society and cul-
ture was Confucius, a philosopher who lived from 551 to 470 BC. His
principles guide social, political, and familial interactions:
1. The stability of society is based on unequal relationships between
2. The family is the prototype of all social organizations.
3. Virtuous behavior toward other consists of not treating others as
one would not like to be treated oneself.
4. Virtue with regard to one’s tasks in life consists of trying to
acquire skills and education, working hard, not spending more
than necessary, being patient, and persevering (Hofstede 165).
From these principles, it follows that virtue is crucial to correct be-
havior. Further, relationships are of primary importance in Chinese
society. Above laws or abstract principles, China is a society of rela-
tionships, though with a distinctly different slant than American as-
Confucian Relationships
In China, social order revolves around the responsibilities of each per-
son’s position, whether socially high or low. The older, more experi-
enced members of society (parents, teachers, supervisors, etc.) must
take care of younger, less experienced members (children, students,
employees, etc.), helping them to find work, enter key schools, and
borrow money when necessary. In return, the younger set demonstrates
loyalty and respect for the elders who provide for them. The influence
of older people upon the young can lead to slow change in Chinese
ideals as traditional ideas and views are passed along to each new
generation. Consequently, music selections considered acceptable to
parents will often be familiar to their children. Easy listening music,
with its themes of home and love, resonate with traditional as well as
130 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
more modern-minded Chinese. Chinese children may listen to music
that their parents do not listen to, but this is usually in addition to
selections acceptable with the mainstream culture (i.e., that of their
parents) and usually not in direct conflict with parents’ beliefs, since
respect for elders’ wishes is a paramount Confucian value.
Although historical themes and traditional values play a role in
Chinese music selections, more contemporary, proximate, sociological
issues are probably more important.
Cultural Status
Pierre Bourdieu posits that capital is not only economic, but social and
cultural as well. These alternate forms of capital include skills, knowl-
edge, and experience that people possess, and these can then be con-
verted into economic capital. Skills and knowledge, particularly
knowledge of tastes, lifestyles, and interaction styles, that are highly
valued by society contain much cultural capital. When these attributes
are rare, their value is enhanced. Bourdieu states,
[T]he specifically symbolic logic of distinction additionally secures
material and symbolic profits for the possessors of a large cultural
capital: any given cultural competence (e.g. being able to read in a
world of illiterates) derives a scarcity value from its position in the
distribution of cultural capital and yields profits of distinction for
its owner. (245)
One such rare and sought-after competence in China is knowledge of
the English language and American culture.
Knowledge of American products, including music, denotes a cer-
tain status for Chinese people. This high status is due to both its
language medium (English) and its source (the United States, a country
with a highly developed economy and society). In order to understand
the development of this phenomenon, a bit of twentieth-century Chi-
nese history is useful.
In China the past one hundred years have included civil and in-
ternational war, invasion, and a transition from rule by emperor to
warlords to the Communist party. During the Cultural Revolution
(1966 1976), a movement of political and ideological extremism,
English was forbidden as the language of the capitalist West. Radio
broadcasts in foreign languages were cancelled, foreign books banned,
American Music in China 131
and English courses outlawed in educational institutions (Hu 31).
During this time, the Chinese government described Americans as
imperialists who sought to do China ill. Mao Zedong permitted the
first trickle of foreign visitors to enter in the early 1970s after allowing
virtually no contact with the West for more than a decade. Mao
Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was particularly interested in in-
ternational economic development and opened China’s doors to pro-
mote business growth. Increased economic openness has led to sharing
of ideas and cultures across borders.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retains important influence
over consumption, including consumption of popular culture, however.
Depending on how the United States was depicted by the Chinese
government—to use Robert Entman’s language, how the United States
was ‘‘framed’’ – interest in and access to American products increased
and declined. Nien Cheng reflected on these radical swings in Chinese
public opinion toward Americans in her memoirs:
Chinese throughout the ages suffered from racial arrogance. Those
who had never been out of the country and had no close contact with
other nationalities often thought of people in other lands as alien,
therefore uncivilized, creatures with strange habits and called them
‘‘foreigners’’ or even ‘‘foreign devils.’’ The self-imposed isolation
during Mao Tze-tung’s reign and Party propaganda on the evils of
capitalism greatly reinforced the Chinese people’s unfortunate state
of self-delusion. When Deng Hsiao-ping threw open China’s door to
the rest of the world and a flood of well-meaning and obviously
affluent ‘‘foreigners’’ came to China with money to invest and ideas
to share, the Chinese people suffered such a traumatic awakening
that they sunk into shame and self-reproach only to emerge with
eagerness to jettison everything Chinese in order to become thor-
oughly ‘‘civilized.’’ (205)
With increasing foreign trade and glimpses of the outside world, Chi-
nese people sought to achieve the lifestyles enjoyed by people in other
nations. In the early 1980s, Chinese people began to have access to
western music, television, radio, and, in some areas, foreigners from the
United States and Britain (Huot 155). These products, ideas, and
people were allowed because they were viewed as essential to mod-
ernization and economic progress. The CCP’s role in popularizing cer-
tain music selections is described below.
132 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
China’s economic boom of the last several decades has prompted
increasing numbers of university students to study English, as joint
ventures and foreign companies need proficient English speakers
(Cortazzi and Jin 179). The English language is perceived as an in-
dispensable tool for helping the nation to further open up, reach
modernization goals, and compete in the international market (Hu 33).
English language on a product or sign shows sophistication, even if the
direct translation from Chinese seems unusual to native English
Where once the culture of the United States was considered
at best incompatible with Asian values and at worst, utterly evil,
knowledge of American culture and contact with foreigners now carries
a certain distinction. One salesperson from Shanghai expressed his view
succinctly, ‘‘We young people in Shanghai like to copy Western habits’
(Kang 100).
Chinese young people, curious about the West, want to know about
the intricacies of the daily lives of foreigners, lives they have solid
preconceived ideas of due to the tremendous influx of American mov-
ies. Often, their ideals of American life involve more fantasy than
reality. One student described his feelings in a letter (Wang 2002):
Dear Miss Rupke,
Nice to meet you! I’m glad to have an opportunity to write to you.
You are a beautiful girl just like those who are attractive feminine
leads in some Hollywood movies. And now you are my oral English
teacher, each time talking with you, I thought myself an actor in my
own ‘‘Hollywood movie.’’ You can know how excited I am.
Young people and college students in particular form a solid consumer
base for popular culture in many societies, and China is no exception
(Yardley 10). Most of the students surveyed reported that they began to
listen to American music in high school or middle school, stages when
many Americans form music tastes as well.
Though Chinese people have embraced some aspects of western
culture quite openly (e.g. music, media, technology, fashion), there is
some concern about too much foreign influence at the expense of tra-
ditional values. Guangwei Hu observes that
[Western] culture-specific values and beliefs may clash with values
and beliefs espoused by a language learner’s culture and, when as-
similated unconsciously, may threaten cultural identity and integ-
American Music in China 133
rity and produce consequences of which the native culture does not
approve. (42)
This opinion reveals a deep conservatism and concern that Chinese
culture is being jeopardized by outside influences. It also shows an
intense national pride that upholds Chinese traditions, even amid rapid
development. In a similar vein, Michael H. Bond asserts that Chinese
generally do not object to westernization as long as it includes aspects
practical for modern living and does not detract from central Chinese
values of ‘‘familism, achievement, and moderation’’ (111). A harmony
between traditional Chinese values and western mores is expressed in
the music preferences of Chinese students.
Survey of Chinese College Students
Rupke’s informal observations of the preferences of Chinese for easy
listening or ‘‘light’’ music were confirmed in an April 2004 survey
given to students at the Anhui Institute of Education (AIE) in Hefei,
Anhui. Hefei is the capital city of Anhui province, located approx-
imately 450 km west of Shanghai. Hefei is the largest city—home to
about four million residents—in a province known for its rich farm-
lands and beautiful Yellow Mountain. AIE is a two-year teacher’s
training college for practicing and preservice teachers who desire to
pursue further schooling and/or a BA degree. Most of the students
surveyed had previously taught in rural or urban schools, and had at
least a high school education before entering the institute of education,
placing them in an elite group among Chinese workers. Many had also
attended college before studying at AIE. All were current English
The survey on musical preferences was administered to three classes
of students at AIE, from which we received 153 valid responses. Each
class consisted of about fifty students who attended every course to-
gether. Most of the students lived in the school dormitory, enabling the
class leader to contact each student personally. The students surveyed
ranged in age from twenty-two to forty and roughly equal numbers of
males and females were represented.
The key question asked about preferences in American music (see
Table 1). Most striking is that only five songs account for almost ninety
percent of the responses, and only three respondents (about two
134 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
percent) indicated no interest in American music. The five songs are
consistent with the pattern we have been describing: a mixture of love
songs and country, all with soft, easy sounds.
The previous sections of this article addressed the broader issue of
cultural capital with regards to American music and products in gen-
eral. The next section provides an explanation for the dominance of
certain music genres among the Chinese students’ favorite songs.
Cultural Power
There are no simple answers to the question why certain symbols are
powerful. Michael Schudson supplies a fine-grained set of categories
that direct our attention to important aspects of cultural power. This
model helps us disentangle the multiple threads of contemporary and
historical circumstances that give certain musical genres a special at-
traction to Chinese students. Schudson argues that the potency of a
cultural symbol can be analyzed using five alliteratively named di-
mensions: retrievability, rhetorical force, resonance, institutional re-
tention, and resolution.
Retrievability: In order to be powerful, a symbol must reach a
person. This dimension emphasizes issues that make people
Responses to Question: ‘‘What is Your Favorite American Song?’’
Song title Artist Students
‘‘My Heart Will Go On’’ Celine Dion
‘‘Country Roads’ John Denver 54
‘‘Yesterday Once More’’ The Carpenters 12
‘‘Right Here Waiting’’ Richard Marx 10
‘‘Unchained Melody’ The Righteous Brothers 5
Other songs Various 13
No interest in this music 3
Total respondents 153
Ms. Dion is, of course, Canadian. Although the question text specifically asked about
‘‘American’’ music, she was mentioned in a large number of responses. One might infer two
possible conclusions: first, Chinese may not realize that she is Canadian or, second, they may
not make clear distinctions between Canadian and American popular singers. Since we do
not know which is the case, her music will be analyzed in this study of ‘‘American’’ music.
American Music in China 135
aware of a symbol, and make it easily and conveniently acces-
Rhetorical force: Some symbols are particularly memorable or
moving. This dimension emphasizes factors enhance a symbol’s
ability to effectively capture people’s imagination.
Resonance: Powerful symbols must be ‘‘relevant and resonant
with the life of the audience’’ (167). This dimension includes
traditions and history as well as contemporary audience interests
and concerns.
Institutional retention: Symbols are more likely to be powerful
if authoritative institutions promote them.
Resolution: Symbols are more powerful when they support a
popular action or a commonly pursued goal. This dimension
addresses how a symbol relates to action.
These are abstract descriptions that we exemplify during our discussion
below. Particular attention is given to retrievability, resonance, and
institutional retention.
Schudson highlights retrievability—the ability of a cultural symbol to
reach people easily and conveniently—as vital to its long-term cultural
success. In China, American music is readily available in ubiquitous
CD shops. Most shops, smaller than a typical North American living
room, offer a variety of selections from China, Japan, the United States,
and other countries. Music CDs in China cost approximately ten yuan
(about US$1.25) per disc, much lower than in the United States. Stores
can make a profit charging such a low price because the CDs are pirated
copies. This cost factor makes American music economically accessible
to many consumers.
As what consumers will buy depends in great part on what is
available, it is useful to list the types of music that are being sold in
stores. In one informal survey performed by an AIE student at a CD
shop in Hefei in 2004, easy listening, country, and oldies music com-
prised nearly twenty-five percent of the American music CDs. Out of
the 101 American music CDs at that store, only five matched the
American Top 40 list for that week. Though Chinese shoppers would
not be able to buy an album by Limp Bizkit, they could purchase the
136 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
music of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. No Jessica Simpson re-
cording was available, but Whitney Houston appeared on the shelves.
The artist with the most CDs in stock was Celine Dion with six copies.
Dion’s prominence is not surprising, given her popularity among the
students surveyed about their music tastes.
In addition to the availability of CDs of American easy listening
music, and perhaps more importantly for this study, this type of music
is also prevalent in public spheres. Liu Kang observes that, though
some of the messages in music are new, they still ‘‘emanate from the old
collective forms and structures’’ (5). Western songs are played in res-
taurants, department stores, and on public transportation vehicles.
American music has penetrated even the most rural areas, where taxi
drivers switched the Chinese music tape in their cassette player to
Richard Marx when Rupke hailed the cab. One school within hearing
distance of Rupke’s apartment had a clock that played a tune every
fifteen minutes in the manner of a grandfather clock. The song, of
course, was ‘‘My Heart Will Go On.’
Rhetorical Force
Among symbols that are easily retrievable, some are more memorable
than others. Emerging from a century that has included famine, war,
and the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese people long for the wealth
and relative stability they see depicted in movies and in other Amer-
ican popular culture items. Consequently, American products carry a
high status with a Chinese audience.
Since many Chinese, especially in rural areas, have not traveled
outside national borders, their perception of Americans is heavily in-
fluenced by popular culture. Foreigners, especially those who look no-
tably different from Chinese, are used extensively in advertising. A
blond man dressed in traditional Chinese clothes holding a bowl of
noodles smiles down from a billboard on Wangfujing, Beijing’s most
famous shopping street. Pleasant Midwesterners of moderate, though
not extraordinary, attractiveness by American standards, appear in in-
fomercials for Chinese products.
From this, we may surmise that
North American musicians who look ‘‘foreign’’ will achieve more rhe-
torical force with a Chinese audience. Celine Dion’s height, John
Denver’s blond hair, and Karen Carpenter’s curls set them apart as
foreigners, exotic and fascinating.
American Music in China 137
In addition to the high status of the creators of the songs, music as a
medium of communication claims deep roots in the Chinese society.
Folk music has existed for more than three thousand years and remains
an integral part of family and community life (Huot 157). Karaoke and
informal sing-alongs are common forms of modern entertainment in
both urban and rural areas, near Beijing’s Temple of Heaven and in
mountain villages. Music was used as a propaganda tool by the Com-
munist Party during the middle part of the twentieth century, but the
focus of Chinese music has more recently shifted back to traditional
folk songs, modern Chinese pop tunes, and, of course, American me-
lodic offerings. The folk songs, which derive from ancient stories and
poems, and for which there is no real American counterpart, are pop-
ular with persons of all ages, economic backgrounds, and geographic
locations. For both historical and contemporary reasons, American folk
and country music are rhetorically powerful to Chinese.
Some symbols resonate with traditional and present-day concerns.
While the United States as a creator of cultural symbols has prestige
among the Chinese public, some American artists enjoy especially high
status because of their harmonious, antipolitical, proworld stances.
John Denver claimed that his music is for everyone, regardless of age,
race, or politics. According to, Denver was the first
artist from the West to do a multicity tour of mainland China in
October 1992. The site further notes that Denver was surprised to
discover how well known his songs were among the Chinese. ‘‘Country
Roads,’’ he was told by his Chinese hosts, ‘‘is the most famous song
written in the West.’ Widespread piracy explains why Denver was
surprised by his popularity; his Chinese royalties were small. Denver
also toured another communist giant, the U.S.S.R., with his country
mountain music. The Carpenters, who released most of their albums in
the United States in the 1970s, produced music that was ‘‘the squeaky-
clean antidote to the early-70s brew of anti-war protests and acid rock’
(Purtell). A Chinese American friend pointed out that country music is
perceived as the music of the working class. The Chinese Communist
government, beginning especially in the 1980s, permitted country
music to be played since the political and social values of the creators
blended well with communist politics.
138 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
Several connections can also be drawn between the values espoused
in country and light music and those of traditional Chinese wisdom.
Country music, such as that of John Denver, often revolves around the
topic of the landscape and longing for one’s home. His ‘‘Country
Roads’’ (1971) captures this ethos, as this excerpt shows:
I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me.
Radio reminds me of my home far away.
And driving down the road I get the feeling
That I should have been home yesterday.
This music relates closely to the experience of the more than seventy
percent of Chinese living in rural regions. The Asian emphasis on
respect for elders teaches children to be dependent on adults and thus
the concept of ‘‘home’’ is especially meaningful, even for adult children
(Hofstede 32).
The theme of lost love, also a common premise of American country
and easy listening music, is prevalent in Chinese literature and song as
well. One famous Chinese love story tells of a concubine who com-
mitted suicide when the emperor was cornered in battle. Therefore, the
tragic love story depicted in the film Titanic and its famous theme song
resonated with the Chinese. Celine Dion’s (1997) Academy Award-
winning song is well known in Asia:
Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on.
And you’re here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on.
Both the theme and the structure of the song make it accessible to most
Chinese. The passive stance of the lover is an honorable one in Chinese
culture, signifying faithfulness even after death. This song’s simple,
repetitive lyrics are easy to understand, even to Chinese people with
only basic English skills.
William S. Fox and James D. Williams assert that lyrics alone
cannot explain the resonance of music, but rhythm and melody must
also be considered as conveyers of meaning (357). This is especially true
in this case since not all Chinese people comprehend the English lan-
guage of the songs. Most people, can, however, sense the themes of the
music from its nonverbal characteristics. The top answers to the
American Music in China 139
survey question ‘‘Why do you like [your favorite American] song?’
included responses of: ‘‘beautiful rhymes, reminders of happy mem-
ories, and melodies.’’ These qualities have more to do with the sounds
of the music than the verbal meaning. The sounds of easy listening
music, often melodic and soothing, closely resemble traditional Chi-
nese folk songs and current Chinese pop music. When foreign teachers
at my school inquired about the choice of music that was played over
the loudspeakers for several hours each day—which included Chinese
students’ favorite American selections—school administrators said they
sought to calm students down after a rigorous day of study. This
adoption of music by public organizations fits with the fourth aspect of
Schudson’s model, institutional retention.
Institutional Retention
A key characteristic of powerful cultural symbols is pervasiveness and
support from public institutions. In a country where popular culture
has a political component, Chinese government censorship or encour-
agement is a major force promoting certain kinds of popular music.
Still a source of ideological regulation, the CCP helps define politically
agreeable music. Laws governing cultural performances forbid mes-
sages that are subversive to the state, derogatory toward minorities,
involve cruelty, or advocate pornography or violence (Harding 3).
Since free speech is not a traditional or explicit value of Chinese
culture, popular culture tends to be consistent with traditional
political values, which in turn affects which music is imported
from the United States. Marie Claire Huot (155) describes the con-
notations of rock music as being ‘‘politically subversive’’ whereas
country-western (as well as easy listening and oldies) are ‘‘politically
submissive.’’ Common themes in rock music like rebelliousness, harsh-
ness, and sexual license were antithetical to the political and social
harmony promoted by the Communist Party. In the early- to mid-
1980s when the CCP opened up to western music, country and easy
listening genres were more politically and socially appropriate than
rock or blues.
Although censorship is much less important today, what was cen-
sored then is still important now because it defines what came first.
What comes first is of immense importance. These songs became the
repertoire of ‘‘oldies’’ that everyone knows. The genre of oldies in the
140 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
Chinese sense was constructed by a quirk of timing. It consists of
popular, politically acceptable songs from the period when American
music was re-admitted to China (Farrer 2005).
One popular pastime that has traveled from Japan to China is
karaoke. Throughout China any night of the week will find karaoke
bars packed with enthusiastic singers. Karaoke play lists usually con-
tain soft favorites from the 1970s and 1980s, but rarely the most
current hits.
Many oldies remain popular because they remain on
karaoke play lists. In a country where many people have incomes too
low for mass consumption, they are more likely to learn John Denver’s
songs in karaoke bars than through buying CDs. The fact that the
songs are easy to sing helps them stay popular for karaoke. This retains
oldies in the popular repertoire on a national scale.
Another source of community music is outdoor loudspeakers left
from Cultural Revolution days when they were used for political
speeches and patriotic songs. Now they broadcast school announce-
ments and play music for student enjoyment. The musical selections of
the universities include both Chinese and American numbers, but the
American songs are drawn from a small, familiar list of light favorites.
The final aspect of cultural potency involves its ability to convince the
receivers to act in a certain way. The clearest example of resolution in
American music involves the theme of romantic love, especially for
young people. Matchmaking and arranged marriages have been the
norm in China for centuries, were widespread thirty years ago, and still
occur in rural areas. In recent times, however, romantic love is be-
coming more of a social option and the desired lifestyle for China’s
In contrast to the eroticism of other genres of American music,
traditional Chinese values of chastity and fidelity are often underscored
or at least not explicitly contradicted in easy listening music. Celine
Dion’s promise that ‘‘Near, far, wherever you are . . . my heart will go
on’’ encourages a subtle response to the feelings of love, a response
more in line with conventional beliefs on the subject. Patience and
slowness in romantic love is still valued in Chinese relationships with
three to five-year engagements considered normal. This aspect of the
American Music in China 141
Chinese social world contributes one of several key factors in devel-
oping a holistic context for the reception for American music.
Hard Rock in Beijing?
Despite China’s values, traditions, and long-term orientation to
change, musical change is indeed coming, if slowly. One beacon of
this change, the Hard Rock Cafe
´, has opened restaurants in Beijing and
Shanghai. The Rolling Stones performed in Beijing in 2003, and discos
are moving inland. Huot (167) reports that rock music, with its harder
sounds, has found an audience in China, especially in Beijing. It is clear
that if Chinese preferences in American music are to change, Beijing
and coastal cities will be the entry points for these movements. How-
ever, Beijing is also the home of the Party, and any additions to the
national music repertoire will certainly be watched by the CCP. Plato
recognized the connection of politics and music in The Republic when
he cautioned that ‘‘any musical innovation is full of danger to the
whole State, and ought to be prohibited . . . when modes of music
change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them’’
(Fox and Williams 352). Any widespread change in music will ac-
company larger societal changes.
James Farrer (2000 227 – 28) cites the reemergence of discos as
indicative of a newly emerging attitude toward eroticism. Low lights,
outrageous fashions, and, of course, a throbbing techno beat set the
stage for sexual exploration. These dance establishments sprang up in
coastal cities along with China’s economic development in the 1980s.
The sexual imagery of disco is obviously different from the romantic
implications of love songs, but these do not represent two different
populations, but rather two different rhetorical and psychological mo-
ments enjoyed at different times often by the same people. A young
person can enjoy soft country music during the day and techno dance
clubs at night without contradiction. As discos and techno music have
spread they have established a romantic/sexual split and a day-time
listening/nightlife action split that one would also find in the United
States. Where discos represent an amorous and playful culture, soft
American music is acceptable fare for every day: calming, uncompli-
cated melodies and themes of love appropriate for all ages. Howard
Becker’s cultural drift (309) seems to be occurring in Chinese society,
142 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
bringing harder sounds and edgier themes in music. Yet we predict
that soothing easy listening music, with its themes of lost love and
home, will retain its popularity.
Godwin C. Chu describes Chinese culture as ‘‘an unascertained mixture
of the old and new . . . an ongoing social process’’ (5). The past fifty
years have been marked by intense change for China. Unification under
the Communist Party has given direction and a sense of national
identity. After policies that isolated China from the rest of the world
for more than a decade, the nation has burst onto the international
scene. Global economic development has facilitated cross-cultural ex-
change between China and other nations, including the United States,
which was once thought of as an enemy. But globalization takes forms
that are sometimes unexpected.
American popular music does not transmit American cultural values
in any simple or direct way. Incoming popular cultural products in-
teract with local culture and are influenced by it. There is no reason to
believe that music is unique in this respect: American music, films, and
television broadcasts are likely to share similar mechanisms. The
models we discussed show how local audiences pick and choose those
American cultural elements that resonate most closely with their life,
their needs, and their personal goals. Some elements of American cul-
ture don’t fit well and they are discarded. Powerful local institutions
play a role by supporting some elements but not others. This sort of
pushing and pulling reshapes American popular culture to fit the local
context. There is American influence, of course, but it is mitigated,
altered, and molded by the local culture.
Certain American music genres, particularly easy listening, country,
and oldies, found a place in Chinese markets because of their high
cultural capital, resonant themes, easy retrievability, and political
suitability. This American popular music comes into Chinese territory
on Chinese terms. However, the acceptance of American tunes in the
first place represents a concession by the government in regards to the
origin of the music. In an intensely nationalistic country, Chinese
officials’ sanctioning of American-made products shows a shift in na-
tional priorities. This change also represents a tension between tradi-
American Music in China 143
tional and modern ways of living. Globalization is an imminent reality
in the Land of the Dragon. By importing American popular music, but
only limited amounts of this music, China asserts its own view of what
is acceptable in popular culture. Will China follow its western neigh-
bors’ leads in other genres of popular music? It is difficult to predict,
but the radical shifts of the last century do not put it out of the realm
of possibility. As Confucius said, ‘‘Study the past if you would define
the future.’’
We gratefully acknowledge James Farrer, Margaret Emma Holland, Zhang Zhuangping, Tong
Wenjing, and two anonymous Journal of Popular Culture reviewers for helpful comments on
earlier drafts. Students and friends at the Anhui Institute of Education and Guangya School
provided both the inspiration and the data in this article. We are responsible for any remaining
1. The first person singular pronoun ‘‘I’’ indicates personal stories based on Rupke’s experience in
China during 2001 –2003, which we use when they advance our argument or to make a point.
2. We recognize that ‘‘oldies’’ music is not a genre in the sense of a set of conventions for
performance and reception (Becker). In this article, it refers to softer, ‘‘nicer’’ songs that were
first produced and performed before 1980. We discuss their appeal below, see ‘‘Institutional
retention.’’ ‘‘Cover’’ is the recording industry term used to designate a song—originally re-
corded by one artist—re-recorded by a new artist, usually with a new interpretation of the
music and lyrics.
3. Although we write about American music in China, we recognize the growing importance of
other countries’ popular music. Our discussion of American music does not in any way imply
that American songs are the sole source of global influence. Chinese preferences in American
music—choices that may initially seem surprising—form the basis for this article.
4. Limited discussion of production and distribution issues is appropriate for this music. The soft,
mellow genres that we discuss owe their popularity to their inherent resonance with Chinese
culture (see the discussion of Schudson’s model of the power of cultural symbols, below). These
genres tend not to be as rapidly changing or as trendy as other rock genres. Hence the
production dimension, so central to popular American music (as described by the production
of culture literature, e.g. Peterson and Anand), is comparatively less important here. However,
the Chinese government plays an important production role as a censor, see below.
5. There may be a generation gap between the teenage students in Dujiangyan and the teachers
from Anhui who were in their mid-twenties. One student from Dujiangyan regularly brought
headphones to his classes, though he was the exception in this. The older students never
brought music players to classes.
6. One store in western China had a sign with a Chinese name and English translation written
underneath: ‘‘Be passionately devoted.’’ The store’s product? Computers.
7. Although I have no formal acting training, I was asked to appear in an infomercial for air
mattresses. I was told that the appearance of foreigners would increase the sales of the purple
model, which was currently not selling well.
8. One American friend was coerced by her Chinese friends to sing ‘‘My Heart Will Go On’’ four
times in a single evening in a karaoke bar.
144 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
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Heidi Netz Rupke, after returning from teaching in China, spent several years
studying International Training and Education at American University in
Washington, DC and teaching in Arlington, Virginia. She currently resides in
Hawaii, where she is learning to appreciate ukelele music. However, John
Denver’s Greatest Hits still makes its way into her CD player from time to time.
Grant Blank is the principal of Applied Social Research Associates, a
Washington, DC-based consulting firm. He received his PhD in sociology
from the University of Chicago in 1999. Blank has taught at American
University in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the sociology of culture.
His book analyzing the production, reception, and social effects of reviews in
contemporary society was published in 2007. He is also interested in the social
consequences of computing, and in qualitative and quantitative methods.
146 Heidi Netz Rupke and Grant Blank
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The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of songs in different languages on English language learners’ (ELLs) music preferences. The participants (N=62) were Chinese graduate students from a state university in the Midwestern United States. The survey contained nine excerpts from popular songs in three languages: Chinese (the most familiar language), English (second most familiar language), and German (unfamiliar language). The song examples had fast tempos and were sung by male singers. The participants rated their preferences on a Likert-type scale, identified whether they wanted to own the music or not, and indicated which of the musical characteristics — melody, rhythm, voices, lyrics, and others — they liked the most. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) test was used to analyze for music preferences. Results indicate that: (1) participants preferred the songs in English significantly more than those in German; (2) no significant preference was found between songs in English and Chinese, and songs in Chinese and German; (3) language did not affect the participants’ desire to own the music, and they reported a low desire to own the music in any of the languages. The results suggest that when comparing the songs in English and German, participants preferred the more familiar language. However, the fast tempo popular songs chosen for this study may not represent the most popular style of contemporary Chinese popular music.
In 2009 Rupke and Blank noted that the Chinese students in their study sang American songs that the researchers had never heard. This perceived dissonance could have a multitude of causes, but the authors of this article turned their attention to the curriculum used for teaching English in China to further understand the popularity and persistence of some American songs in China. Drawing on literature from teaching the discipline and language of English through the use of popular music, the literature on teaching English in China, and Stuart Hall's seminal “Encoding and Decoding,” the authors examined both popular American music and American music utilized in the Chinese curriculum through the lens of cultural studies and their unique experiences teaching English. Data were varied, but all songs examined fell into Hall's “negotiated code,” offering potential and limits for “communicative exchanges” between cultures. Recommendations offered include paying more careful attention to the selection process for curricular materials.
The regionalization, commercialization, and subsequent diffusion of country music are examined in terms of the massification hypothesis. Each of the data sets examined suggests that the massification theorists were right in observing that the old patterns of cultural diversity along ethnic, regional, and even class lines are being destroyed or buried. But they have erred in their prediction of ever-increasing cultural homogeneity. While country music is increasingly embraced by mid-life, working and lower-middle class whites irrespective of regional origin, “easy listening” music is the preferred music in the same segment of the population. These data bring into question the assumption that social classes have distinct cultures and lead to the conjecture that these musical styles may represent convenient indicators of emerging culture classes.
The socio-political implications of contemporary music are investigated using survey data pertaining to the political orientations, music involvement, and musical preferences of college students. The analysis indicates that political orientation is associated with amount of music involvement and with preferences for particular musical styles. Zero-order relationships are not substantially altered by controls for demographic background characteristics of respondents.