Other Peoples & Cultures have made a significant impression on the Country’s Musical output. However, wholesale copying has become common in recent years where is the Originality?

I heard the Chinese song Shamo Luotuo (“Desert Camel”) more than a few times in Shenzhen recently and it has grown on me. Performed by a duo who call themselves Rabbit Bros in English (“Zhanzhan and Luoluo” in Chinese), the song was first released online in June 2017 and later included as a track in an EP in December 2018.

To my untrained, layman’s ears, the folk-rock number with the infectious hook gives a refreshing contemporary take on what might be called a “Chinese sound”.

I am partial to originality in music, which is why I am perhaps unfairly dismissive of Hong Kong’s Canto-pop because, in its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, many of what passed for local pop songs were cover versions of English and Japanese hits with Cantonese lyrics.

Canto-pop fans were not aware or maybe they didn’t care that their favourite songs were shameless, albeit properly attributed rip-offs.

However, is there any shame in borrowing musical influences from foreign lands? After all, the Han Chinese adopted foreign music and instruments and made them their own.

The ancient Chinese already had a highly developed musical tradition by the Zhou dynasty (1046–256BC), whose royal court music became the standard for formal music in subsequent dynasties.

For the Ancient Chinese, “ritual and music” (liyue) were the hallmarks of civilised people.

Traditional Instruments
Photo: Chinese Band with Traditional Instruments.

When China became an empire in the Qin and Han periods (221BC–AD220), territorial expansion brought it into direct contact with the peoples and cultures of Central Asia.

The Silk Road was an important conduit through which foreign materials, ideas and art forms, such as music, entered China.

The process was accelerated in the chaos following the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty, in 220, when various non-Han peoples from Central Asia invaded northern China and established political regimes in the Chinese heartland.

The state of Later Liang (386–403), founded by the Di people and based in present-day Gansu, introduced to China the music from the state of Kucha, an ancient Buddhist kingdom based in present-day Xinjiang, near the border with Kyrgyzstan.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907), when the Chinese empire was at its most cosmopolitan, the music played during imperial banquets featured not only Chinese music but also tunes from various regions, such as Qocho (in present-day Xinjiang), Sogdiana (in present-day Uzbekistan), the Indian subcontinent and the Korean peninsula.

It was during this period that foreign musical instruments came into prominence in China. Their modern-day descendants, such as the pipa and erhu, are among the most recognisable Chinese musical instruments today, even if they originated beyond China’s ancient borders.

Fast forward to early 20th century Shanghai, where the first modern Chinese pop songs emerged in the 1930s. While the melodies were reminiscent of Chinese folk tunes, they were played using western musical instruments.

Violins and saxophones found their way into the orchestras that accompanied traditional xiqu, often erroneously translated as “Chinese opera”.

But while foreign musical influence has been present in Chinese music for almost two millennia, “influence” is not the same as wholesale copying, the likes of what musicians in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan were and in some cases still are doing.

Even when the original songwriters are credited in the cover versions, what does it say about Chinese composers of popular music? Is it artistic indolence or are they so bereft of talent?