For most contemporary listeners, classic Mandarin pop music (aka Mandopop) may be most interesting as a reflection of the seismic social and political changes that rocked the Chinese-speaking world in the 20th century. After all, nothing captures the cosmopolitanism and westernization of turn-of-the-century Shanghai, and that intoxicating feeling of a great city stepping into a new era, more vividly than the jazz and mambo-inflected shidaiqu of the 1920s and 30s, which guitarist Gary Lucas reimagines in his album and live show The Edge of Heaven.
It’s important, though, to remember that these songs carry so much emotional weight for several generations of Chinese audiences precisely because of their lack of social consciousness. These songs are intimate, romantic, and luxurious to listen to—qualities that rendered them unforgivably bourgeois in the eyes of the Communist government, which began shutting down nightclubs and record companies in the 1950s.
When you hear the birdlike tones of a brilliant vocalist like Zhou Xuan, or the alternately sensuous and abrasive alto of Bai Guang, you can understand why these songs are now the object of intense, fetishistic nostalgia. While shidaiqu continued to have an enormous influence on Chinese pop outside of the mainland (particularly in Taiwan, where the legendary Teresa Teng became the principal inheritor of the music’s unabashedly sentimental style), the PRC went through several decades in which nationalistic and propagandistic anthems completely dominated the music culture.
The reemergence of shidaiqu has been as visual as it is aural, since the rise and fall of the Chinese pop industry has always been inextricably linked to the history of Sinophone cinema. Major directors like Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang, and China’s Jia Zhangke have filled entire film soundtracks with their favorite shidaiqu performers, using the melodious performances and heartrending lyrics of a bygone era as counterpoint to the coldly modern landscapes of an increasingly westernized Chinese society.
Below we’ve gathered some of the greatest examples of shidaiqu, with an emphasis on the great divas who defined the era:
Bai Guang "Autumn Night":
Zhou Xuan "Song of Four Seasons":
Li Xianglan "Fragrance of the Night":
Yao Lee "Rose, Rose, I Love You":
This Friday and Saturday, guitar great Gary Lucas performs his blues-infused renditions of shidaiqu classics at BAM, accompanied by Shanghai-based vocalists Sally Kwok and Mo Hai Jing.