Rocking the Tradition or Traditionalizing Rock? A Music Performance on Chinese Reality Show China Star


Huayin Laoqiang is the earliest Chinese rock music.’ This is the first phrase that Chinese pop singer Tan Weiwei (b.1981) said when she introduced this traditional opera form in the Chinese music reality show China Star on 5th December 2015. China Star is a large-scale pop music TV show produced by a provincial satellite TV station Shanghai Dragon Television. In this show, well-known Chinese pop singers perform for a selected audience, competing with each other to win the Recording Academy’s President's Merit Award. China Star featured Tan Weiwei performing with five senior artists of Huayin Laoqiang—an opera form that originated from shadow puppet theater and narrative singing prevalent in Shuangquan Village of Huayin City, Shanxi, China. A few months later, a modified version of this performance took place on the stage of the 2016 CCTV Spring Festival Gala (hereafter SFG), one of the world’s most watched television events. Tan Weiwei’s performance of Hauyin Laoqiang led to considerable controversy regarding the three-way negotiation among Chinese rock music, the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ represented by traditional Hauyin Laoqiang, and the political ideology of Chinese Communist Party (hereafter CCP).


Tan Weiwei and musicians of Huayin Laoqiang performing on China Star


This post takes the comments, interviews, and official online news about these two performances as primary sources.[i] By analyzing their reception amongst various groups of viewers—general audience members, rock music fans, musicians, and government officials—I explore how different interpretations reflect audience members’ differing social ideologies. I argue that the process of combining rock music and traditional culture is given different meanings based on the identity and stance of different audiences.


Comments from General Audience Members and Fans of Tan Weiwei

A Chinese pop singer who is best known for her excellent singing skill and broad vocal range, Tan Weiwei has a huge fan base on Chinese social media. She has around six million followers on social media platform Sina Weibo alone and more than seven thousand fans on her Baidu fan base. Her and China Star’s popularity made the performance of Huayin Laoqiang one of the hottest topics online, prompting 1,650,000 searches on the internet within one week of the show’s broadcast (Agencies 2015). The revised performance at the SFG won the ‘My Favourite New Year’s Gala Act’ award as well. According to comments on various social media platforms, the majority of viewers held a positive view toward the combination of traditional music and rock music.

In addition to complimenting Tan’s stage presence, a large number of the online comments from audience members expressed that the combination of rock music and Huayin Laoqiang blew them away and there should be more of this kind of fusion work. Many commenters, especially listeners in their twenties, praised the performance for promoting China’s cultural heritage, and enabling a broad audience to get to know this precious music tradition and rethink the importance of preserving traditional culture. Zhihu user Stub001 is from Shanxi, which is also the hometown of Huayin Laoqiang.[ii] He conveys the feeling of watching this performance as a young person from Shanxi:

This performance made me so proud of being the younger generation of Shanxi people, but, at the same time, I feel more ashamed, that I know too little about the traditional art of my hometown. No matter in the north or south of China, no matter speaking of mandarin or any dialect, it is truth that traditional culture is disappearing in our generation.

However, there are a small number of dissenting voices against this new attempt to combine rock music and traditional music. Some argue, for example, that the electronic instruments used in rock music overwhelm the sound of traditional acoustic instruments of Huayin Laoqiang, destroying its musical essence. A few audience members are under the impression that Tan Weiwei is using Huayin Laoqiang merely as a tool to stand out. Zhihu user Honghong mentions that: ‘It may be difficult for Huayin Laoqiang to go on the SPG’s stage without Tan, but Huayin Laoqiang would definitely sound better without her.’  Some comments state that the two performances are totally overrated, and that this new composition is an awkward integration. This anonymous user on Zhihu, for example, is critical:

Not all screaming could be called rock. Rock music originated from Western culture and is closely related to the spirit of the rebel. Huayin Laoqiang, on the other side, should be categorized as folk music, which means its nature is out of touch with the modern society, not to mention its relation to rock music. Adding some elements of traditional music and some folk tunes into rock style music is not something new anymore.

The majority of online commenters appear to prefer the performance on China Star to the performance at SFG. As for the revised performance, most comments express that Tan and Huayin Laoqiang became the mouthpiece of the nation’s ideology and empty patriotism. At the 1942 Forum on Literature and Art in the communist capital Yan'an, founding father of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong stated that ‘the arts must serve proletarian politics’ (McDougall 1980:55-86). Indeed, the arts have proved extremely useful weapons for CCP’s political propaganda. The SFG, as a national celebratory event produced by and broadcast through the party-state controlled television company CCTV, has always been a significant channel for CCP to promote its official propaganda and to reflect its current policies and ideology. In the revised performance of Huayin Laoqiang at the SFG, the melody was newly arranged, and the theme of environmental protection in the original lyrics was revised into the praise of the great motherland and people’s joyful life. As rock music has long been marginalized by the state, elements of rock music were greatly reduced. The volume of the electronic guitar and drum was reduced. The heavy sound and strong beat of rock music were lightened to form merely a rhythmic background for Huayin Laoqiang and Tan’s singing, which made the whole performance sound much less heavy, more rootsy, and was perceived as more appropriate for audiences of all ages and social classes. Moreover, to coordinate with the requirement of the production team and the physical environment of the venue, Tan and her accompanying senior artists had to lip sync for the whole song, which generated some discontent from the audience. In a critique about the performance in the SFG, one critic comments:

Actually, I think what the Spring Festival Gala wants is just Huayin Laoqiang. Tan Weiwei was just a tool on the stage. There was no soul in her singing anymore. Maybe the Gala doesn’t need anyone, it just needs to construct a fake picture of people praising the greatness of our country and the beauty of people’s life. The reason why the original performance on China Star became so popular is because Tan was sincere about promoting overlooked traditional music and expressing her worry about current environmental issues. However, when Tan and Huayin Laoqiang become the tool of propagating the “political correctness”, there is not any sincerity left. The best art will still lose its brilliance (Shisan Mei 2016).


Tan Weiwei and musicians of Huayin Laoqiang performing at the SFG


Comments from Musicians and Government Officials

In contrast to audience members’ mixed reception of Tan Weiwei’s Hauyin Laoqiang performances, the attitudes of traditional musicians in the band and local government officials are uniformly positive. In this section, I will use interviews with musicians and official news on the Internet related to two performances to show that they believe this whole event is an opportunity to promote traditional culture and provincial cultural heritage.

According to an article on the local government’s website, the award of ‘My Favourite New Year’s Gala Act’ at the SFG is considered a great way to publicize Huayin City. After the two performances, the Huayin municipal government decided to reward musicians who participated in the performance with a certificate of honor and three hundred thousand yuan (about $45,300) in total. In another interview with the vice director of Xi’an Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, Wang Zhi proudly mentioned that, actually, Huayin Laoqiang has already appeared on the stage of different art forms such as film and theatre arts, and toured in the US and Germany a few years ago. When talking about Huayin Laoqiang and Tan Weiwei, Wang further connected these two performances with the national spirit and cultural self-confidence:

This performance presented a strong sense of national spirit. The incredible integration of popular music and the ancient, wild sound of Laoqiang is a perfect interpretation of Chinese national spirit which could successfully promote our traditional arts and cultural self-confidence (Chen 2015).

As for the musicians, Zhang Ximin, one of the most important icons of Laoqiang music, and the leader of the band that performed with Tan Weiwei, expressed his happiness in several interviews. When he was asked about working with Tan Weiwei in the SFG, he said:

We didn’t feel exhausted at all. On the contrary, we are very happy about it. I remember telling Tan Weiwei: ‘Huayin Laoqiang is a very small form of opera. I am truly happy that the whole country knows about it now. If no one knows you, it is useless no matter how good you are.’



As reception from the different groups of viewers shows, this musical fusion has been given different meanings based on different audiences’ identity, stance, and background. General audience members and fans express the most direct response to the performance itself; they interpret the creative process without any hidden messages or implications. For musicians and government officials, whether popular music and Huayin Laoqiang were using each other or not is not the center of concern. For them, Huayin Laoqiang represents the cultural image of not only local people but of the whole nation. The huge success of the two performances has brought Huayin Laoqiang to a bigger arena, increasing national pride and making the government aware of the need to preserve and promote this endangered music tradition. On the other hand, when the two versions of the performance are presented on different stages, the three-way negotiation between Chinese rock music, ICH, and the political ideology of the CCP become evident. On a trendy music reality show, traditional music relied on the popularity of rock music to be accepted by a wider audience, while on a state-controlled stage like the SFG, traditional music, as a representation of national spirit and local culture, took the lead serving the political directives of the Party, whilst the rock element was deemphasized. Under the influence of different stakeholders (state vs. provincial satellite TV station) and ideologies (political vs. entertainment), it is hard for Chinese rock music and traditional music to meet in a middle ground where two distinct music cultures could communicate and be presented on an equal level.



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[i] Online comments are collected from four major online social media platforms in China: Wechat, Sina Weibo, Zhihu, and Tan Weiei’s Baidu Fan Base.

[ii] Zhihu is a Chinese Q & A website where Chinese internet users create, answer, edit and organize questions and expert insight in various topics. It works similar to the US-based Quora.



Shuo Yang is a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include ethnic minority music of Southwest China, urban popular music in China, and music and tourism. She obtained her B.A. in Arts Management from the Central Conservatory of Music (Beijing, China) and M.Phil in Ethnomusicology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her M.Phil. thesis, Music Tourism: Music Performance and the Tourism Industry in the Contemporary Old Town of Lijiang, Yunnan, uses examples of both traditional music and popular music to examine how touristic music performance apply “staged authenticity” in order to present the sense of exoticism.


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