Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the second part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/sraburton

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The Last Successor – 释放

The description gives this as progressive rock (which I’m not really sure I agree with) and power metal (which seems much more accurate). I had to search a while before I found any nice metal in Chinese, most likely because I don’t really enjoy the genre in English either.

伍佰 & China Blue – 單程車票

A bit silly, perhaps, but still full of optimistic energy. The text isn’t very hard, but it relatively long. Also a song which is easy to sing along with.

柯受良 – 大哥

This song was very popular roughly ten years ago. Pronunciation is distinctly Taiwanese, but still clear. I remember that I found the text quite difficult, but that was a long time ago.

那英 – 我的幸福刚刚好

This is a song I shouldn’t like, because neither do I like other songs like this nor do I like any other songs I’ve heard by 那英, this is the only one. I think it’s mainly because of her voice, so sexy!

范逸臣 – 國境之南

This song is from the Taiwanese film 海角七號 (Cape no. 7) and I find it beautiful because of it’s simplicity. The artist has made several other nice songs, but also lots of fairly nondescript pop.

鄧麗君 海韻

Teresa Teng (her English name) has been and still is very popular all over Asia. The songs are seldom exciting, but her voice is pleasant to the ear and her pronunciation is very clear. This is one of my favourites:

陳奕迅 – 十年

Quite mainstream, but still good. Pronunciation is clear and I like the lyrics very much, which makes this song nice to sing along with. This is my favourite KTV song.

Nuclear Fusion G – Space Exploration

This is some kind of industrial metal, fairly close to things I like a lot in English (KMFDM for instance). It’s not that good, but again, China is more diverse than you think. You probably need the lyrics to hear what this song is about, though.

刀郎 – 冲动的惩罚

I tend to dislike slow-paced Chinese music, but this song has something special. I like his voice and the lyrics is also quite clear. Not a song that I can’t stop listening to, but still worthwhile.

侃侃 – 滴答

This song is simple in every possible way, but therein also lies its beauty. Thanks to Hugh Grigg for this one, see his translation of the lyrics here.

王菲 – 但願人長久

More Faye Wong, this time a song I had to include because I think it’s the one song where she really manages to use her voice to perfection. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the text, it’s a poem in classical Chinese.

凤凰传奇- 月亮之上

Again, this could have been extremely boring, but because of the singers voice, it stands out. Rhythmical and suitable for singing along with. Unsure how to categorise this, but perhaps R’n’B with a local touch?

That’s it for now, I’ll be back later with more! Don’t forget to leave suggestions in the comments!

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  1. Pedro Juan says:

    Nice selection.

    I just love 張懸 and the simple and touching 宝贝 song.
    Easy to translate and sing along
    keep going!

  2. Malte says:

    Thanks for these songs. The link to the first article does not work – it leads to the editing site.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks, the link has now been updated and should work properly!

  3. Ted Reed says:

    Another metal band I found when surfing youtube is Yaksa:


    That’s the best of their songs that I’ve found. (末路 is the title)

    The lyrics are fairly easy to understand, but the subtitles are positioned weirdly and sometimes hard to see.

  4. Scott says:

    PK 14 are great, City Weather Sailing and White Paper are excellent albums http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEnZrGqRaQg

    1. Kong Wenbin says:

      I’ll second that. PK14 are pretty awesome.

  5. Marek says:

    I thought Chinese music was not listenable, Lonely China Day made me change my opinion. Indie rock

    Kungpao China Rock Revival Band is kind of fun. Czech band, Chinese texts.

    1. Enrico Brasil says:

      Like Marek, I also thought Chinese music was not listenable until I found 寂寞夏日 (Lonely China Day).

      沼泽 is also ok. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ehcmJCryUI

      I would appreciate if someone could show me another similar bands! =)

  6. Sara K. says:

    I recommend Ouyang Feifei, who is the disco queen … of Japan. Though she has spent most of her adult life in Japan, she was born and raised in Taiwan, and has recorded many songs in Mandarin.

    I like many of her songs. A few suggestions are “熱情的沙漠”, “珍重”, and “再見午夜” (though the last one is not in pure Mandarin – it also contains idiomatically incorrect English).

  7. Olle Linge says:

    Marek, Sara, Scott, Ted and Pedro: Thank you very much for your recommendations! I will check out your suggestions and if I like what I hear, I will make sure to introduce them to other readers in upcoming posts. Thanks!

  8. Joel says:

    We’ve got the guitar chords and translation cheatsheet for 宝贝 and a couple other popular KTV songs free for download: http://chinahopelive.net/category/songs

  9. Allan A. Ferreira says:

    Very good advice. Songs made it easier for me to learn English better; it still makes today. Besides, cool songs.

  10. Selly says:

    Very good selection, have skipped through some of the songs and must take some time to pick out a few to listen properly. Personally I much more prefer listening to 王力宏,周杰倫,羅志祥,黃鴻升,to name all but a few (I listen to a lot of Chinese music, or should I say I mostly only listen to Chinese music?) but that’s because these would be some of my favourite artists so naturally I like to listen to them. The big plus with Chinese MVs is that almost all come with subtitles so it’s very easy to sing along and read the lyrics while you’re at it. It’s fun and beats textbook studying (which I can’t stand) anytime. Also, I find I enjoy listening to the soundtrack of my favourite Taiwanese idol dramas, the songs are repeated often so the phrases stick and you find yourself singing along – that’s at least what I do…

  11. vermillon says:

    I’ve liked 大哥 (I tend to like that kind of voice), and it’s certainly true that 那英 has a very suave voice which in itself is worth listening to. 刀郎 is pretty classic, in that his style has nothing special, but it’s well made and somehow enjoyable to listen to.

    However, I don’t quite agree with the hoice of song for 王菲. The thing that makes 王菲 songs great is the slight imperfection in her voice, that conveys the emotions. Though not her best probably, 悶 is the first Chinese song I’ve ever learnt, but I’d recommend 人間, 我也不想這樣 and above all 你快樂所以我快樂 (great atmosphere, easy to understand, and for a popular artist, not very mainstream I’d say).

    I’d like to recommend a few, if I may. I don’t listen to music I don’t like, even for the purpose of learning a language, so I’ll just mention a few I absolutely love. Some of them are absolutely not good to learn Chinese (苏阳乐队!), but they’re worth a listen I believe:
    -苏阳:贤良 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPYrOG1xMRg) If your criteria are “good”, “unique”, “non-mainstream in genre” and have “interesting lyrics”, then this one qualifies to all four. Please just give it a try, I don’t really have words to describe this band. When listening to it (while driving?), I feel like I’m in the Chinese countryside, taking part in something great. Very moving, in a sense. I would abolutely recommend you spend the time it takes to buy the album, which has a great package and is packed with amazing songs like this one.
    -李志 : 梵高先生 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkvfNjPrWvI) Not one I listen often (his albums can be quite annoying when listened in their full length), but certainly a particular voice, rather easy to understand, and quite moving I believe.
    -崔健 : 出走 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ihi5mOSYEH4) or 不再掩饰(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yao6f0QIgA) Well, certainly something everyone knows here, but difficult not to mention. It was very popular, but I don’t find it mainstream at all. I could have mentioned many of his songs (一无所有, 新长征的摇滚乐), but I’ll take these one that I love. 出走 is for the music (including voice), and 不再掩饰 is for everything: the atmosphere, the voice, the amazing lyrics (how not to feel like you’re standing in the middle of a famous place some 23 years ago when you listen to that!). That’s one of those songs you can learn easily and spend the rest of your life screaming everytime you hear it. When you listen to Cui Jian, you can legitimately wonder what happened to the rock scene after…
    -崔健 : 不是我不明白 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7QUtXTY-xI) Ok, I can’t help having at least one more of Cui Jian, this one will make you dance and I recommend you watch the movie 有话好好说 (in which it appears), to get a very old-school feel of China’s 80s… (if you’re into that kind of stuff, that is)
    -南无乐队 : 花花公子 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDXpJoNNMyQ) Alternating a bit between the classics and the more recent ones. I suppose it’s some kind of “folk”, the lyrics are quite funny, musically it’s not quite mainstream, but may not be everyone’s type. I still think they’re part of the “interesting” scene you can find in present China. The kind of bands you can actually go and watch and feel close to.
    -阿飛西雅 : 戰車 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pgo6y2juWZk) Ok, this one doesn’t even have lyrics, and it’s Taiwanese rather than Chinese, but it’s so good I can’t help. Even if this won’t help you be better at Chinese, it will at least convince you that there are some amazing bands out there and that it’s only up to you to find them. If ever you are lucky to live in Beijing (or to a lesser extent, Shanghai), then you only have yourself to blame for not finding music that you like.

    Ok, I’ll stop there, and sorry for highjacking this thread. If ever you liked some of these, just let me know! 🙂

    1. I don’t know if you are still following this thread, but your recommendation to listen to 中国音乐人苏阳 is the best piece of advice I’ve had the pleasure of following regarding great music! The songs remind me of John Renbourn wrapped with NorthWest Indian Continent village tradition, very smart chords à-la Paul Simon/ LadySmith Black Mambazo, and all supported by this incredibly moving passion for true original sound. I am mesmerized . . . I have rarely seen any musician putting so much raw, fun, beauty in his creations. Thank you for taking the time to write to our host!

  12. Taemin says:

    I much prefer the 邓丽君 version of 但愿人长久。 thanks for the resource recommendation.

  13. Sara K. says:

    Also, maybe you could have article just about TV themes. Learning lyrics to the TV themes is generally worthwhile, at least if you’re actually watching the TV show, since they are repeated so much. Of course, there are some shows where I really like the opening song but don’t like the show itself (and vice versa).

    Here is a list of my favorite opening songs for Taiwanese TV dramas, with links:

    1. 灰色空間 (from 鬥魚II)

    2. 醜男人 (from 惡魔在身邊)

    3. 無賴正義 (from 痞子英雄)

    4. 我愛他 (from 下一站,幸福)

    5. 迷魂計 (from 王子變青蛙)

    And I must offer this song an honorable mention because I generally don’t like rap, but I like this TV theme song:

    6. 終極陷阱 YES SIR (from 櫻野3加1)

    Alas, I am not sharing my favorite TV songs of all Chinese-language media because, well, they generally are in Cantonese.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Nice list, Olle! Many of the songs or artists mentioned here are ones that have caught my attention over the years, too!

    Someone I’d like to add to the list is Tanya Chua (or 蔡健雅).

    She is a pop singer from Singapore who is one of the few I’ve found who can hold her own in the singer/songwriter tradition. I can actually listen to her albums from start to finish.

    In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve listened to her, and this article inspired me to look her up again, only to find she has kept the music coming since. I liked hearing this song: 男人 which also seems like a good one to study with for its simple language and common phrases.

    Here’s a nice older one: 无所谓 蔡健雅

    Of course, it goes without saying, music is subjective – so regrets if it’s not your cup of tea…

  15. Steven says:

    There seems to be a lot of people with great suggestions. Maybe it’s an idea to combine them in a spotify-playlist? This way everybody has a ready-to-go-lets-learn-chinese-while-having-fun-playlist. 🙂

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s a pretty neat idea. I use Spotify, but I don’t know if many other people do that. However, creating a major list would be a good idea. I’m prepared to write an article now and then about new music, but I think that for each article I write about music, the need for another one declines. At some point, I will think that enough is enough. At that point, it would be stupid to ignore good recommendations, so instead of doing that, I could just add them to a list and keep referring to that one.

  16. Hi Olle,
    Nice article and selections. I like the idea of learning Chinese through songs, and that is also one of the motivations that I made my website. Language acquisition should be effortless and enjoyable, and listen to songs is one of the ways. So far I have translated over 170 Chinese songs into English with Chinese lyrics, pinyin and videos too.
    Check out Chinese song list: http://www.chinesetolearn.com/chinese-song-list/
    The song I translated a few days ago is Han Geng’s Betrayal of the soul, a good song about life.
    Have fun singing songs and keep up the great work:)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s really awesome. Will share on Twitter.I will also include this next time I talk about music. 🙂 Thanks!

      1. Sara K. says:

        There’s also a collection of Chinese songs at Chinese Tools which has the lyrics in simplified characters, pinyin, and English glosses (I think glosses are actually more useful than translations for language learning, though having both is probably best).


  17. Paul Jennens says:

    Thanks for a great site. I’m always looking for resources for my classes. This–and the comments–is superb!

  18. Gerlinde says:

    Hello Ole, compliments for this page. I discovered it by chance just a few days ago, and it really distracts me from learning, because I want to read all of your articles! 😉
    I love music, and actually Chinese music was the reason I gave up on learning Japanese (and Chinese both at the same time) and decided to solely focus on Chinese instead. I noticed you have no Jay Chou 周杰倫 on either of your lists. I guess his lyrics are difficult usually. But 開不了口 (Can’t speak/Can’t open my mouth) is a lovely and simple ballad, with very easy lyrics. The video can be found many times on YT with subtitles.
    Maybe the 開不了口 lyrics are even too easy so it’s not a challenge for most of the readers here.
    But if ever a beginner of Chinese asks you for a recommendation, you might want to consider that song <3 .
    Have a lovely day, and keep up the great work! xxx Gerlinde

  19. Eva YEE says:

    Actually i’m a student from China,and I recomend 莫文蔚’songs.She is my favourite singer and had been in London for years,–she was in LONDON UNIVERSITY. Actually,i’m a student from China.AND HALFof the songs you mentioned i’ve never heard!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Well, the idea behind this and the other articles about music is to introduce people to music they might otherwise miss. If you listen mostly to the radio or whatever happens to be popular at the moment, you’re not likely to have heard much non-mainstream music.

      1. Gerlinde says:

        I noticed that most of the bands you review – with the exception of Sodagreen, Dao Lang and of course Faye Wong – I had never heard of, which is great. I especially enjoyed the “darker” bands and want to venture further there.

        Do you know 萨顶顶, Sa Dingding? She is a bit like Björk. Some of her pieces are quite experimental, but others are also very catchy.

      2. Catherine von Dennefeld says:

        Well said! Mainstream has no embankments where to rest and enjoy new sounds. It rushes ahead to (mostly) nowhere . . . .

  20. Malu says:

    I am very happy to have found this post. I like listening to music in Chinese. Here are a few links for songs and artists I enjoy listening to (I have a preference for rock music):

    刀浪 Dao Lang (sings in Mandarin)

    赵传 (Most songs are in Mandarin and some in Taiwanese)

    谢霆锋(Some of his songs are in Mandarin, some in Cantonese)

    黑豹 (mandarin)

    By the way, I was recently looking for something similar to Pandora for Chinese music. Do you know about anything similar? Thank you!

  21. Teddy says:

    十年 and Phoenix Legend are my favorites too 😀

  22. Ashley says:

    I recommend Chinese songs which truly reflect their culture, such as 蜀绣、等你老了、搭把手、人间天河、西风、童年。Since culture,customs and traditions influence the way language is created, it would be good to learn Chinese through art forms, such as music, which best portray its cultural aspects. For more of such songs, you can try googling CCTV 春节联欢晚会 歌曲。

  23. Petros says:

    Thank you so much!!!! I love these songs!

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