C-pop 101: Ten C-pop Stars That Are Defining the Generation

Ever wanted to learn more about C-pop but didn’t know where — or who — to start with? Asia Pacific Arts brings you an introductory lesson of 10 contemporary C-pop artists across China and why they’re worth looking out for.

Note: *All names used are either stage names or what the artist is professionally known by in English. The artist’s Chinese name is in parentheses. 

1 – Jackson Wang

A Chinese artist from the K-pop group GOT7 who is also emerging into the American market, 26-year-old Jackson Wang is a clear contender for one of the C-pop artists defining the generation. His exposure to different cultures allows him to reconcile these influences within the spectrum of his music, which includes traditional pop tracks such as “Bullet to the Heartas well as rap-heavy singles like “Papillon.”

In addition to Wang’s diverse sound, his music videos often incorporate elements of Chinese culture while appealing to Western sensibilities. Wang, who stars as an ancient Chinese warrior in his music video “100 Ways,” describes the video’s storyline as being the Chinese version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Despite the China-centered context of his music, there is also a pop element present that provides Wang’s music with a certain Western appeal. Thus, as a C-pop artist representing China, Jackson Wang brings his own cultural background to his rising celebrity in the West.

2 – Lexie Liu (Liu Boxin)

Beyond her edgy visuals, Chinese rapper Lexie Liu — who speaks both Chinese and English — has proven that she possesses an effortless bilingual flow when it comes to her onstage performances. From becoming the last female finalist on The Rap of China to being named the “voice of a Chinese generation,” the 21-year-old has shown that she is more than worthy of being one of China’s emerging global artists. In 2018 Liu signed with American label 88rising, cementing her status as one of the latest crossover artists aiming to bring Chinese music into the American mainstream.

Her throaty voice, sleek rapping, and love of science fiction lend themselves to her music, which often discusses her personal struggles as an artist with futuristic elements. With the release of her latest album META EGO, Liu positions herself as an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with.

3 – KUN (Cai Xukun)

As a 19-year-old in 2018, KUN first drew attention from the masses for his magnetic performance of his self-produced single “I Wanna Get Love” on China’s Idol Producer. The consistency and charisma of his onscreen performances quickly catapulted him to fame; the star received more than forty-five million votes at the end of the show and was crowned first place and leader of Chinese idol group Nine Percent

With the recent releases of his singles “Young” and “Lover,” it is clear that the “face” of Nine Percent has now embarked on a solo career that embraces his versatility. Not only does KUN produce each of his musical tracks, he composes and writes his own lyrics as well. In the process of developing his own career as a solo artist and a variety show host — KUN hosted iQiyi’s Youth With You earlier this year along with BLACKPINK’s Lisa — the former boy band leader has also spent time curating his musical style, much of which appears to be influenced by a mixture of R&B, EDM, and hip hop. And despite straying away from the more traditional “pop” songs commonly expected of an idol, KUN has shown that he is more than capable of bringing a new style to what is considered C-pop, as well as a vision for the future of China’s music industry.

4 – Meng Meiqi

Originally a member of the South Korean-Chinese girl group Cosmic Girls (WJSN), Meng was often sidelined despite being one of the group’s main dancers. This changed when she entered China’s Produce 101 (2018), re-starting her life as a trainee. Similar to KUN, Meng placed first in the idol survival show, amassing almost two hundred million votes and becoming the leader and center of Rocket Girls.

A relative newcomer to the solo scene, 21-year-old Meng has demonstrated her well-roundedness in all aspects, showcasing her smooth vocals to expressive dance moves in her solo debut “JIANG.” From her humble beginnings in a girl group to the start of her explosive solo career, Meng’s slow ascent to the top marks her as an artist worthy of attention.

5 – Mao Buyi

Mao Buyi is one of China’s latest pop stars, although his timid nature may not immediately scream “star” quality. Despite working in an industry where “explosiveness” often becomes correlated with higher quality, Mao’s soft and soulful voice offers a new and much-needed dimension to C-pop. His appeal lies not in traditional “idol” visuals or the dynamic “pop” sound, but his sheer relatability as a singer. The 25-year-old former male nurse got his start on the singing show The Coming One (2017) and became known for his gentle demeanor during his performances — often poetic ballads — and singing about darker topics, such as his all-consuming desire for financial stability and his uncertainties about the future.

When asked about defining the next generation of stars in an interview with Sixth Tone, Mao expressed that given the shifting nature of youth culture, the definition of “idol” is also changing; being an idol is no longer about who is the most physically attractive or the most famous, but who is someone that can inspire. And while Mao’s lack of training in pop stardom may serve as an obstacle to instant success, his approachable and soft-spoken nature provides C-pop with the kind of idol the industry needs.

6 – G.E.M. (Gloria Tang Shi-Wing)

For those familiar with C-pop, G.E.M.’s powerful vocals need no introduction. The 28-year-old singer was raised in Hong Kong in a musical family and quickly rose to fame through participating in various singing competitions, finishing second place in Season 2 of the popular Chinese survival show I Am a Singer.

With over a decade of experience, she now writes primarily about heartbreak, using her songwriting process as an emotional outlet. Her song “Light Years Away” was the Chinese theme song for the movie Passengers (2016) and garnered more than one hundred million views on YouTube.

7 – Lay Zhang (Zhang Yixing)

Fans of K-Pop boy band EXO will have no trouble recognizing the name. Zhang, who formerly belonged to the sub-unit EXO-M as one of the Chinese members, was well-known for his dancing abilities as the group’s main dancer. Yet throughout Zhang’s solo career in China, he has come to redefine his career as a well-rounded artist. As the self-professed “lead sheep in China” (the “sheep” comes from Zhang’s Chinese zodiac sign), the artist remains receptive to his global audience, but seeks to identify his music as Chinese above all else.

His username on Chinese social media platform Weibo, roughly translated, means: “Work hard, work hard, and work harder.” The 28-year-old singer, dancer, and actor applies this ethic to all that he does, consistently producing new music along with acting in TV dramas, hosting variety shows, and participating in philanthropic endeavors.

8 – Naomi Wang (Wang Ju)

Dubbed “China’s Beyonce,” 27-year-old Naomi Wang first caught attention  — mostly negative — as a contestant on China’s Produce 101 (2018). She quickly stood out among the other aspiring pop idols and was mocked for her “chunky” stature and “old” age. Yet throughout the show, the former primary school teacher demonstrated her prolific stage presence and became celebrated for her rebellious attitude.

Having stated that she doesn’t aim to conform to traditional Chinese beauty standards but instead challenge idol standards, Wang is now a role model for many who don’t see themselves reflected in the limited ideals of the Chinese idol industry. Her songs, which so far include the rap/pop anthem “Work for Meand OST for the Chinese drama The UntamedNot in Vain,” are all reflective of her wide range as a solo artist. From powerful rapping to emotionally-charged resonance, Naomi Wang has shown that despite what others may say about her, she can do it all.

9 – Ouyang Nana

Although known primarily for her cello skills, the doe-eyed musician from Taiwan has now turned to a singing career. Having studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music before dropping out to pursue a lucrative career in mainland China, Ouyang brings her musical training to her work. The 19-year-old can play both the guitar and piano and often posts instrumental and vocal covers of popular songs on her YouTube channel. Her gentle voice and quiet simplicity make her a prime candidate to carry the C-pop industry forwards. 

While it seems like this “It girlstill needs to discover a clear musical style, she is in the right position to do it. Given her current popularity in mainland China, it’s up to Ouyang whether she will rise to the occasion and truly gain her “star power” as a solo singer and artist.

10 – Karry Wang (Wang Junkai)

A member of Chinese boy band TFBoys, Karry Wang debuted when he was just 13 years old. Now 20, Wang still stands out for his wholesome schoolboy image. And while he is known more for his group activities than his solo artistry, Wang has demonstrated that his clear singing voice is fitting for not only films, but drama soundtracks as well. 

With seven years of musical experience under his belt, Wang has already established a formidable presence in the entertainment industry. His membership in TFBoys has already defined a generation in C-pop. Yet Wang’s burgeoning career on his own shows that as a solo artist, Wang also has much to offer.

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