The Ultimate Chinese Playlist

For me, that is. This playlist is a collections of songs that have followed me the 20 years I have traveled in China. Each song has a good story, although not all of the songs are very good. Which one do you like best?

You can listen to most of the songs on my specially made The China Playlist on Spotify. The titles are links to the songs on YouTube. Hope you enjoy it!

China in Your Hand
Have to start with this one, don´t I? It has nothing to do with China, I have never understood the lyrics, and have only semi fond memories of slow dance at our local youth club where I would be too embarrassed to dance with an actual guy. I think we made some sort of coordinated dance out of it, with big arm movements, to go with our hair. It came out in 1987. But the title sums up everything I want my readers to be left with – the idea that you can have China in your hands. Love it!

China Girl
I have a vivid memory of listening to this song on a cassette player in my mom’s bedroom, and I still can’t understand how a Bowie tape ever came into her possession. Of all the songs, China Girl left an unforgettable impression, especially the lines I’ll give you television / I’ll give you eyes of blue. The wish for a TV I got, but why the blue eyes? And then it was the whole  She says, Shhhhhhh. Very mystical. I did understand that there must be something special about Chinese girls, if they were worthy of David Bowie’s attention.

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
Picture yourself in a small, white minivan without springs, driving on an unpaved road through the middle of the Inner Mongolian Grasslands. A few hours earlier you arrived in Hohot on the night train from Beijing, on which you drank a lot of beer and a bottle of “the orange stuff” (a sweet, strong Osmanthus wine – don’t ask) . The yurt camp is still about three hours away. There are no toilets, not even a house or a bush along the road where you can make a much-needed stop. But still, the sky is vast, the air is fresh, you are on an adventure! Next to you, this grumpy Englishman is playing Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now on repeat on his Discman with portable speakers. Welcome to my life, a day in October 1996.

Chinese music in Temple of Heaven
A woman is getting ready to sing for whoever wants to listen, in the Temple of Heaven

Nothing to My Name
I knew nothing of Chinese music when I arrived in China in 1995, except from the “pling plong” music they played in the China restaurants I was so excited to go to in the 80s. So I was so pleasantly surprised Chinese music could actually be cool. And no one was cooler than Cui Jian. The courage! The passion! The pain in his voice! The electrical guitar – wow, they have electrical guitars in China?! I know, I was petty ignorant, but hey, I was young and the only books I had read before I arrived was Wild Swans and a book written by a student who lived there in the 80s. None of them said anything about electrical guitars. I still think this song is great, even though I have never managed to memorize the lyrics. But I can always join in on the Ooooooh, mumble, mumble, mumble, Oooooh …

Farewell My Concubine
This movie was my first real introduction to Chinese cinema, with its overwhelming esthetics, colors and sound, and I loved it all. It was also my first introduction to Beijing Opera, a musical form I’ve had plenty of options to listen to over the years. It’s often part of the program when I guide groups around Beijing, and I don’t really mind. Mostly because the theaters we visit only show the highlights from selected plays, that are short and often humorous. And the whole experience is so different from anything else. The music, singing, make up and costumes make a performance like no other.

Slow Boat to China
When I was back in Oslo after my first two years in China, we hung out at this fun place on Sunday evenings, and the house band would always play this song for us; a bunch of Chinese language students, all dreaming about going back to China as soon as possible. And it makes me think about the time when you actually had to travel for months to get to China, can you imagine how tiresome, but exciting it must have been?

March of the Volunteers
When I studied Chinese at University of Oslo we had a teacher, that fitted every criteria of the mad professor. The crazy energy, the hair, the mess in his office, endless lessons without breaks, the high consumption of instant espresso, and the never-ending inculcating of Chinese grammar. One time he had us sing the National Anthem of China 18 times, before we spend a full two hours doing a grammatical analysis of the lyrics. I’ll always be able to sing this during flag raise in China.

Chinese Opera singer in Chengdu
Chinese music is more than just the sound of it.

Gongxi Gongxi Ni
My vision of hell is t be somewhere and having to listen to this song over and over again. Or have it played constantly in your head, like is happening now that I’m searching for it on Spotify to create this list. Normally played in every hotel and shopping mall around Chinese New Year, it promises you a happy and healthy year to come. That is, if you can get it out of your head. For fun, I added a different version on Spotify that is not too bad, the brass band version. Gongxi gongxi gongxi ni ya, gongxi gongxi gongxi ni… Argh, can’t stop!

A Horse Race
In China they play a lot of instruments that have very distinct sounds. One of them is the erhu, a two string instrument, that in the wrong hands sounds like someone is strangling a cat twice over. In the right hands, it makes an awesome sound. There are probably thousands of songs with the erhu, most of them old, traditional tunes, and the Mongolian A Horse Race is one of the most famous, and often played. Maybe because it is so easy to listen too, I mean, try NOT to think about horses running over the Mongolian steppes while listening.

Going Home
Imagine if you had the royalties to a song that is played every time a shopping mall, library, amusement park or a sporting event close. Too bad for Kenny G that the Chinese have never been too concerned about royalties, because this song is on repeat all over China, EVERY evening. I didn’t make this up, you can read about it in the New York Times. For some reason this saxophone player is extremely popular in China. Is it the hair? The tall forehead? The sax that doesn’t even look like a proper sax? For a country that shuns silence, 1.3 billion Chinese agree it’s perfect background torture music.

Nessun Dorma
Puccini was never in China, as far as I know, and neither was Carlo Gozzi, whose text inspired Puccini to write Turandot. Long opera short, in order to marry the Princess Turandot of Beijing, the prince has to answer three riddles, or lose his head. When he gets them all correct, and she still refuse the marriage, he gives her a test. If she can guess his name, she is free to behead him, if not, they must get married. So, no one in Beijing is allowed to sleep that night, until they figure out his name. If they fail, all will be killed (11 century Girl Power!). I’ve spent many nights nessun dorma in Beijing, and it´s one of my favorite cities to explore by night.

Nine Million Bicycles
Ah! Is that really a fact we can’t deny? I don’t know when Katie Melua was told that there are nine million bicycles in Beijing. At one point I heard it was eight million, but that was waaaay before everyone and their dog got a car each. The rest of the song has nothing to do with China, but it’s hugely popular in China, with the same use as Kenny G songs. A slow muzak version is excellent in elevators.

Beijing Welcomes You and You and Me
We moved to Beijing August 23 2008, one day before the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. So we missed all the excitement, but this song kept playing, and it was a nice welcome to our new home city. And the air was fresh for at least a few months after the games. You and Me was the official Beijing Olympic anthem. If Disney ever needs a Chinese composer to make a sound track for a new movie, they can contact the makes of this song. Now I can´t wait to see what they’ll come up with for the Winter Olympics in Beijing 2022.

Lao shu ai da mi
I’ve celebrated many birthdays in China, and one of the best was spent at a karaoke house with the best girl friends, a big bottle of gin and no judgement what so ever. And since it was my birthday I had the microphone most of the time, even when I totally messed up Poker Face. I still treasure the video of all of us singing Wo ai ni, ai zhe ni, jiu xiang lao shu ai da mi. I love you like a mouse loves rice. True love!

Waiting 4 you and Can’t Get Your Love
Many years ago the luxury brand Shanghai Tang, whose cashmere sweaters are to die for, produced two CDs Shanghai Divas – In Residence at Shanghai Tang, where they mixed old Shanghai 1920’s night club tunes with electronica, and the result was awesome. Best part was the CDs also had the originals, and both versions are so sexy and catchy. I always struggle to decide which historical time to travel back to when they invent the time machine, but Shanghai in the 1920’s is high on the list. On YouTube and Spotify I only find the songs mixed by Shanghai Restoration Project. They don’t use the original vocals, but never mind, it still sounds good.

I’ll probably remember more songs later, since this list initiated so many memories of the last 20 years. So which one is your favorite? Do you have a song from China that will stay with you forever? Leave a comment and let me know. If I agree it´s a classic, I´ll add it to the list.

Gongxi gongxi gongxi ni ya, gongxi … Please make it stop!



Christine Surlien

Christine has studied Chinese culture and language extensively. She has spent two years at The People’s University of China in Beijing, done five years of Chinese studies at the University of Oslo, and has her masters degree from Hong Kong University. She has been associated with KinaReiser, Norway’s leading agency for travel to the The Far East, for a decade. She was also employed at the administration of the Norwegian Embassy to China for two years, before relocating to Washington DC with her diplomat husband and their two children.

Recommended Articles


  1. What fun! I enjoyed listening to a few and it certainly made me smile to read your stories. Have to admit, China Girl is one of my favorites. It always reminds me of the movie The Wedding Singer and I have to join in with a drunken Drew Barrymore impression!

    1. Now, Wedding Singer, that’s a movie with a good soundtrack! Have to rewatch it again soon 🙂 Glad you liked my list, Jacqueline!

  2. Sounds like an interesting blend of music. Can’t say I know much it other than China Girl. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for sharing your beloved playlist, I love knowing what is on people’s playlists. It is a window to their souls and sometimes twisted tastes 🙂

    For the record, As a good child of the 90s I tool love Kenny G.

    1. Ha ha, you are right, a playlist can tell a lot!

  4. Where, I say WHERE, is ??! I have friends who can not say hello or thank you in Chinese, but who can (still) zuo kan, you kan, shang kan, xia kan with the best of them (so many years later). And you DO of course include Taiwan compatriots…?!

    1. Ha ha, what I great song, how come I missed that one? A great way to learn prepositions, I must say 😉

  5. My favourite would be another from Olympic era: Beijing Beijing wo ai Beijing.

    1. Oh yes, this is a good one. Beijing Beijing, I Love Beijing. Found the video Thanks for sharing, Sonia

Comments are closed.