Monday, November 30, 2009

The Curious Case of Jay Chou

Jay Chou in The Curse of the Golden Flower

What's curious about Jay Chou (周杰伦), the Taiwanese pop icon, is his potential and actual impact on Chinese youth identity of being Chinese, their knowledge of and interest in traditional Chinese culture, and even his possible contribution to the Taiwan-Mainland tie.

At the first glance, Jay is certainly avant-garde, in a sense that he is very western. He keeps a very hip look, acts cool, sings in a unconventional way, and raps a lot. Deep down, he is more Chinese than many contemporary Chinese pop stars.

Unlike some other Hong Kong and Taiwan pop stars, such as Leehom Wang (王力宏) and Jacky Cheung (
张学友), Jay doesn't really speak English, and talked in Chinese when being interviewed by CNN. Many of his most popular songs are the so-called "China style" (中国风) songs, featuring folk-song style music and lyrics full of ideas and lingo from ancient Chinese poems and classics, written by his pal Fang Wenshan. Jay once sang in a track that China style songs were his favorite. For an artist like Jay, the rich heritage of Chinese culture is simply too fertile to desert.

Ever since he starred in Zhang Yimou's costume movie, "The Curse of the Golden Flower," Jay seemed to be devoted
even more to his China-style music making. He featured his image in the movie as the cover of one of his albums, tried to play Gu Qin in his music video, and picked up Peking Opera in his concerts. During his global tour in 2008, he applied many of these Chinese cultural elements to demonstrate to the world what is Chinese pop.

He seems to have a very strong sense of identity. In his early years as a pop star, the identity issue was mostly about who Jay Chou was. Lately, it has been more about what constitutes the Chineseness of a pop star.

In the Mainland, Jay's extensive use of traditional Chinese cultural symbols in his lyrics, instruments and music videos might revive the younger generations' interest in ancient Chinese culture. In Taiwan, his pop culture creation might help to forge the cultural tie between Taiwan and the Mainland. Jay himself perhaps never thought that one day, he could end up being the best teacher of traditional Chinese culture to millions of young people in the greater China region.