Chinese-English rap

« previous post | next post »

Thorin Engeseth writes:

I am a big fan of the English musician Tricky, who recently released an album with a song on it called "Beijing to Berlin".

According to an email his marketing team sent out:

The enigmatic voice on the single's A-side, "Beijing To Berlin," belongs to the Chinese rapper and producer Ivy 艾菲. Tricky explains: "I was in Beijing for a show and I met this guy who managed her. She's so different! So raw! The strange thing is, I've had the track for a while but I only just found out that she’s not rapping in Chinese. I ain’t got a clue what language it is. I have no idea. It might be completely made up but whatever it is, it sounds wicked."

I'm attaching a link to a video of the song here. I know very little about the languages of China, and am wondering if this song (a rap song) could just be in very heavily accented English, or is she making sounds up as she goes?

To me it sounds as though she's rapping a mixture of Chinese and English (e.g., "knock knock knock", but see below) and also sometimes just making things up.

I asked Brendan O'Kane, who lived in Beijing for a decade (until a couple of years ago) and was well acquainted with the contemporary arts, what Ivy 艾菲's rap sounded like to him.

Brendan replied as below, but added the caveat that he was never all that on top of the indie music scene, and is now years out of date.  (I've added some transcriptions, translations, and explanations, and embedded the links provided by Brendan.)

I can't actually tell what she's singing — there seems to be some English in there, but there are a few words that sound like English-inflected Mandarin. Not enough for me to be sure either way, though.

Ivy / Àifēi 艾菲 certainly seems to be capable of singing or rapping in English — there's a video here of her covering a Beyonce song on the reality show Zhōngguó mèng zhī shēng 中国梦之声 ("The sound of the Chinese dream", i.e., "Chinese Idol"), and it doesn't sound as if she's just learnt the lyrics phonetically, as is sometimes the case with contestants who cover foreign songs.

The vocals in her song "Shaliaba" 莎里阿巴 have a similar sound, but are definitely (mostly) Chinese: see video (warning: odd wigs, gratuitous booty-shaking) and lyrics. The lyrics provided there give nǎge 哪個 ("which") for a sound that I'd processed as English "knock;" the same sound shows up in Ivy's lyrics in the Tricky video that you sent over, and going by the few English words that I can pick out from the latter, it sounds as if at least some of the lyrics may be shared between the two songs.

There certainly are bands and individual artists out there who perform mostly or exclusively in English — this was one of my longstanding complaints about Beijing's underground/alternative music scene around the mid- to late-aughts. Gringos accounted for a lot of the audience at many of the shows I went to, and several fairly major bands wrote and performed exclusively in a language that was technically English. (The two that come to mind now are the authentically inebriated punk quintet Joyside, whose albums include "Everything Sucks" and "Drunk Is Beautiful," and the shoegazey Joy Division-ripoff act Rebuilding the Rights of Statues ([Chóng sù diāoxiàng de quánlì 重塑雕像的权利], but there were plenty more.) The bands' standard explanation for writing in English, whenever (foreign) journalists asked, was that it was a language that they felt freer to think in — but it was hard to shake the feeling that the real reason was that the gringo listener base was, at the time, a lot likelier to shell out for concert tickets and buy the bands beers after the show.

Things have probably changed in the past few years: the internet has created a space where Chinese fans of non-mainstream music can swap tracks and chat, so bands are probably less dependent on the foreign press and the expat community — and the gradual transition to a "moderately prosperous society" / xiaokang shehui means that there are a lot more young Chinese people who can afford to see a show every now and then. There are probably more venues, too — especially in second-tier cities.

Of course, there are still bands who rap in Mandarin. Yīnsān'er 陰三兒 / In3, whose "Beijing Evening News" (Beijing wanbao) is a genuinely sharp piece of social commentary in the tradition of classic US rap artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One, recently drew unwanted attention from the government. Matt Sheehan also had a good piece a few months ago about people rapping in Chengduhua ["Chengdu topolect"] that highlighted a lot of the interesting qualities of the artists without taking them too seriously as social critics.

Even when we have the lyrics (presumably vetted by Ivy's people?), it's not that clear what she's saying.  This may seem a rather chaotic situation, but I think it's indicative of some aspects of the general fuzziness between English and Chinese that is developing, and it parallels the emerging digraphia in writing that I have mentioned so many times on Language Log.  These are times of linguistic fluidity that are heady and unpredictable.

On March 6, 2014, I wrote a post titled "Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin" which contained these paragraphs:

On April 26, 2011, I posted a piece entitled "A New Morpheme in Mandarin", in which I remarked:

About 15 years ago, I wrote a science fiction novel called "China Babel" (still unpublished) in which I described a time in the future when Chinese would merge with English. When I see things like this text about SNSer[s], I begin to think that my futuristic imaginings may not have been that wide of the mark.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post ("YOUCOOL") about China's YouTube clone, YouKu, in which I stated:

YouKu 优酷 is a good example of what may be called "Sino-English," which I predict will become increasingly evident in the years to come, until Chinese and English experience a kind of blending (a veritable Mischsprache?) which is the theme of an unpublished, futuristic novel called China Babel that I wrote about 15 years ago. It's not so unlikely as one might think: Japanese has well over sixty thousand gairaigo (lexical borrowings, the vast majority from English), and the number continues to grow daily, so that in some contexts, one seems to hear an English word in almost every other Japanese sentence that is uttered.

I went on to give examples of the Sino-English blended language that is flooding the Chinese internet, SMS, etc.  Who knows where and how it will end?


Addendum from Chas Belov on Cui Jian's Chinese-English rock and rap, and on Uyghur hip hop

One advantage of the streaming music era is that there's no barrier beyond that of available time to trying out endless different albums. Just now I discovered an utterly forgettable early pop album by Cui Jian, possibly China's greatest rock musician.

1985 Review (issued in 2001), mostly in Mandarin, includes three English-language song covers of Western hits. I found one of those unlistenable, but the other two are of Language Log interest.

"Without You," a Harry Nilsson cover, contains a grammatical correction. The original line in the Nilsson song was "Can't live, if living is without you." The Cui cover corrects that to "I can't live, if living is without you."

But the other one obviously made a round trip through the translation mill. The Romantics' song "Talking In Your Sleep" turns up on 1985 Review with, so far as I can tell, the same lyrics but a completely new title, "Pouring Out One's Heart in a Dream." I'd guess there was an attempt to do a translation of the meaning of the song into Chinese for a title for the original Chinese release, but then the Chinese title was literally translated back into English for international marketing.

Odd they didn't do that with either "Without You" or the other English cover "The End of the World."

As for Cui Jian's rap, I didn't like his album, Power of the Powerless, but "Flying" from Balls Under the Red Flag, a mistranslation, I believe, is excellent.

Are you aware of the documentary series Hip Hop in China by a pair of American anthropology students?  One of them makes a cameo appearance in Bichare Tohmet by Six City although I believe that's in Uighur.


VHM:  The latter begins with the title written thus,

video FLim

but I believe that may be intentional.


  1. Thorin said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 10:39 am

    Her name being written as Ivy / Àifēi 艾菲 reminded me of an artist from Taiwan named Aristophanes 貍貓. Is there the same similarity between Aristophanes and the characters following it as Ivy has, or is it another name entirely with Aristophanes just being her name for Western listeners?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 11:13 am


    Thanks for your good question.

    Well, the límāo 貍貓 is some kind of animal (you'll see it identified as "civet cat" and even "raccoon dog", but I think it's really a "leopard cat"). Anyway, it has nothing to do with Αριστοφανης (Ancient Greek), which is derived from the Greek elements αριστος (aristos) "best" and φανης (phanes) "appearing". Àifēi 艾菲 is often used as a transcription for "Effie", but there's nothing to prevent Ivy from using it as a transcription for her name too.

  3. Mr Punch said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    As an Anglophone who knows no Chinese of any sort, I find that Ivy's lyrics sound like attempts to recreate the sound of English using non-English words — like that "French" Mother Goose book.

  4. Craig said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    @Thorin, 貍貓 (Limao) means "leopard cat" ( )

    Aristophanes is transliterated as 阿里斯托芬 (Alisutuofen).

  5. Faldone said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    For those of you unfamiliar with the "French" Mother Goose book:

    Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D'Antin Manuscript

  6. Chas Belov said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 1:19 am

    @VHM re video FLim: Intention has always been my impression as well.

  7. Alastair said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 5:48 am

    For those interested in Chinese rap music, the YouTube channel Zhong.TV ( is a great resource. Almost all songs have fragments of English in them, often charmingly unnatural English.

    Some linguistic curiosities I have recently discovered there are:

    – An ode to Beijing-Seoul friendship sung in Chinese by the Korean rapper Steady SketchA (

    – A tragic song about domestic violence by the Taiwanese-American Miss Ko, which seamlessly mixes English and Chinese (

    – A feel good song about Beijing from the rapper Nasty Ray, which plays on the Beijing erhua dialect (

    – A song I like but whose lyrics I cannot quite fathom – 凡才讥 by 冷酷阿姨DaBozz. It seems to be in Chinese with fragments of Japanese and English, but the Chinese seems to have lots of references to Japanese culture (

    The blog entry above mentions IN3. Here are some developments on that front (from

    IN3 had to dissolve a couple of years ago when their shows started to get closed down due to political sensitive lyrics. So in 2013 (if I remember right) the lead singer Jia Wei started a new band called Purple Soul (龙胆紫) together with an MC named Jiezi and a beat maker called FAC-D12 or Fengxiao.

    They released a great – and political sensitive album – called W.T.F. in the end of 2014, and have since been the hottest band by far on the Beijing hip hop scene. I followed them this summer because a friend of mine was here filming them and I helped out a bit with translating. On underground memorial concerts with 5-6 bands, Purple Soul is the band that everyone waits for and everyone cheers the most for.

    They are also, by far, the most outspoken band in Beijing and on the verge of their second album release the police raided FAC-D12's home and took him away, he is now facing 3-5 years in jail. Also, Jia Wei was recently detained and beaten up by police. They had all kinds of "evidence" suggesting he was being followed for months.

    You can listen to Purple Soul on Zhong.TV ( and there is a Kickstarter project to release a documentary film about this group –

  8. Dan said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

    Reminds me of the British band Kero Kero Bonito (often written in kana), which I only learned of recently. The lead singer sings and raps in Japanese and English. See, e.g.,

RSS feed for comments on this post