Rapping Karl Marx in China

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In Sixth Tone, Fan Yiying has written an article that leaves me reeling:

"Hip Song Gives Karl Marx Good Rap:  Theme music for a Marx-focused television show is a hit with Chinese youth."

The video of the song is posted here (unfortunately, you have to wait 40 seconds to get through the ads). And here is the audio:

The conceit that Marx is a millennial ("Mǎkèsī shì jiǔlíng hòu 马克思是九零后 [Marx belongs to the Post-90s generation]", the title of the song) is not what strikes me most about this song, nor is the irony of using postmodern Western rap to promote communism.  What hit me hardest about this song is the sheer amount of English they mix in — lots!  Furthermore, in light of the vigorous discussions about the use of Pinyin and the emergence of digraphia on Language Log over the course of the last week, the use of Pinyin in the midst of Chinese characters in the subtitles to write the most frequent Mandarin morpheme, de 的 (particle for showing possession, nominalization, and relativization), really stands out.

We have often cited instances of mixing Chinese and English for special effect and also of using Pinyin when one forgets how to write various characters, and we have also touched upon the use of romanization or other phonetic symbols for high frequency morphemes in Taiwanese, Cantonese, and other topolects for which there are no known characters.  But what would prompt rappers to use "de" for 的 smack dab in the middle of a Mandarin sentence (actually it happens in two successive sentences, which are repeated twice more the same way later in the song for a total of six times)?  What is that telling us about the state of writing in China today? That it's cool to use Pinyin to write the most frequent morpheme in Mandarin?

This is but the latest in a series of CCP-sponsored, youth-oriented, propaganda songs modeled after contemporary Western musical genres.  See also:

"The mysteries of 13.5 " (10/27/15) (that one is in English with just a little bit of [badly pronounced] Mandarin mixed)


  1. Xwrc said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    Perhaps an influence of the substitution of "da" or "tha" for "the" in (mostly older, I think) US rap song titles?

  2. Eidolon said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    Rap culture is intrinsically associated with Western culture in East Asia, so the use of English words in rap songs is not surprising, and is quite popular. I've seen the same in Japanese and Korean rap songs.

    As for the use of pinyin to spell out the 的 particle, this substitution is also found, at times, in online posts on the Chinese internet associated with popular youth culture, so it might indeed be an effort to make it seem more "modern" and "cool." As I have said in the past, Western culture is considered "modern" and "cool" in most places in East Asia. Pinyin is not Western in the language it expresses, but as a derivative of the English alphabet, it nonetheless evokes that feeling.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 12:53 pm


    That's a reasonable analysis. Thank you!

  4. Matt Anderson said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    This is fascinating! I also think it's interesting that "yī jiǔ jiǔ líng" (1990) in “wǒ chūshēng zài yī jiǔ jiǔ líng" (I was born in the 1990s), around 2:16 in the video, is written "我出生在1990s"—"1990s" is pretty clearly English, but he says it in Chinese. Maybe this is common now, but I don't think I've seen that before.

  5. noah said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 1:40 am

    the song on youtube, without ads/waiting/video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAKxtuLEqR8

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    Nice discovery, Matt!

    BTW, listening to this song over and over again, I get the strong impression that Mandarin rap, which — like all rap — is a highly rhythmic kind of talking, permits closer adherence to the tones of actual speech than do more melodically governed genres of song, where the tones are often pretty much ignored.

  7. Ken said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    People have been rapping in Mandarin for at least 20 years. The first time I found it actually cool was on the latest Grimes record, which features a track by a Taiwanese rapper called Aristophanes.

    I wonder what the best language to rap in is? I've heard some French rap which has a nice flow. Japanese rap, unfortunately, is still stuck in the old school '80s aesthetic. I watched a recent variety show where an MC taught comedians how to freestyle, and step 1 was literally, "My name is ____ and I'm here to say" (in Japanese).

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