Earlier this month, I had a discussion-based class about sports and athletes. “Famous Chinese athletes besides Yao Ming,” I frantically Googled, because Yao Ming was already in the courseware. Along with help from fellow tutors, I found Ma Long, Olympic table tennis gold medalist, and Li Na, a women’s tennis player from 2014. But either I was mispronouncing their names, or they were not very popular among Chinese teenagers because I mostly received blank stares when I mentioned these athletes.
I am sure we’ve all had similar experiences where a class in which having some basic knowledge of contemporary Chinese culture would have been useful. Or we’ve just wanted to connect with our students by chatting about something familiar to them, but Chinese pop culture just isn’t in our repertoire. After all, so many new genres of video games, social media, and music enter the pop-culture definition in our own country, and it’s hard to keep track. So what’s ‘in’ with Chinese students these days?
International Icons in China
Like many countries around the world, China is well versed in Western movies and pop icons. Tutors have had success singing “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen, and Chinese artists have also made covers of well-known songs, including Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Coldplay’s “Yellow,” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” Many stars have concerts in China and find a new fan base, like British singer/songwriter Jessie J, who won the televised Chinese singing competition “Singer” in 2018.1
Hollywood movies can be a hit in Chinese movie theaters too. A student told me he was looking forward to seeing the latest Avengers: Infinity War when it was released last May. The Star Wars prequel Rogue One featured two prominent Chinese actors, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. For younger students, they are probably familiar with animated Disney characters. There is a Disney Resort in Shanghai and Disney plans for more films2 that depict Chinese culture and stories. One such movie that fits the bill is Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic, Mulan, which is set to hit North American theatres in March. (The release date in China is unknown at this time due to the Coronavirus.)
To return to my sports class, basketball is a popular sport throughout China. A few tutors have mentioned that their students were very into Kobe Bryant and upset by his recent passing. In fact, ESPN reported in 2016 that Kobe Bryant the number one athlete in China. Other famous basketball players are Stephen Curry from the Golden State Warriors and Dwayne Wade from Miami Heat, so for your next class, you might mention some NBA basketball players and see if students perk up. Soccer (or football for the rest of the world out there) is gaining popularity in China, and, of course, international stars like Messi and Ronaldo are well-known names.
Western musicians and actors are not the only ones finding popularity in China. Korean artists and TV shows are hugely popular among Chinese audiences. K-pop groups like Big Bang, EXO, Girls Generation, and T-ARA have millions of followers in China, and concerts can sell out in minutes. K-dramas, especially the 2016 series “Descendants of the Sun,” are not only well-watched and debated on Chinese social media, but some of the most popular Chinese dramas are actually based off of Korean series.
Chinese Pop Culture Icons
Now that you know you can name drop a few world-renowned artists and athletes, you’re ready to move onto level two, Chinese pop culture.
- “Mo’s Mischief” by Yang Hongying – Yang Hongying is a famous children’s book author and is called “China’s J.K. Rowling.” Her books don’t have wizards or magic, but she is like the Harry Potter author because her books have connected with millions of children. “Mo’s Mischief” is one of her bestselling series. These books tell the story of Mo Shen Ma, a boy studying in primary school. Another one of her well-known series is the “Diary of a Smiling Cat.” These books follow the diary of the narrator, a pet cat, and her life with her owner, a little girl.
- “Dream of the Wolf King” by Shixi Shen – This book tells the tale of a wolf Zi Lan and her dream to make her children the Wolf King. The author Shixi Shen is a best selling children’s book author in China. He is well-known for his animal stories, and his books often include additional information about the wild animals he features in his stories.
- “Charlie IX and Dodomo” by Leon Phantom – Charlie IX and Dodomo is a 22 book series and counting. The fantasy books became an instant hit since the first release in 2011, topping children’s book charts. The adventures begin when the main character, Fantasy, receives a dog named Charlie IX as a birthday present from his grandfather. From then on, Fantasy and his friends become detectives cracking mysterious and fantastical case after case to fight evil.
- Honor of Kings – Popular culture in China is becoming more obsessed with video games. With over 200 million monthly users, Honor of Kings is a wildly popular mobile game in China for both boys and girls. If you are tuned into the gaming world, you may have played the Western version, Arena of Valor, which was launched in 2017. Honor of Kings is a multiplayer online game. Users play five-on-five battles to destroy the other teams’ base. They can customize their heros’ appearance and powers. Players can communicate with each other using social media apps like QQ and WeChat.
- PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) – PUBG is similar to the popular US game Fortnite. If that reference goes over your head, then think of “The Hunger Games.” This is a multiplayer online game. Up to 100 players join a battle royale arena, where they have to compete for the best equipment and fight against other players until the last person standing is the winner. As the game progresses, the arena area contracts, forcing players to encounter each other.
- Speed QQ – As the name suggests, Speed QQ is a racing game. This has been a long time popular PC game that recently became available on mobile. Players have three different racing environments: wind, fire, and fantasy. Within each setting, there are different tracks and races. Users can choose to play competitively or casually, and it has options for single or multiplayer races.
- Joker Xue – Joker Xue is a well-known singer and songwriter. He has also appeared as a guest and host for different TV shows, where he is known for his sense of humor. Most of his songs are ballads, singing about love and heartbreak.
- TFBOYS – TFBOYS is a three-person boy band and also known as the “The Fighting Boys.” They became popular at a young age; when they debuted, they were only 12 and 13 years old. They sing pop music with some rap, and their songs are very relatable to students because they sing about homework, teamwork, and growing up.
- GEM – GEM is the stage name of Gloria Tang Tsz-kei, a Chinese singer and songwriter. GEM stands for “Get Everyone Moving.” She came in 2nd place in the Chinese singing competition, which helped launch her career. Her songs often talk about love, heartbreak, and finding your own voice.
- Ne Zha (2019) – Ne Zha was one of the top-grossing films in China in 2019. The character Ne Zha comes from Chinese mythology, and the movie is loosely based on a classic Chinese novel. The character is a well-known Chinese cartoon, as well. It is an animated movie about the young deity as he tries to escape the prophecy that says he will be killed by a lightning strike by age three. Through his journey, he encounters a host of other mythical beings who try to help him.
- The Monkey King (2014) – The Monkey King and its sequel in 2016 are also based on myth and a classical Chinese novel. The action fantasy movies follow the journey of a monkey who was born from a magical crystal from heaven. He gains supernatural powers such as shapeshifting and has to fight to earn his place in heaven. There are Chinese cartoons based on this story, as well.
- Big Fish and Begonia (2016) – This animated movie has a plot similar to The Little Mermaid. Chun is a 16-year-old girl from a place where otherworldly beings oversee the human one. On her birthday, she is transformed into a dolphin to learn about the human world and is saved by a human boy. They begin to form a close relationship, but ultimately, they come from two different worlds.
The next time you find yourself wondering what to chat with your students about, this article about Chinese pop culture is here to help you. While your own kids might roll their eyes because you don’t know how to use Snapchat or the lyrics to Billboard’s top 100 songs, at least you can rest assured that you will be hip enough while teaching your ESL classes.
Chinese Pop Culture Overview For Online ESL Teachers
1 Kelly, Emma. “Jessie J Wins Chinese Talent Show Singer 2018.” Metro, December 12, 2019. https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/13/jessie-j-wins-singer-chinese-talent-show-7465368/.
2 戴甜 . “China Has Become Important Market for Walt Disney International.” China has become an important market for Walt Disney International – Business – Chinadaily.com.cn. Accessed February 28, 2020. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2017-07/14/content_30114149.htm.
Delanie Honda has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While in Cambodia in 2014, she discovered she had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals through language learning. During her Master’s studies, she researched interventions using technology to provide quality education to students around the world. She has been a tutor with ALO7 since April 2017 and lived in Southeast Asia, Ecuador and Colombia.
The digital nomad lifestyle has allowed her to pursue the two things she loves: travel and education. As a Chinese-Japanese American, Delanie is asked, “Where are you from?” a lot, but welcomes the opportunity to share her culture with the people she meets from around the world. Her favorite things to do while traveling are trying new foods, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and exploring on foot.