A Brief History of China’s Music Industry – Part 2: The Recorded Music Industry in China From the Early 1900s to the Late 1940s

The music industry of China is an unknown continent from a Western music business research perspective. Therefore it is very meritorious that John Fangjun Li, a lecturer and PhD candidate (2008-2012) at Macquarie University, provides one of the first overviews of the history of China’s music industry for an international readership. In a series of four blog contributions he highlights the development of the recorded music industry in more than 100 years from the final period of Imperial China to the current Peoples Republic of China. He gives an overview of the impact of Western major recorded music companies in the first half of the 20th century and of the emergence of serveral state operated but also privately owned Chinese companies after the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and other large cities. He also highlights the current digital music business in China that has been dominating the recorded music industry since the the mid 2000s.

In part 2, John Fangjun Li highlights the first years of the emerging music industry in China and discusses the role of Western music industry conglomerates until the late 1940s when the Peoples Republic of China was founded.



Guest post by John Fangjun Li
The 20th century is regarded as the modern period of China’s music industry. During this period, the recorded music industry emerged and developed. 1949 was the watershed year for China’s music industry, when the Peoples Republic of China was established. Therefore two periods can be identifies: (1) from the early 1900s to 1949 and (2) from the 1950s until the early 2000s. In the following the developments in the first of these two periods are further discussed.


The recorded music industry played an essential role in China’s modern music industry during the first half of the 20th century. The rise of recorded music in the early 1900s was closely linked with the European and U.S. music industry (Li, 2011; Ge, 2009). In other words, the European and the the U.S. music industry greatly promoted the recorded music industry to generate and develop (ibid).


Shanghai was one of the earliest places in China, in which Western recorded music was introduced (Li, 2011; Ge, 2008; Lou, 2008). The earliest gramophone recording in China was made in Shanghai in 1903 (Ge, 2009: 48). As reported in the Chinese Journal ‘the Pictorial of Dian Shi Zhai’ in 1880, ‘American Edison’ (ai di sheng) invented a machine which is called ‘phonograph’ (ji sheng qi) (see Figure 1). (Ge, 2008).


First phonograph in China








(Figure 1: ‘Phonograph’ (ji sheng qi). Zhang Wei (2009). From: http://www.yplib.org.cn/structure/jdsh/hfms/sy_77218_1.htm)


The Victor Talking Machine Company (VTMC) in the U.S. sent Fred Gaisberg, one of the earliest recording experts to China, Japan, India, and other East-Southern Asian countries to record local music in 1902 (Ge, 2008). During the Asian trip, he made 1,700 different records of regional and local music styles (Li, 2011). In March 1903, Gaisberg came to Shanghai to make the first recordings of Chinese music, which marks the starting point of China’s recorded music industry (Ge, 2009).


Gaisberg recorded music of Peking operas such as ‘Capturing and Releasing Cao Cao’ (zhuo fang cao) and ‘Raising the Vessel to Watch the Pictures’ (ju ding guan hua) and other Chinese local operas such as the Guangdong Yue opera. After Gaisberg had finished his recording sessions in Shanghai, the UK Gramophone Company sent the masters to the Hanover record plant. In 1904, the records were re-imported by the Gramophone Company’s sales agent in China, the Moutrie Foreign Firm, to Shanghai. (Li, 2011; Ge, 2008, 2009).


The Moudeli Foreign Company and the Baide (‘Pathe’) Foreign Company were two of the first companies that developed the recorded music business during this early period in China. (Ge, 2004, 2008; Li, 2011). More specifically, they mainly influenced Shanghai’s recorded music industry before and after 1910; the Moudeli Company dominated the market before 1910 while the Shanghai Eastern Pathé played a leading role since the 1910s. The Moudeli Company was mainly engaged in the trade of phonographs, records and pianos in Shanghai and was owned by a British business man (Ge, 2009; Li, 2011).


After 1910, two main competitors shaped the Chinese music industry: ‘The Shanghai Eastern Pathé’ (shanghai bai dai), and ‘The Shanghai Victory’ (shanghai sheng li). Both companies were owned and managed by Western major music companies – ‘Pathé’ was a label of British Columbia Graphophone and ‘The Shanghai Victory’ of U.S. Victor Talking Machine (Ge, 2008; Li, 2011). In addition, some more record divisions of foreign record companies operated in Shanghai: ‘Odeon’ (gao ting) (German), ‘Beka’ (pei kai) (German), ‘U.S. Columbia’ (ge lin), and ‘Pagoda’ (bao ta) (German) (Ge, 2009; Li, 2011).


Furthermore, some local Chinese record companies were established such as ‘The Greater China’ (da zhong hua), ‘The Great Wall’ (chang cheng) and ‘The New Moon’ (xin yue) (Ge, 2008, 2009). Among those local companies, The Greater China was the largest one and played a leading role in the recorded music industry in this period (Ge, 2004, 2008; Li, 2011).


‘The Greater China’, ‘Shanghai Pathé’ (later ‘EMI’), and ‘Shanghai Victor’ were the three largest record companies and key players in Shanghai as well as in China during the first half of the 20th century. Due to this rapid development, Shanghai and China’s recorded music industry boomed during the 1930s and 1940s despite the Great Depression (Figure 2).


Shou Le Music Shop in Shanghai







(Figure 2: Shou Le Music Shop (Indoor Scene) of Russia in Xia Fei RoadShanghai. Zhang Wei (2009). From: http://www.yplib.org.cn/structure/jdsh/hfms/sy_77218_1.htm)


To sum up, the recorded music industry played an essential role in China’s modern music industry during the first half of the 20th century. The rise of recorded music in the early 1900s was closely linked with the European and U.S. music industry that laid the foundation for the second period of the modern recorded music industry in China from the 1950s onwards.



Ge, T. (2004). Social Change in the Sound Records: Shanghai Recorded Music Industry from the Early 20th Century to 1937. The History Review, (6), pp. 53-60.


Ge, T. (2008). Shanghai EMI (bai dai) – the Development of Shanghai EMI During the Modern Period. History Review, (5), pp. 26-41.


Ge, T. (2009). Records and Modern Shanghai Social Life. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House.


Jin, Z. (2002). Experiencing Chinese Popular Music. Beijing, China: People’s Music Publishing House.


Li, X. (2006). The History of China‘s Cultural Industries. Changsha, China: Hunan Art and Literature Press.


Li, F. (2011). The Development of China’s Music Industry During the First Half of the 20th Century. NEO, (1).


Lou, J. (2008). The study of Shanghai‘s Urban Entertainment. Shanghai, China: Wenhui Publishing House.


Wang, J. (1999). The Chinese Recorded Music Industry During 50 Years. China Electronic Information (Visual Audio Expo), (7).


Wang, J. (2006). The Analysis of the State of China’s Audio Visual Industry.  Publishing Research, (8).


Part 3: The Recorded Music Industry in China from the 1950s to the early 2000s


John Fangjun Li is adjunct lecturer and PhD candidate (2008-2012) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Coordinator of the Australian-Chinese Music Industry Research Network, a member of IASPM (Aus-NZ). Previously he worked in Southern Cross University Australia (assistant researcher), Beijing Institute of Contemporary Music (head of the college of arts management), China Conservatory Music (associate professor), and Shanghai Synergy Cultural & Entertainment Group (music producer and marketing manager). He also obtained masters in arts management in Australia, masters in ethnomusicology, and a bachelor in music education in China. His main research interest areas are music industry, arts management, and creative industries. He published more than ten papers in international core journals and participated in some main international conferences in these areas. John Fangjun Li’s email: lifangjun17@gmail.com


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December 2012



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