An interview with Li Zhuoxiong

A Golden Melody Award-winner gives us insight into the world of song lyrics.

Lee Yew Leong

I've heard it said that literature can be differentiated from journalism in that it is not read once and then thrown away. It bears and even demands repeated readings. In this age where pop culture has for better or for worse become the dominant form of discourse, it seems to me that lyrics are the only form of text other than government propaganda and advertisements, that sieves through to the public and that is repeated over and over again. This is certainly truer for the Mandarin-speaking world where karaoke is a popular entertainment. Yet, most people, in the West at least, are resistant to the notion that lyrics constitute a form of Literature. What is the view of lyrics in the Mandarin-speaking world? Is it Literature?

If Literature is to be defined by that which bears and even demands repeated readings, then certainly, of all the genres, lyrics are the most dominant form of Literature in the Mandarin-speaking world at the moment—due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the traditional "being quoted" has taken on the technologized form of "being forwarded", or "being cut and pasted".

With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, status updates and tweets are now the way to go to keep others up to date with your life. Their more compressed format calls for greater concision; this has helped in the transmission of lyrics (that is, the good ones that have made an impression on pop consciousness). You mentioned karaoke—an interesting phenomenon in Chinese society. Lyrics do hold a higher place among the Chinese. A lot of times, people go to KTV to listen to and read the lyrics as much as to sing them. Using other people's words to express what one feels deep down—mediated though it may be—is how Chinese people like to do it.

Of course, from a more traditional standpoint, if we were to use the definition upheld in academia, the question of whether pop lyrics belong to the category of Literature is a highly contentious one. After all, to a lot of listeners, lyrics don't need to be written the way that the Literature discussed in lecture halls has been written. For the majority, Literature is practically synonymous with "deep" (read: "inaccessible"). Most people feel that lyrics shouldn't be as contrived as what is studied in universities; they think that lyrics ought to be readily accessible, acting just as a mode of expressing feelings. Don't you find that the sort of literary criticism practiced in Literature departments quite the opposite of this? What I mean is, a lot of the techniques deployed in Literature are "written", not for reading aloud. Pop music has to meet the criterion of "pop"—i.e. popularity; therefore, in the production of lyrics, certain techniques found in written traditional literature are to be shunned in favor of others. The corollary of that, I suppose, is that whatever yardstick used to appraise Literature may not work so well in the appraisal of lyrics.

You mentioned that in the West people are resistant to the notion that lyrics constitute Literature? Aren't Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan considered poets over there? But I suppose we then have to take apart what makes a poem, which might be yet another never-ending discussion. Lyrics don't have to be poetry in order to be considered Literature; Literature doesn't include only poetry, after all. That said, speaking strictly in terms of the form, lyrics as a genre most closely approaches poetry.

With more than 500 songs and a Golden Melody Award for Best Lyrics under your belt, you are a major songwriter in the Chinese world. Almost every singer who's anybody at all in the Mandarin-speaking world has performed a song written by you. It's been said that Jay Chou couldn't have been where he is now if not for his lyricist Fang Wen Shan, Faye Wong Lin Xi, and Karen Mok you. How did you get to where you are? Let's begin from the fact that you were born and bred in Hong Kong, and your native spoken language is Cantonese, not the Mandarin that you use for your work in Taipei.

I haven't counted how many songs I've written. Why do I have the impression that it's fewer than that? (laughs)

When I joined the music industry, I was just a marketing planner, involved in what was known as A&R (Artists and Repertoire), a field in which I basically helped with everything to do with planning a production. I hadn't started writing then. My job was to pair different lyricists up with different projects and tell them what to write. The first song lyrics I ever wrote were in Cantonese; I remember it was because the lyricist assigned the task fell through at the last minute and the singer thought I should give it a shot.

I ended up writing Mandarin songs mostly because about ten years ago, when sales for Mandarin albums were doing very well, Rock Records, an important local major label in the Chinese world that I was with at that time in Hong Kong, wanted to groom talent for the growing Taiwanese market, and I was one of those they selected. After moving to Taipei, I wrote Mandarin songs mostly.

I don't know if I stand up to being compared with the rest in that group you mentioned; I'm personally very thankful to Karen. I have gotten a lot of attention for my lyrics because of the songs I have written for her. I guess we owe our successes to each other.

Although the written forms of Mandarin and Cantonese often look the same, they are after all different languages. A lot of vocabulary items in Cantonese may have other nuances when used in Mandarin, even contradictory ones. For example "再見" used in certain contexts in Taiwan, might mean "Enough is enough!" or "Save it!", not "We will meet again" as it does in Cantonese; "早抖", the Cantonese equivalent of 再見, would in Mandarin convey yet another meaning: "Do go to sleep early". These very subtle differences in the feel of the language are immensely difficult to translate, or rather, the meaning is replicable, but the effect that the words originally intend is quite a challenge to convey. Lyrics are all about word choice so this sort of sensitivity to language is what sets a good lyricist apart from the merely competent one.

There's a saying that goes that members of different cultures see different colors simply because the word choice we use to express a certain color influences our experience of that color. For example, the word "红" to denote red was not necessarily the one used by the Chinese in the past; more often than not, it was "赤"; these two words differ subtly in meaning and effect, similar to the way that one "white" in the highly differentiated language used by Eskimos will not be completely synonymous with another. And so do the textures and the nuances of Mandarin and Cantonese differ as well. And needless to say—this has consequences for thought because thoughts cannot operate outside of language.

From what you are saying, it seems like you had to adapt to the Mandarin-speaking environment when you moved to Taipei. But didn't you study Chinese Literature at the University of Hong Kong, and write in Mandarin?

Such a course isn't supposed to churn out writers, you know. Rather it grooms scholars. For example, when one undertakes the study of poetry (be it Song or Tang Dynasty), novels, or linguistics, it's not with an eye to picking up tips for creative writing. But if you ask whether such a course might be conducive to becoming a writer, then my answer would be, yes, I suppose it could be, but only in indirect ways. For example, you've studied English. Let's say I didn't know anything else about you; I couldn't conclude from that fact alone that you are a good writer.

Hong Kong was then and still is a schizophrenic environment for languages. At home, and in most aspects of the quotidian life, we used Cantonese. However, when it came to the actual writing in the university or for other purposes, we had to switch to Baihua—vernacular written Chinese. And don't forget the fact that the official language was still English then. Growing up in this sort of language environment where one had to quickly switch from one language to another depending on the situation, I came to understand that there is no one absolute way of expressing anything, be it language or emotion. And a lot of what we might take for granted may not be that absolute from other viewpoints.

I should probably also explain to Western readers that Cantonese and Mandarin differ vastly in their sound, which has consequences for rhyme. For example the 虚 of 空虚 in Cantonese is pronounced as "hoey" whereas the equivalent in Mandarin is pronounced as "xu". In Cantonese the pair 空虚 and 一堆 rhyme, but because 堆 is pronounced "dui" in Mandarin, no such rhyme exists between 空虚 and 一堆 in Mandarin. What sets of words rhyme in Cantonese may not necessarily rhyme in Mandarin.

The thing about lyrics is that the lines usually need to rhyme in order for them to sound good, and resonate. The corollary of this is that when one is working across two different language systems, with inherent differences in sound, one is tied down by constraints: what sounds good in Cantonese doesn't succeed half as well in Mandarin. These difficulties in translation are there even before the writing begins.

Because I've been working in a Mandarin-speaking environment for so long, I don't need to consciously think anymore of how a phrase sounds in Mandarin, and its counterpart in Cantonese. What I've had to think about lately is how the same phrase used in Mainland China might differ from how it is used in Taiwan. It may appear to the foreigner that both these regions use Mandarin, but sometimes there exist differences in the way words are pronounced. For example, in the opening line of the song that I wrote for the movie Red Cliff, there is a word pronounced "xie shou" in Mainland China. That's actually "xi shou" in Taiwan. I've just recently completed the lyrics of a song that talks being Chinese in this modern day and age, and a word was used that in Mainland China would be pronounced "la ji" but here in Taiwan it would be pronounced "le se" and we had to call a meeting about it.

Who were your models for songwriting when you were just starting out?

When I was growing up, I listened to Cantonese pop music. Cantonese and Mandarin pop music can be said to be different worlds altogether, with different traditions. Among the big lyricists in Cantonese music that left a deep impression on me, I recall Jim Wong (黃霑), Lo Kwok Chim (盧國沾), Cheng Kwok Kong (鄭國江), Richard Lam Chun Keung (林振強), Pan Yuan Liang (潘源良) and Yip Han Liang (葉漢良). Afterwards were Lam Chik (林夕), Chow Yiu Fei (周耀輝) and a bit after that Wyman Wong (黃偉文). Around this time, I started to get into the work of Mandarin-speaking lyricists in Taiwan like Jonathan Lee (李宗盛), Lo Ta Yu (羅大佑) and Bobby Chen (陳昇). That's when I discovered that all these people were expressing emotions differently, that there existed a Mandarin world beyond the Cantonese songs. What Mandarin songs represented to me was the discovery that there were other people expressing emotions in another way and concerned with different themes than found in the Cantonese world, and that such a world even existed beyond the Cantonese world, offering other ways to write about life. Of course the discovery of English music meant more or less the same thing for me, but the impact of discovering the Mandarin world, one that is after all closer to home, was greater on the emotional plane.

When I started writing lyrics, my models were not necessarily other song lyrics, but poems or novels. For example the line from "Love": "The road I after all did not take/who, I wonder, got there instead?" may have been inspired by Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". But I also drew a lot of inspiration from novels.

Can you tell us about that?

For a long time, I preferred novels to poetry. There's a device in the novel called the dramatic monologue, in which the addressee is absent, and which may produce two to three minutes worth of speech if the whole thing were to be read out loud—doesn't this strike you as what a song is? Unless it's a duet, song lyrics rarely take the form of the back and forths of a conversation. Usually, they are simply an extension of speech, with an intended interlocutor, and with a context and a purpose, which might be to persuade or to move, the success of which is contingent upon powerful lines. Close attention to dialogue in novels or drama, I find, helps in the writing of lyrics.

Tell me about one novelist you have been affected by.

Well, the one that readily comes to mind is Eileen Chang. After all, I have written songs in the past, titled after her works: "Red Rose" and "White Rose" (Eason Chan) and "Naked Earth" (Joey Yung). I think what I prize most in novels is acute observation and vivid detailing. In this respect Eileen Chang stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Not only her novels, her essays are also very amazing; just the way she writes about the smell and the color of gasoline for example. Sometimes when you're reading her, the knockout lines keep coming one after the other, building up in power—it's inspiring the way she does it.

And the way she writes about relationships too—she's in a class of her own. As a lyricist I'm often asked to write love songs; the way Eileen Chang is able to distill a story down to its most crucial details when capturing a relationship from beginning to its end—that's something I've tried to do with my own songs as well.

Let's talk about the Mandarin and Cantonese versions of the same song which are 红玫瑰 (red rose) and 白玫瑰 (white rose) respectively. Eileen Chang's novella, "Red Rose, White Rose", suggests the two opposite ideals of women; the first, represented by white, is purity and the second, represented by red, is passion. Did you especially choose to assign Mandarin the red, and Cantonese the white?

Why was Mandarin "Red Rose" and Cantonese "White"? Well, part of it had to do with the sound. If I was going to start the sentence with the color "Red", like the way I wrote the Mandarin Chinese, "Red, the scarlet beauty mark over your heart/Red, a streak of mosquito blood, commonplace" I wouldn't be able to pull it off in Cantonese. The Cantonese for "red" at the beginning of these lines has a pronunciation that doesn't go with the melody.

Actually, I didn't think about the women in the novella when I wrote these songs. It's more important to consider the interaction between the lyrics and the melody, how a line and its sound function together as a pair, whether the collocations sound good or not.

The exact words from the Eileen Chang novella are: "Maybe every man has had two such women—at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she'll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is 'moonlight in front of my bed'. Marry a white rose, and before long she'll be a grain of sticky rice that's gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark over your heart." (translated by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Lending these lines my own interpretation, I cast the problem as obsession while writing "White Rose" but made it disenchantment when writing "Red Rose". If you got what you wanted, you'd tire of it sooner or later; on the other hand, it's what you are not able to get that draws you into obsession. Seen this way, "Red Rose" and "White Rose" are really two sides of love's coin. Both these songs were written over the same melody and recorded the same way. If you switched on the radio to the opening accompaniment, you wouldn't know which song you were going to get—I think that's adds a neat layer of meaning as well.

Now tell us about the process of writing lyrics. Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?

Usually, the job of writing lyrics is really "filling in words". The melody is composed and given to you like a crossword puzzle to work on. It's much rarer for the lyrics to be written first and the melody later.

How do you start?

In my experience, inspiration can come in various forms: it can be a sentence, a single word, or simply an image. Sometimes the song just grows as you write it.

In Karen Mok's "Single Room, Double Bed" I initially gave it the title "Single Room". After finishing the first verse, I realized that I had to introduce a contrast in order to continue, so I went over the song again and changed it to what you hear here:

Maybe your love is a double bed
Anyone can wander with you
Your gaze fixed on some place far
Your stubbornness a wall, your heart locked

Maybe your heart is a single room
When there's more than one person, you get nervous
I'd like to see the original you
Shed of disguise

Maybe your heart is a single room
But your desire is a double bed
I'd like to see the true you
Minus the scars

A lot of times, when I'm writing I'm not clear about what I'm writing exactly. For example, at this point in the song, the writing suddenly turns inward—the chorus proceeds to describe the loneliness of the lover:

Don't say you still feel it
We both know we must be true to instinct
Because of a lack, we've not been able to say no
But now we won't compromise anymore
Don't say you still feel it
We both know that embrace may not mean intimacy
Maybe it's our fear of rejection that makes us indirect
Why not wait for another occasion
When we are both knitting our brows, each experiencing different things

When we are both knitting our brows, each encased in a different solitude

I know that in your career you have worked with a lot of other artistes as well, but I can't help but be curious about how it's like working with Karen Mok. She writes the melodies by herself, and you provide the lyrics? Does she also tell you what to write?

In the beginning Karen didn't write a lot of her own songs; the recording company would find people to do it. She only started from the album L!VE IS...Karen Mok onwards. She came up with the concept for the album—i.e. to write on the theme of the live performance, and on a different aspect for each of the songs. For example, in one of the first songs, the switched-off cell phone—because the performance is about to start—comes to stand for the beginning of another kind of drama: a souring of a relationship. The last song, "Encore," is a slow number, reminiscing on past relationships, describing the feeling of wanting more...

Because none of the melodies written for the project passed muster, Karen decided to write the songs herself. As for the content(some of which I just mentioned), they only materialized in the process of writing the lyrics.

I remember that the first song I wrote for that album was "Matinees, Evening Shows", the last "DIVA". When she showed me the melody she had composed for "DIVA", she said she would like me to include references from traditional literature. I thought about it and suggested that we might turn to traditional opera instead. Traditional opera, because it incorporates spoken lines with singing and acting, would not only fit well with L!VE's concept, but also align better with her persona. She agreed.

I imagine L!VE IS...Karen Mok to be an exceptional case. How about when you are asked to fill in the lyrics for other songs? Do you get to write about whatever?

Not always. Remember that the lyrics are not completed independently. The concept of an author for lyrics is different from that of an author of other kinds of texts. You'd have to work with the melody that has already been written for you, that already predetermines the mood of the lyrics that you have to write. You can't very well shove happy lyrics into very sad melodies; even if you were to pull it off, the singer probably wouldn't be able to bring the contradictory feelings together. Also, because the lyrics ultimately have to be heard, they shouldn't be written in such a way that makes one wonder which word is being used, unless the ambiguity is intended.

Secondly, as commercial lyricists, we are often asked to write love songs, and often very sad love songs. Perhaps everyone thinks that the universal songs are the sad ones. You are sometimes told to write freely, but if you don't come up with a love song anyway, in nine out of ten cases you will be told to do a total rewrite and it will be because the song is too deep—nobody will get it.

Of course there is nothing wrong with love songs. I remember Nick Cave gave a talk once called "The Secret Life of the Love Song" in which he said that everything he's written is a love song. He singled out Kylie Minogue's "Better The Devil You Know" and said that "the disguising of the terror of Love in a piece of mindless, innocuous pop music is an intriguing concept; it shows how even the most innocuous of love songs has the potential to hide terrible human truths". On the surface harmless, the love songs that we don't especially suspect may yet be in a more advantageous position to subvert our minds. I tend to think that love can be a very good sugar-coated metaphor; a lot of discursively rich songs are on the surface love songs. Although the same as other love songs, these songs might also discourse about man's relationship to society, his struggle with his own human nature, or it may even be about political struggle. In short, love songs may not always have to center on themes like love and hate.

What happens after you've written the lyrics? Do they always get accepted?

It usually goes through some number of changes before the singer hits the recording studio. It's even possible that a complete rewrite has to be done. Apart from the singer, the composer, and the producer, there are many others who have a say in the matter. Sometimes it's because the melody has to be altered, sometimes the singer may feel that the words aren't good for singing, other times, the content needs to be better aligned with some campaign... these have all happened before.

Sometimes the lyrics are left untouched but the title is changed; we'd only know when the song is about to be released.

To a degree, writing commercial lyrics is different from other kinds of writing. You don't have as much control over the outcome, and you need to compromise a lot.

How did you get assigned to write the World Cup song?

I'm not really sure, I think they must have noticed my body of work.

Tell us about the problems you faced when writing the World Cup song.

I was told to write something that cheerleaders could use to do a rah-rah with, easy to sing; the English was just for reference, I needn't stick to the original.

But there were resonances nonetheless?

Yes, and the reason for this was because in the chorus we'd go back to the original English, so there was that constraint. I did try my hand at writing a completely different set of lyrics, the problem was I couldn't join it back to the English logically, so I finally chose to stick close to the English, in imagery if not in meaning.

The first verse of the Chinese bears the most resemblance to the English. Though there are several correlations in meaning between the English and the Chinese I think it's written rather naturally, without any trace of it being a translation. On the other hand, it's not completely the same either.

One of the lines that I took the most liberties with but which I'm nonetheless satisfied with is the "translation" of "I am like a flag in the centre of open space./ I sense ahead the wind which is coming, and must live it through." In the Chinese, it became 旗像風翅膀/你給我力量 (qi xiang feng chi pang/ni gei wo li liang)[The flag is like wind's wing, You give me strength], the connotation being that the flags waved by the spectators are wings—which the players need to soar on. I thought it quite apropos for a cheerleading song.

In the melody there were places where complete sentences could be written into the 4-syllable slots, and this was both good and bad. What's good was that forced into this structure sentences could be succinctly presented, approximating the style of classical verse. What's bad: written all this way, it becomes too suffused with a classical air. That's why I broke up the structure in some places, writing it as 2-2-4 for a few sentences as opposed to the 4-4 of the majority.

Every language has a different set of sounds that can lend itself differently to meaning depending on the contingency. For example, a Maxime LeForestier song uses the French "eu" rhyme to convey an atmosphere of painful regret. In one Jay Chou song, 龙卷风 [Cyclone Wind], the sounds of 不知不觉 (bu1 zhi1 bu1 jue2) and 后知后觉(hou4 zhi1 hou4 jue2) are simulations of puffing that feels very suitable to the subject matter of the song. In your song writing, do you remember when you've taken advantage of the way something in Mandarin or Cantonese sounded?

I once wrote a song for Jeff Chang called "White Moonlight"; I remember that after the recording was completed, I switched off all the lights in my house to listen to it for the first time, while the full moon shone through the window. The places in the song which rhymed with the "ang" sound(月光 yue4 liang4 地方 di4 fang1 亮 liang4 冰涼 bing1 liang2) really seemed to glow in the darkness.

The song that I just wrote for Karen Mok is predicated on a play on sounds—with quite interesting consequences. The demo of the melody she had written was titled, "Emily," and when Karen showed it to me she said she hoped that the name of the song would be an actual name of a person. Now, transliterated into Chinese, Emily could be written in three different ways: 艾美麗, 艾蜜麗 or 愛美麗 (all ai4 mei3 li4). I went for the first one initially, but I discovered that the third had the advantage of being a phrase as well: "in love with beauty". I felt that there was something in there. If you glossed over the actual tone of the following, 愛美麗 might further sound like 曖昧裡 (ai4 mei4 li3)[in an ambiguously unrequited relationship] or 愛魅力 (ai4 mei4 li4) (in love with charm), which are all phrases, so I wrote the following: "Emily 曖昧裡 (in an unrequited relationship)/the love of your imagination did not get claimed after all/ Emily oh 愛美麗 (in love with beauty)/but if it's too beautiful, you'd also not believe it." In addition, the French version of Emily is Amelie(like in the movie), so I wrote "Emily when love begins/you always think you'll get a better ending than before/Amelie 愛魅力(in love with charm)/a heart that's easily excited may not be so easy to track..."

The sounds "ai mei li" repeat over and over in this song, sometimes as the names of different people, sometimes as the sounds of different phrases...rather interestingly, I think. And all these differently written but almost synonymous names—don't they portend that our lives, "acted under different names,/constitute nonetheless the same story;/even if I don't know you, we are the same?"

Translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong

Click here to hear the 2010 World Cup song (in Mandarin).

Click here for the official website of Francis Li Zhuoxiong.

Click here for the English Wikipedia entry for Francis Li Zhuoxiong.

單人房雙人床 (Single Room, Double Bed) is used here by permission of Forward Music and COMPASS.