Michael Jackson Matters to China

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about Michael Jackson’s passing, but when it came up again and again and again in my conversations with Chinese friends, I was forced to acknowledge something: although the average American pop star goes largely unknown in China, Michael Jackson really mattered to China. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the reaction which his death provoked — the text messages, the email tribute forwards, the many conversations. What made this pop star so important in China’s eyes?

Michael Jackson (迈克尔杰克逊) rose to stardom as a solo artist around the same time post-Mao China was starting to get re-acquainted with the world outside. He was a singer that young and old alike (both then and now) knew, across China. You’d be hard-pressed to find a foreign star of that magnitude now.

It’s never easy to predict how one country’s stars will fair in foreign markets (David Hasselhoff in Germany?), and the Chinese market can be tricky. Something about Michael Jackson, though, hit all the right notes in China. I do wonder what, exactly, it was.

See also: Chinese newspapers mourn the death of Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson Is Dead, Chinese Netizen Reactions


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Yep. I also saw ads on Youku talking about it the day that happened. (Or the day after.)

  2. jdmartinsen Says: June 28, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    I thought this was a fairly interesting read – it’s a short account by Zang Yanbin (of Shanghai A/V at the time, and later with Rock Records China) of how “Dangerous” first arrived in China.

  3. Joel,

    Thanks for the link. Interesting.

    “China Hush” sure looks familiar… Has another blog network been created?

  4. 虽然我不是他的fan,但是从小我就知道Michael Jackson在中国人眼里,他是美国一代流行天王!

  5. Hi John, I juat want to tell you that you mistook Michael’s Chinese name. It’s 迈克尔杰克逊. The last character is 逊(xùn) not 孙(sūn).

  6. WEiSHUN,

    Thanks! Fixed.

  7. did u just refer to Michael Jackson as an “average American pop star ” ? I believe King of Pop would be a better choice of words

  8. Yeah, MJ was huge here even though he never got to tour the mainland. There are endless shows on TV in Shanghai these days analyzing his impact and his career. They’re similar to the same type of programs back in North America, where you plead with the TV just to show the videos. Still, they might be interesting for the Chinese take on the man.

  9. Good point about the timing. MJ’s first album with Quincy Jones (Off the Wall) came out just a year after Reform and Opening Up (1978), so presumably it was some of the first Western pop music to make its way to the Middle Kingdom. Interestingly enough, for many of my Chinese friends (mostly in their mid-twenties), the only Michael Jackson song they’ve ever heard is “Heal the World.” At this point, I think his media schenanigans have superseded the music itself…even in China.

  10. I figured he was more popular there than here. I mean, there have been so many references in variety shows, so many MandoPop stars have been influenced by him or covered his songs (sometimes in funny ways), and I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where someone’s performed a Michael Jackson dance in a cow costume. These references are surely aimed towards a younger audience, or else there would be no boy bands involved. I doubt many American youths knew who he was, since “Beat It” was only ever popular in our time as a remake.

  11. pandora Says: July 28, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    i watched the first MJ’s MTV when i was in my middle school, it was cool. During that time, many young people try to imitate his dance.his dance is unique, a lot of singers and dancers today still imitate him. Though his private life was complicated, his dance was excellent.

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