"China Girl" as written by and David/pop Bowie....
I could escape this feeling, with my China Girl
I feel a wreck without my, little China Girl
I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder
Saw they stars crashing
I'm a mess without my, little China Girl
Wake up mornings where's my, little China Girl
I hear her heart's beating, loud as thunder
Saw they stars crashing down
I feel a-tragic like I'm Marlon Brando
When I look at my China Girl
I could pretend that nothing really meant too much
When I look at my China Girl
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It's in the whites of my eyes
My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you men who want to rule the world
And when I get excited
My little China Girl says
Oh baby just you shut your mouth
She says ... sh-sh-shhh


Lyrics submitted by Boonechic_21, edited by mshbandar

"China Girl" as written by David/pop Bowie

Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

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China Girl song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentWhen I get a chance I'll take Dustin Moritz's suggestion to read "Open Up and Bleed: Iggy Pop" for the "official" version of this song's meaning. But songwriters and singers are notorious for revising the history of a given song in order to avoid any conflicts with a changed world-view, new political disposition, updated image, etc. So I'm not sure if the original meaning of this song's lyrics will truly come to light even if you've read what's written in the aforementioned book. In any case, here's my take on this song:

    First, we have to look at the context in which this song was created: It was co-written by Bowie and Iggy Pop during their mutual stint in Berlin. The important things to remember here are: Germany, Drugs, and the climate in a divided Berlin in the late 70's (when this song was actually written for Pop's album "The Idiot"). So...

    In a nutshell, the song is about addiction/dependence on narcotics - most likely heroin. When the majority of this song's lyrics are viewed through this lens, the song's meaning is quite easily understood. There are, however, two themes here. Drug Addiction is the first; and the "destructive potential of Westerners/White men" is the second. These two themes are linked by allusions to both how potentially destructive a person addicted to something can be (like Hitler addicted simultaneously to POWER and METHAMPHETAMINE), and paradoxically the power of narcotics to sooth the minds of men. "China Girl" is a fitting title/chorus three reasons: (1) The first large-scale exposure the West had to Opiates and those addicted to them was via China, where opium consumption took a huge toll on society towards the end of the 19th Century/start of the 20th Century; (2) Germany's role in exploiting/oppressing China during that same time-period, along with several other Western nations (look up the Boxer Rebellion if you don't know what I'm talking about); (3) The use of the name "China" in nicknames for narcotics, especially heroin (i.e. "China White").

    But what throws people off is the Nazi imagery and the lines immediately following, "You shouldn't mess with me", along with some other seemingly off-hand lyrics (ex. Marlon Brando and "stars crashing"). But it's really not all that difficult to understand if, as I suggest above, you're mindful of the context in which this song was created. Again, the song has two themes: addiction to a favorite narcotic AND the destructive potential of The WEST (and the imperialistic bent of The WEST), but here's the breakdown of the stuff that tends to confuse people:

    1) In the portion that starts with "I stumble into town..", Bowie (Pop) is personifying Westerners/White Men, so the "I" is really the singer speaking as "White Men". This is further illustrated by the later line "It's in the WHITES of my eyes". The Nazi imagery - natural enough for two guys living in Berlin only 30 years after WWII - is simply an allusion to the WORST in Western men: arrogance, imperialism, "might-makes-right" attitudes, belief in superiority over non-Westerners/non-White people, and an "ends justify the means" approach to making-over the world. The Nazis epitomized all of these negative traits, thus the Nazi imagery. Though it's also possible that Bowie and Pop had heard of Hitler's alleged addiction to methamphetamine, I think the main reason for the Nazi imagery is still the fact that the Nazis represented the very worst of Western civilization (and keep in mind that Bowie and Pop were under the influence of their Berlin environment). It's also possible that the lines beginning with "I stumble into town just like a sacred cow" have a double-meaning, and thus also refer to an idealistic and drug-influenced Bowie's (Pop's) own arrival in the divided, Cold War era atmosphere of Berlin in the mid - to late 70s. Even if the lines carry this meaning, I still suspect that the main function of the wording in this section is as a description of Western imperialistic character - the worst of The WEST. But Western imperialism precedes the Nazis by hundreds of years, and thus the "I stumble into town" line refers to the historically imperialistic tendencies of the WEST as a whole. It's a reference to the trend that began during the 15th century's "Age of Exploration": Europeans showing up on the shores of just about every other part of the world with grand schemes to colonize and "civilize" the "backwards" natives, usually with religion as the tip-of-the-spear (thus the "sacred cow" reference).

    2) After speaking as the "Westerner/White man" describing himself (the WEST) at his worst, Bowie (Pop) actually begins addressing the EAST (represented by "Little China Girl", a personification of narcotics from the EAST), and warning her about his own (the WEST's) destructive/imperialistic potential in the line "My little China Girl, you shouldn't mess with me...". He then continues the "Western Imperialism" theme in the lines that immediately follow, beginning with "I'll ruin everything you are". Here we can again see references to Hitler and the Nazis, and again we should see that the Nazis are being used as a device to illustrate the worst of The WEST - the destructive potential of Westerners/White men.

    3) The last lines of the song come back to the drug addiction theme: All of Bowie's (Pop's) crazy/destructive thoughts are calmed away through the use of the favorite narcotic, thus "And when I get excited, my little China Girl says 'Just you shut your mouth'... She says 'Shhhhhhh'...".

    4) The reference to Brando is not necessarily anything all that deep in meaning. It may simply be that Brando's expertise in portraying tragic characters makes his name a convenient metaphor for "feeling... tragic". Even if there is some greater significance to the Brando reference, I don't think it really changes the meaning of the lyrics of the song as a whole. The "stars crashing" line could very well be a reference to seeing famous people ruin their lives as a result of drug addiction. But whether that is the intended meaning or not, as with the Brando reference, I don't think the "stars crashing" line(s) changes the overall meaning of the song as I've already described it.

    Hope my take on the lyrics is at least food for thought, if not an accurate reading of what Bowie and Iggy Pop were actually doing. No matter how you slice it, this song is AMAZING!
    jrockabyeon October 11, 2007   Link
  • +3
    My InterpretationMostly this song seems to be about drugs, but there are a some things that point to imperialism also.

    Things that suggest drugs:
    - "China white" having been invented in 1976, close to 1977 (the first release of this song)
    - References to escape ("I could escape this feeling with my China Girl", "I could pretend that nothing really meant too much / When I look at my China Girl"), dependence ("I feel a wreck without my little China Girl", "I'm a mess without my little China Girl", "Wake up mornings, where's my little China Girl?"), and confusion ("I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder / Saw the stars crashing down", "I stumble into town", "Visions of swastikas in my head / Plans for everyone")
    - The last verse: "And when I get excited / My little China Girl says, / 'Oh baby, just you shut your mouth'/ She says, 'Shhh'" I'm not certain of this, having never taken heroin myself, but according to Wikipedia it causes feelings of relaxation or drowsiness (in addition to euphoria).

    Things that suggest imperialism
    - The fourth and fifth verses, especially the fifth. The lines: "I'll give you television / I'll give you eyes of blue / I'll give you a man who wants to rule the world" in particular suggest the effect of 'Westernization' on other cultures.
    treanton July 09, 2010   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI recommend "Tiny Girls" from Iggy Pop's "The Idiot". The whole album is a collaboration between bowie and pop. It's so good and full of energy that it makes you shit your pants. The saxo on "tiny girls" is played by the White Duke: marvellous. China Girl, featured in this album, sung by Pop, turned out to be more emotional than Bowie's Tonight Album though.
    diegotzkyon October 27, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentA nod to Koncord for his most excellent post - and a reminder that these lyrics were in fact written by Iggy Pop. Sorry.
    Ana Byrdon June 12, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI have to commend CJF on their great meaning. Must have taken you hours to think that one up.
    Childlighton July 30, 2007   Link
  • +1
    Song MeaningThis is an Iggy Pop song written in 1977 with David Bowie for his album "The Idiot", which Bowie plays on. Iggy Pop was using China White a lot back then and this song is about his addiction to it. Anyone who thinks this song is actually about a real woman has no idea what they are talking about.
    tt87on September 29, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's a reference to the doll like fragility of relationships, whether it's about his estranged wife or not is another matter - but Bowie has a history of writing about his own life and its influences. Bowie had such great hopes, destroyed by his own ambition, any number of times he did indeed like the Sacred Cow arrive to be slaughtered quite willingly. At one point he exhibited certain Nationalist beliefs and I think everybody remembers the "nazi" salute image that made him infamous (though in recent times he has merelu suggested it was the angle of the camera catching him at an inopportune time).

    "Man who wants to rule the world" - this is actually mentioned by another artist of the time "Ian Hunter" who wrote 'Boy' about a particular artist of the 70's. Some say it was Bowie, some say Bolan - but the simple fact Hunter refers to "genocidal tendancies" and similar obviously bare a lot of similarity to Bowies life more than Bolan. Is Bowie make an unacknowledged nod towards the former frontman of Mott The Hoople (for whom he'd written All The Young Dudes). Maybe.
    Koncordeon September 04, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI love Bowie's voice...it's so haunting..and the music is great!
    emoBettyrocketon April 16, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI've always gotten a hint of commentary on Western imperialism, especially the "give you television, give you eyes of blue" and "plans for everyone" lines. In fact, on tour, Bowie's been jokingly saying it's a new song, which is probably his way of taking a shot at the Bush "presidency."
    WolfTicketson June 20, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think it was co-written with Iggy Pop.
    Again, this is very likely a reference to drug addiction. China is a nickname for heroin - during the 1800s China was the main source for opium. If you re-read the lyrics with this in mind, the excitement, triumphalism and despair of addiction suddenly leap off the page at you.
    It's not about having a Chinese girfriend.
    oldflashyon January 01, 2005   Link

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