I checked out some CDs from the local library by travel-guide publisher Rough Guide, and the one of Chinese music is a lot of fun. I don't know how representative it is, or if it is even a "guide," but there are plenty of interesting things on it.
It starts off with a classic of Chinese rock, Cui Jian's "Nothing to my Name." As is mentioned in just about every news article on Chinese pop culture, this song was somewhat of a student anthem during the Tiananmen Square incident. It's not one of Cui Jian's more musically challenging pieces (later he did more sonic experimentation, with Sonic Youth-esque guitars, traditional instruments, and drum machines), but the lyrics are interesting given the context. It's a love song. Cui sings he's asked his lover to go off and be with him many times, but she just laughs at him because he has nothing. She comes around, the song speeds up, and he starts to song "You'll come with me right now." Apparently students back in 1989 thought of it not as "nothing to my name" but "nothing to our names," and interpreted it as an expression of idealism.
The disc moves on to some Mongolian folk and a nice qin piece. Then there's some old 1930s pop, which I am a big fan of. It's not my favorite, Ge Lan, but rather Bai Hong. I discovered these old singers while in Taiwan--the CDs are so cheap I picked up a bunch. My Taiwanese friends always think I am nuts for having those, but then they listen to them and end up buying some themselves.
The disc has some other varieties of traditional music, the folk-pop song "My 1997" by Ai Jing, and a Cantonese Opera piece that is also on the In the Mood for Love soundtrack. Another standout for me is "Yellow Banana" by Hang on the Box, a female punk band from Beijing. It's a bouncy, catchy pop-punk tune with nonsense English lyrics that gets extra points from me for the line "Hey, you, cooking breakfrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst!" Like Cui Jian, the Beijing punk thing got overexposed (stories in magazines like Time saying "Hey, China's got rock&roll--they're breaking through the repression!"), but I like this tune.
There's also a minimalist electronic thing by a Japanese-Chinese guy named Kin Taii, which features an erhu and a Speak&Spell voice reading some classical-sounding phrases (from the Liezi?). It comes just a little too close to New Age for my taste, but it's an interesting idea. I wonder if it's not just dated--I'd be curious to hear newer stuff by him. According to the liner notes, he was influenced by YMO, whose songs like "Sleepwalking" and "1000 Knives" more successfully blended Kraftwerk-y technopop and Asian sensibilities.
It's not an easy task, boiling down a nation's sonic heritage to one CD's worth of music. I am not even sure that's what the goal was here, but the compilers have succeeded in putting together a highly listenable hodgepodge worth checking out.