Written by Matt Taylor.
Televised singing competitions enjoy enormous popularity in China. With over 30% of broadcast television involving competitive performing and viewership regularly exceeding 400 million, they not only keep China entertained on a daily basis, but Mandarin-speaking communities globally. So popular are these shows that President Xi Jinping proclaimed they should be broadcast to as wide an audience as possible, in part because they have the potential to embody a single unified China, with the PRC being the representative at its core. As a result, many correlate these shows as a method of China projecting its soft power.
Similarly, it is not an uncommon viewpoint that Taiwan’s treasured position as the pop music superpower of the Chinese speaking world is under acute threat from the Mainland as a result of these televised singing competitions. Where for decades Taiwanese pop music defined and curated the tastes of Chinese speaking communities, many now doubt the impact Taiwanese music has on Chinese society, if any at all.
However, Taiwan is capable of subverting China’s soft power to enhance its visibility directly through Chinese televised singing competitions. Its position in pop culture is so ingrained as contemporary Chinese culture that these cultural products permeate into China’s soft power, thereby Taiwanizing Chinese pop culture.
The first way we see this subversion is through songs performed. In Season One of Sing! China (中國新歌聲), a show originally named The Voice of China（中國好聲音), Taiwanese songs comprise over half of all songs performed (53%), with China lagging at 28%. If we remove the non-Mandarin language songs, then Taiwanese cultural products represent 66% of performances, and China just 34%. This is not an anomaly. In Season 3 of The Voice of China (2014), 54% of songs performed were of Taiwanese origin (and 51% in the 2016 season). In the show Hidden Singer (蒙面歌王), again statistically Taiwanese songs are by far the most popular choices: In fact during the entirety of its season one run, not one Chinese song was performed.
The sheer prevalence of Taiwan pop evidences its rich musical legacy and has assured it an insurmountable reputation in the minds of the Chinese as the cultural product that accompanied their personal and national development. Furthermore, The level of popularity these shows enjoy is the largest proliferation of Chinese pop culture in history, and what we inadvertently see is the promotion of Chinese pop culture which is inherently Taiwanese, bolstering Taiwanese soft power, values, and visibility through their central role in contemporary entertainment.
The influence they can have on younger generations is particularly important. Those between the ages of 15-34 are the biggest consumers of these shows. Within this age range, research has shown that those of school age are more inclined to seek out pop music developed domestically as opposed to Taiwan. With Taiwanese music taking such a prominence in the main form of televised entertainment the youth consume, it cements Taiwan’s legacy and its reputation as a pop music superpower in the minds of younger Chinese generations who are less exposed to Taiwan’s rich legacy, potentially psychologically elevating and differentiating Taiwan.
It’s not just the song choices where China is heavily reliant on Taiwanese popularity, but also in the selection of the judges themselves. If we take The Voice of China (中國好聲音) /Sing! China (中國新歌聲), Taiwanese artists have always represented at least 50%, and for the majority of it’s running, has been 75%. Alongside this, the judges would invite celebrity coaches to train their amateurs. In season 1, Taiwanese represented 25% of these, 75% in seasons 2 & 3, and 50% in season 4.
Additionally, the international appeal of Taiwanese singers makes them a vital component to exporting the shows to other Chinese speaking markets in Asia. In the case of The Voice of China, A-Mei and Harlem Yu were considered one of the key drivers of success in non-Chinese markets, and upon his arrival as judge Jay Chou was so popular that it brought criticism that the sheer size of his star eclipsed the television show itself. The overt representation of Taiwanese celebrities has even caused some to feel that even though the show is from China, they are actually enjoying Taiwanese entertainment, and again provides an opportunity to further the careers and popularity of Taiwanese artists in China.
Taiwanese cultural products are an integral component to Chinese success. Clearly, Taiwanese music attracts viewers, and the more viewers that a show is able to attract, the great amount of money it can make through advertisement and sponsorship. Therefore, a reliance on Taiwanese cultural products results in profit. The fact that the age of the songs ranges from the beginning of Gangtai to the modern day implies there is no particular period of prevalence. If each episode of The Voice of China earns on average, 1.5 billion yuan, then the Taiwanese music plays the central role in their earning potential.
Music is only one component of these shows success, with their sheer spectacle also a huge draw. However again we can view it through the eyes of Taiwanization. One Million Star (超級星光大道), a television singing competition in Taiwan broadcast on China Television (CTV). It began airing in 2007, and in 2011, the same production team launched a programme based on the similar format with a new name Chinese Million Star (華人星光大道) and ended in 2013. The production revolutionized Sinosphere reality TV as it was the first to place importance on the amateur-professional development relationship, and utilized intimate moments alongside drama to increase viewership. The show provided a platform for many Mandopop artists to launch their music careers. These artists include Yoga Lin (林宥嘉), Lala Hsu (徐佳瑩), Aska Yang (楊宗緯) and Jam Hsiao (蕭敬騰). The huge success that Chinese reality competitions enjoy is primarily based on this model, which means we can correlate even the format of Chinese soft power to Taiwanese innovation.
The rich musical legacy of Taiwan and its influence on contemporary China is nowhere more apparent than in China’s televised singing competitions, which would have nowhere near the accessibility or influence were it not for Taiwanese pop music and the stars borne from it. Taiwan has been able to utilise them to cement itself as the central figure in Mandarin pop music to new generations, and in turn, ensure that China’s most visible form of soft power is inherently Taiwanese in all perspectives.
Matt Taylor is a graduate of MA Taiwan Studies from SOAS, University of London. He currently works within the Ministry of Culture at the Taipei Representative Office in the UK. Matt is also a contributor for Asian Pop Weekly – a website dedicated to analysis and understanding of Mandarin pop music. Image credit: CC by PxHere.