Taiwanese Popular Music as World History

Written by Eva Tsai.

Image credit: Routledge

I have never taught a class on popular music. Yet because I had just spent two years editing and working with the writers of the book Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music (Routledge 2020), I felt courageous enough to incorporate several examples of Taiwanese popular music into a recent undergraduate class. The class, taught in English, was meant to spotlight popular culture from a regional, inter-Asian perspective. Degree-seeking or on exchange, more than half of my 50 some students have transnational and multicultural backgrounds (Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, France, Spain, Netherlands, United States, etc.). They had discrepant contact with various Asian popular cultures. During one class, I played “The March of Chrysanthemum,” a song written by the Hakka activist band Labor Exchange Band in the wake of Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organization nearly 20 years ago. I asked the students whether Hakka popular music is a kind of Taiwanese popular music—a provocative question meant more to elicit thoughts on what is “popular” about “popular music.”

Sure, I had an agenda: First, I wanted to create at the time—with popular culture details—a sense of the social and cultural space. Second, I wanted to suggest that any entry point is a good entry point into Taiwanese popular music, so long as it is put into a historical and geopolitical context, along with developing a curiosity and mindfulness about what else was going on when it was made and circulated.

Such was the spirit we carried into Made in Taiwan: Taiwanese popular music as world history. Below I will provide a quick mapping of about 120 years of Taiwanese popular music in four parts.

Under Japanese Colonization: The Formation of Recording Culture

While Taiwan had experienced at least three decades of open-port trading under the Qing dynasty of China, the formation of recording culture under Japanese colonisation (1895-1945) set the modern conditions for the production, distribution, and consideration of “Taiwan music.” To compete with Western imperial powers, Japan developed Taiwan’s infrastructure, industry, and education system. Motivated by profit-seeking, colonial administrative purposes, and restructuring of the Japanese economy in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan invested in the recording of local sounds and songs. Gramophones and records were taxed heavily as luxury goods, prompting domestic labels to enter merger and co-investment deals with international companies from the West.

In 1930s colonial Taiwan, Columbia, Victor, and about ten other companies with varied Japanese and western investment competed in the making of pop songs. Derived from ryūkōka, a contemporary invention from the Japanese music industry, pop songs (流行歌liuxingge) were short (3-7 minute), fashionable songs aimed at mass circulation. Sung in classical Chinese or Taiyu, these songs expressed prevailing social sentiments. The music style revealed familiarity with traditional Han music, aboriginal tunes, Japanese ryūkōka, jazz, even religious hymns. By 1937, Taiyu and Japanese-language records each had about 40 per cent market share, with Taiwanese records selling the best, followed by imported Chinese records and Japanese records.

The Cold War: Toward Disjunctive Cultural Trajectories

Following the end of War World II, the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) took over Taiwan and continued its rivalry with the Chinese Communist Party, forging East Asia’s Cold War alignment. The sudden presence of a mainland Chinese minority (as rulers) had a lasting impact on Taiwan’s social and cultural structure. Moreover, the geopolitical relationships between Chinese, Anglo-American, and Japanese cultures complicated the struggles of both the hegemonic and subordinate cultures in Taiwan. In the 1950s, Mandarin popular music, which used to have its base in Shanghai, split into multiple routes and centres following the migration choices of musicians. Mandarin music could not be too dark (depressing), yellow (lewd), or red (Communist). The repressive cultural conditions and political dependency on the United States allowed American entertainment and pop-chart music to energise youth culture and the local music scene.

Despite its popular appeal under Japanese colonization, Taiyu popular music was pushed down the cultural hierarchy, as the KMT began restricting the use of non-Mandarin languages in public. Taiyu ballads saw active production and consumption between 1957 and 1967. However, Taiyu popular music was denied its modernity and originality in the cultural discourses of the subsequent decades due to its persisting affinity with Japanese culture. Meanwhile, indigenous music underwent multiple reinventions in multiple power asymmetries, be it in the form of profitable “mountain songs” or the ethnic-flavoured songs circulated by KMT’s Youth Corps.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, young people pursued the writing and singing of their own songs (in Mandarin) in what became known as the campus folk-song movement. It was animated by Anglo-American folk-rock music and the crisis of Taiwan’s exclusion from the international community. Though there were diverse stances on the meaning of “folk song,” many singers transitioned into the profitable Mandarin pop music industry of the 1980s.

The 1980s and 1990s: The Modern Music Business and Alternative Scenes

Popular music in Taiwan took on a distinctively capitalistic character in the 1980s, a period that witnessed political democratisation, the rise of consumer society, and inflow of transnational capital. The dominant type of popular music—Mandarin pop—evolved in fierce competition among market-oriented record companies. Multinational corporations from the West, like Sony and EMI, entered the expanding Mandarin pop market through joint ventures, direct investment, and consolidation. Local giant Rock Records also initiated its own regionalisation by setting up subsidiaries and collaborating with indie record companies in East and Southeast Asia. The constant search for Taiwanese-American singers, incorporation of Hong Kong, Singaporean, and Malaysian Chinese artists, along with the production of Mandarin covers of Korean pop hits, were just some of the internationalising attempts made by different industry players.

In the alternative label and indie scenes, artists and entrepreneurs pursued the musical mediation of critical social issues like censorship, sexual repression, and state violence. Musicians from Hakka, indigenous, and working-class backgrounds collaborated to articulate collective experiences of displacement. They mobilised and developed socially relevant sound sources—from folk ballads and dialectal speaking-singing to pop music and ambient recording clips—to create non-exclusive identity expressions. For example, the Labor Exchange Band, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was organised around ethnic, regional, and environmental causes.

In the late 1990s, emerging technologies like Internet BBS forums and file sharing, and new cultural spaces like indie venues and music festivals, expedited the exchange of music and information. All stakeholders were scrambling to survive in the face of industry fragmentation and new consumption patterns.

After the Millennium: Intersectional Politics and Rising China

The withdrawal of western global capital and the rise of Chinese capital have led Taiwan to slowly yield its provisionary status as the centre of Mandarin popular music. In the first decade of the 2000s, the energy of Taiwanese popular music could be felt more acutely in clubs, concert tours and music festivals. By the 2010s, Taiwan seemed to have cultivated vibrant networks that supported every kind of local and global music community. Is this how Taiwanese popular music participates in “world history”—by having the same varieties of global music from elsewhere? Certainly not. Even if it was a “standard” global genre—rap, punk, or what have you— its trajectories intersected with the particular cultural politics of Taiwan, and although the international politics of Taiwan and China remain relevant to the authentication of Taiwanese popular music, it is not the only, or even the most relevant, context.

The 15 chapters in Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music are full of the complex struggles and sentiments that underpin Taiwanese popular music.

Eva Tsai teaches at the Graduate Institute of Mass Communication, National Taiwan Normal University. This article is adapted from the Introduction chapter of Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music, a book she co-edited with Tunghung Ho and Miaoju Jian. This article is part of the special issue on Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music. 

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