Speaking on Behalf of the State: The Women on the Radio and behind the Loudspeakers during the Cold War

Written by Isabelle Cheng.

Image credit: Mashan Broadcasting Station in Kinmen by Isabelle Cheng.

Women have a complicated relationship with the wars waged by the nation-state. Women are the reproducers and boundary ma(r)kers of the nation, so women, notably when they embody the nation’s image, are said to be protected by the state as a reason for going to war. They are also projected as the victims of war when the state loses to its enemy, mainly when the enemy uses rape as a weapon to weaken national morale. On the battlefield, women are used as fighters, porters, carers, entertainers or sex slaves to enhance war fighting capacity physically or mentally. During the two world wars, in the state’s propaganda, women were encouraged to ‘give away’ their husbands and sons to the state or were recruited to fill the vacancies left by men to work in the manufacturing, agricultural or transport sectors. Their homemaking and thrifty cooking were characterised as contributing to war efforts. Regardless of which of these roles they play, they are instrumentalised by the state. It mobilises or monopolises their physical, caring, emotional or sexual labour for the war effort. As manifested by their performance inside or outside of the home, the bifurcation between masculinity and femininity is reinforced.

Women’s voices, expressing a specific kind of emotion as legitimised by the state, are also mobilised as political resources. This is captured by Madam Chiang Song Mei-ling’s speech aired in New York on 8 January 1950: ‘I hope that wherever my voice carries, to whatever corner of the free world, I can help awaken liberty-loving peoples to the realisation that China [i.e., the Republic of China], abandoned and alone, now shoulder the only rifle in the defence of liberty’ (emphasis added). Thus, Song joined the ranks of women radio hosts who serve on the psychological war front. Along with Song, Hasegawa Teruko (working for the Kuomintang. KMT, government during the Second Sino-Japanese War), Mildred Elizabeth Gillars, Rita Zucca and Trịnh Thị Ngọ were the voices that carried the ideologies of their regimes during WWII and the Cold War to wherever the airwaves reached.

When women’s voices, speaking on behalf of the masculine state, are transmitted by the radio or loudspeakers, the bifurcation between masculinity and femininity as reified by the state seems to dissolve. Co-opted by the masculine state and enacting the state’s sovereignty, their voices, whether comforting or aggressive, circulate information, disseminate disinformation and entice defection amongst the enemy. Their voice also contributes to the indoctrination of their fellow citizens. Their voices and the political messages they carry, together with the political-ideological boundary and the people behind the boundary, construct a geographical space that is transgressed by the intangible and mobile sound and demarcated by antagonistic ideologies. This acoustic space is a ‘soundscape’ underlain by animosity and the orchestration between masculinity and femininity.

Riding on the mobile airwave and aiming to overcome political fixity, this soundscape is most evident in the psychological warfare waged between ‘Free China’ (the Republic of China, ROC) and ‘Red China’ (the People’s Republic of China). From Kinmen, Dadan, and Matzu, the ROC military’s transmission of women’s voices on the radio or via loudspeakers was as highly classified as other military exercises, such as firing off propaganda bombs, releasing high altitude balloons and sending out water-proof containers from the shores of Kinmen and Matzu. In entirety, these operations distributed propaganda materials, including women’s voices and perishable substances, to reach as near as the coast of China or as far as its hinterland. Among the materials delivered by these border-crossing operations, women’s voices are the only invisible and intangible human and personal element, critically sustaining the ideological rivalry, political antagonism, and military confrontation between the two warring parties.

Needless to say, a soundscape of the same nature was also built by China for competing in this invisible acoustic space for supremacy. Across the Taiwan Strait, the soundscape built by either side was intended to penetrate and reach the people on the opposite side. However, the people within reach of the airwaves were not all captured as listeners. When radio ownership was banned, when the weather disrupted the reception, or when the broadcast was consistently obstructed by either side, the intended listeners became ‘un-listeners’ whose inclusion into this soundscape was at the mercy of natural and political forces, regardless of their own will.

Therefore, whether the women’s voices could reach not only the ears of the intended listeners but also their hearts and minds is the ultimate challenge of this geo-ideological soundscape. Whilst it seems that little research has been conducted to ascertain its effectiveness, anecdotes abound. One of these somewhat nostalgic memories I collected during fieldwork was from a Chinese tourist who visited the National Radio Museum in Minhsiung in 2019. Reading illustrations in the museum hall about how radio was used to wage a ‘smokeless’ war during the Cold War, this middle-aged man reminisced about his puzzlement during his adolescent years caused by listening to a radio programme aired from Taiwan entitled ‘the Era of Three People’s Principles’ (三民主義的時代) which prophesied the fall of communism. On the other hand, despite the harsh punishment imposed by the authoritarian KMT government of Taiwan, for some Mainlanders, listening to radio programmes clandestinely aired from China seemed to soothe the aching pain of longing for home. Their children also seemed to be enticed to seek a connection with that remote land as close as human voices in their ears when they hid in the bed and turned their radio on in the deep dark night.

Whilst it is little studied how the people within the soundscape responded to these acoustic and human simulations, it is also largely unknown to whom these voices belonged. An exception is Theresa Teng (鄧麗君). Today, at Mashan Broadcasting Station, Teng’s life-sized cardboard cut-out sits in the studio where her broadcast to China is played regularly. Like every other woman who sat in the same studio before and after her, she narrated a script that propagated the righteousness of the KMT regime, praised the democracy and prosperity achieved in Taiwan, and denounced the Chinese Communist Party. She served her nation when her voice built that geo-ideological soundscape. Today, as a highlight of tourism to Kinmen, her voice is now confined in this hollow, meandering through the dark, humid and claustrophobic underground bunker.

Teng aside, military women were assigned to speak behind the microphone, as well as civilian women recruited from Taiwan and locally in Kinmen. Scant information about these radio hosts and loudspeaker announcers can be found amongst published life stories of the officers of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) (女青年工作大隊) and a small number of interviews with officers who graduated from the Academy of Political Warfare (APW) (政治作戰學校). ‘Earnestness, duty, honesty, and grace’ (熱忱, 負責, 誠實,端莊) is their motto; recovering the lost territory of the mainland is the last verse of their unit anthem. In military parades, the handsome WAC officers in their figure-fitting blue blazer and white skirt seemed to embody the value and significance of grace. In interviews, civilian women broadcasters reminisced about how the image of these uniformed officers assured them of the dignity of taking a job in the military amongst rank-and-file soldiers and their commanding officers. If the feminine quality of their voices was co-opted to serve the masculine interests of the state, then little is known about how grace as a value was ‘operationalised’ when WAC and APW officers, as well as civilian employees, worked in shifts behind the male-dominated, regimented and fortified barracks.

With the invisible border-crossing technology advancing in cyberspace, the transmitting of women’s voices on the radio or loudspeakers to construct a geo-ideological soundscape seems to decline. These once highly guarded facilities are now decommissioned. Some of them are open to the public for tourism, and others are left to decay. Whilst these physical spaces may have been ‘demystified,’ we are in a race against time to hear from the owners of the voices, the women now in their sixties and older, about how they perceived their relationship with the masculine state, how they worked with their male superiors or subordinates, and how they understand their role in this soundscape. It is also necessary to preserve the scripts they narrated and to digitalise the recording of their voices as an intangible cultural heritage that can help us understand the material side of the construction of this geo-ideological soundscape. Making these efforts will contribute to piecing together the human and cultural face of the lingering legacy of the Cold War.

Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research interests are marriage and labour migration in East Asia.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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