The Fear Factor: [Chinese] Censorship on Taiwanese Popular Music

Written by Chen-Yu Lin, Yun-Siou Chen and Yan-Shouh Chen.

Image credit: China Censorship by Mike MacKenzie/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Music is a powerful symbolic good, and it is not uncommon that this symbolic good can be shipped into opposing – or different – ideological systems, influencing other societies. However, sometimes musicians fear the consequences of singing or expressing what they want. As South African musician John Clegg once said, “censorship is based on fear”. Regardless of forms, music censorship requires an agent capable of negatively affecting a musician, whether that means imprisonment, loss of income or receiving negative comments online.

Taiwan’s music, especially Mandopop, has been influential among audiences in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after the exponential growth of Taiwan’s music industry during the 1970s and 1980s. Music from Taiwan and Hong Kong – sometimes called Gangtai pop– is scrutinised more thoroughly in the PRC than domestic products because it is considered “foreign” and must be licensed. Teresa Teng (1953–1995) was the singer who best exemplified such impact. As a musician who was an advocate of the Republic of China (ROC) government born and raised in Taiwan, her music was banned by the PRC government. However, the underground distribution of her music in the PRC was widespread.

Political or cultural identities are fragmented, but some pop cultures are shared. Chua’s concept of Pop Culture China provides a framework that indicates that pop culture products are circulated in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. At the same time, this exchange flow is not based on a shared socio-political culture, to begin with, but rather is influenced by a profitable market. This is growing to be even more evident, after China’s economic growth, at the beginning of the 21st century.

In the face of globalisation, democratisation in Taiwan, and the PRC market’s profitability, mainstream Taiwanese popular music has its own restraints. Such restraints originate with the music industry, which is intended to reach the masses. Taiwan’s popular music export to the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, especially the PRC, could lead to music censorship cases due to market-related priorities, which eventually impacts music production. The PRC government, non-governmental institutions— such as record companies—Chinese publishers and the media, have all contributed to the mechanism of music censorship.

To systematically examine censorship practices and their outcomes, this “fear” must be probed. Therefore, supported by existing cases, the following section discusses three forms of censorship of Taiwan’s popular music concerning the PRC market.

(1) Direct bans on performances, sales, or radio broadcasts

In 2000, A-Mei Chang sang the national anthem at the inauguration of President Chen Shuibian, the first ROC president drawn from the DDP. Subsequently, she was banned from performing and selling records in China.

(2) Same album, different versions

In the Taiwanese rock band Mayday’s second album Viva Love (2000), the title track was not included in the PRC “imported version” – potentially due to the explicit references to sex in the lyrics – which is different from the “original version” sold in Taiwan. The title track of Mayday’s third album, People Life, Ocean Wild (2001), was deleted as well. To obtain these tracks, fans could order albums from Taiwan or download MP3s; pirated CDs usually include forbidden tracks. After a change in publishing rights, Viva Love was re-released in 2009 with the title track intact. In 2012, Mayday also sang these songs during their concerts, underlining a lessening of restrictions.

(3) An unofficial ban and a populist backlash

In recent years, some events were cancelled due to artists’ political statements. In 2013, the Taiwanese singer Deserts Chang performed in Manchester, UK, and received a ROC national flag on stage when a fan passed it to her. The young PRC audience complained immediately after. Later on, Mainland netizens protested against her behaviour and tried to start a boycott of her concerts in Beijing. Her three scheduled concerts were soon cancelled following this incident. In 2016, the Taiwanese singer Crowd Lu was “reported” by pro-China entertainer Huang An for his post on social media, showing that he supported the Sunflower Movement in 2014. Lu spoke to reporters afterwards and explained that many of his activities in the Mainland were put on hold and concerts cancelled due to “safety reasons”. This blurred line between bans and populist backlashes is becoming more common.

Censorship attitude is an outlook “about free expression” reflecting an individual’s “willingness to endorse government restrictions on expression”. During our interviews, we found that when censorship is known to particular acts’ fan communities, this can potentially strengthen support for free expression. For example, a big Mayday fan from the PRC, Hsiao, carefully compares the details of every song between the imported and original albums. Moreover, they underlined how in live concerts the band replaces the term 西藏 Xi Zang (‘Tibet’) in the lyrics with 心臟Xin Zang (‘the heart’) – the two terms sharing a similar pronunciation – while on the screen that projects all the lyrics for the audience to sing along. She attributed this to Tibet being a source of sensitivity for the PRC state:

As fans, we know all the small differences between the two versions. If you go on Weibo and see how the fans react, you’ll see how we are unhappy about censorship. (…) We think it is ridiculous. Fans discuss the differences on the Internet, on Weibo. We know almost everything. These are the reasons why we will try group buying online or buying original albums while attending concerts. Sometimes during the tour, they bring CDs for sale.

The current stage is a somewhat bewildering one. While forms of censorship vary, Taiwanese musicians are experiencing fear. In examining such fear, it is crucial to continue to take the transnational flows of music industries and the Chinese market’s impact. In post-marital law Taiwan, corporate self-censorship has assumed a more ambiguous form, whether practised by artists or industry workers in specific institutions. This type of censorship is more difficult to identify; such interpolations and interference can disguise underlying political and commercial concerns.

While the possibility of theorising music censorship by identifying the exact agents within given processes is sometimes precluded, it is vital not to underestimate audiences and musicians’ subjectivities and how these can create a space for a subversive culture to emerge. New censorship theory sheds some light on this issue by perceiving censorship as ubiquitous and comes with “generative effects” that create new types of discourse. This was evident in the censorship above case. Here the experience of censorship may lead to an unintended development of political awareness in fan communities. Indeed, they may pay much attention to censored lyrics, then actively searching for the original versions as a bottom-up reaction to censorship and an example of subversion.

Censorship resulting from populist backlashes has also been growing. Ironically, while the Internet can make censored content accessible, most of these “battles” also occur online. Indeed, music censorship research should keep on problematising the material dimension of this process. Even when a subscribed streaming service as an application on the phone is no longer as tangible as cassettes, it does not mean that the questions about power and structure are no longer relevant. In fact, timely questions about the ownership over these technologies and platforms, surveillance, data protection, and how these have an impact on musicians’ new “fear” should be pursued more than ever.

Lastly, in the early stages of research, we attempted to find primary government data. Unfortunately, there is a lack of literature about this subject featuring cited sources while most existing commentary is journalistic. The time spent searching for official documents proved frustrating, and sources reported some documents had been destroyed in the past few years. How and why critical historical texts were disposed of are crucial questions to require answering, and the preservation of related documents should be viewed as an approach to transitional justice. All in all, music censorship is an indicator of freedom of speech, thoughts, and artistic expression. As researchers, it is our motivation behind this research and beyond to keep track of these issues.

*This article is adapted from Perceptions of censorship on Taiwan’s popular music in the post-martial law era, published in Asian Education and Development Studies in August 2020.

Chen-yu Lin is a Non-residential Research Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme, the University of Nottingham and Assistant Professor at the Department of International Business, National Taiwan University.

Yun-Siou Chen graduated from the Graduate Institute of Journalism, the University of Taiwan.

Yan-Shouh Chen graduated from the University of Liverpool, Master of Music Industry Studies. His interests are the revival of psychedelic music, psychedelic festival, and the interaction between Taiwanese and Japanese indie music acts.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Music of Taiwan. You can find all articles in the special issue here.

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