Whiteness Intertwines with Taiwaneseness: Taiwanese Heavy Metal Music and its Decolonial Paradox

Written by Mark Hsiang-Yu Feng.

Image credit: DSC_1123 by Aaron Hsu/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC 2.0.

It is common to see that many Taiwanese musicians employ Western compositional concepts, theories, and approaches to express Taiwanese identity through music and musical performance. For example, during the 2020 presidential and general election in Taiwan, Legislator Freddy Lim, the vocalist of a renowned Taiwanese metal group called ChthoniC, gave a live concert called Taiwan Victory to congregate voters and solicit votes in front of Taiwan’s Presidential House. Many Taiwanese people showed interest in his performance, as he sang heavy metal songs to gather voters and fight against political infiltration from China. After the concert, The Guardian‘s report highlights Lim’s unique career trajectory from a musician to a politician in Taiwan and the creativity of bringing music to the campaign. 

Expressing Taiwaneseness, or the so-called localness in Taiwan, through heavy metal, punk, and rock music is perhaps an unspoken norm among musicians in Taiwan. However, other than ChthoniC, local groups such as Burning Island, Dharma, Bloody Tyrant, and Flesh Juicer added Taiwanese musical instruments, folk tales, religious myths, and various Indigenous cultural elements to discuss and critique socio-political phenomena. Such a creative approach established a sound foundation for fortifying Taiwanese nationalism. 

With the global popularity of metal music since the late 1980s, these musicians in Taiwan suggest that metal music nowadays is very Taiwanese. This glocalisation of metal music has already been taken for granted as one of the prevailing approaches to expressing Taiwaneseness in Taiwan in the twenty-first century. While, in many English-speaking countries such as the United States, England, and Australia, metal music is deemed as an expression of whiteness, what does such glocalisation of metal in Taiwan mean to Taiwanese musicians’ expression of Taiwaneseness? How and why has whiteness intertwined with Taiwaneseness through metal and beyond? How might screaming for Taiwaneseness exacerbate global racism and antiblackness? 

Employing Western Knowledge as Decolonial Praxis

Screaming for Taiwaneseness is a decolonial praxis taking place since the 1990s. During the last century, when Taiwan was colonised by the Japanese imperialist government (1895-1945) and the Chinese nationalist government (also known as Kuomintang or KMT government, 1947-1991), expressing Taiwaneseness was considered reckless, uncivilised behaviour” under the colonial situations. The colonial authorities even prohibited Taiwanese traditional folk music, dance, and languages. Such ideology is closely associated with European racial ideology. The Japanese and Chinese colonisers in Taiwan instrumentalised Darwinism to develop nationalisms that satisfied their political goals of establishing a mono-ethnic nation-state with colonial approaches. As seen by the two volumes on Race and Racism in Modern East Asia published in 2012 and 2015, these colonisers internalised Eurocentric ideas to racialise Han-Taiwanese and Indigenous peoples in Taiwan as “inferior” to Chinese and Japanese among East Asians. 

According to Fang-Ming Chen, a typical decolonial strategy for Taiwanese activists to seek political autonomy under the Japanese colonisation was to employ Western knowledge and theories about democracy. The activists were empowered through knowledge while fighting against the colonisers. Although such an approach reinforced Western cultural and political hegemony, Western knowledge and theories were perceived as the key to “freedom.”

Similarly, after the late 1980s, when the censorship by KMT gradually loosened, heavy metal music was introduced to Taiwan, and its transgressive nature expressed through the sound, discourse, and embodiment of metal was also interpreted as “freedom” by Taiwanese metal musicians, especially under the political transformation from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s. These musicians hope that Taiwanese people can no longer be perceived as “inferior” to the Chinese and Japanese. Thus, the knowledge, theories, and compositional ideas about metal music became key to the expression of Taiwaneseness.

Whiteness Intertwines with Taiwaneseness? 

Metal music originated from hard rock and its cohesive association with motorcycle culture in the US in the late 1960s. It was later developed in the British working class within an underground music scene that echoed the local punk musicians’ critique of the high unemployment rate in the 1970s. Through globalisation, music was introduced in Australia, and now it manifests a white-dominant nationalism. Among these countries and places being perceived as the so-called “global north,” metal music is criticised as exclusive to most heterosexual-white men and an outcast to non-Caucasians, females, and LGBTQs. In terms of demographics, I often find myself as one of the handfuls of Asians among a crowd of whites while conducting ethnographic fieldwork at metal gigs and festivals in California. 

Although current research suggests that metal music in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa has rising popularity, Taiwanese metal musicians are less interested in establishing connections with these non-Caucasian dominant metal scenes in countries and places such as Indonesia, South Africa, and Puerto Rico. It is plausible that Taiwanese musicians and fans have already taken heavy metal, punk, and rock as white music for granted and underplayed the mutual influences between black and white music and musicians. 

Indeed, in Tieh-Chih Chang’s influential book Can Rock and Roll Change the World, which inspires many Taiwanese rock musicians, black musicians were seldom mentioned in his discussion on the relationship between rock music and socio-political resistance in the Americas and the UK. This racial exclusion is evident when comparing it to the current antiracist revision of the history of rock music in the US, in which contributions by Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and many black musicians are highlighted. 

Seemingly oddly, the oppressive, exclusive discourse toward people of colour in the West paradoxically becomes a discourse of political resistance in Taiwan. As such, whiteness, which disseminates through the process of glocalising metal music, has been instrumentalised as an authoritative foundation for establishing Taiwaneseness. From a Taiwanese perspective, what is considered Western largely overlaps with what is deemed white. Whiteness, therefore, intertwines with Taiwaneseness. Additionally, this phenomenon can also be found beyond the metal scene, as many Taiwanese people held a positive attitude toward Donald Trump and his campaign during the 2020 US presidential election. 

Indeed, globalisation is a racial project. The European racial ideas are embedded within the globalisation of Western knowledge and theory and perpetuated through colonialism, capitalism, and education. As a result, it also entails shaping the local racial hierarchy in Taiwan. Although Taiwan had a small black community in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, black people and people with darker skin tones are discriminated against and suffer from various microaggressions. It is unsurprisingly common that we are all, to some extent living in the white man’s world, consciously or unconsciously. 

Has Music Education in Taiwan Contributed to Racial Blindness?

Perhaps our music education in Taiwan neutralises this internalisation of whiteness. Taiwan’s Western music education was primarily established during the twentieth century’s Japanese and Chinese colonial periods. As a result, it overemphasises learning, performing, and listening to European classical music. Understanding high artistic works by great European composers from the mid-seventeenth to mid-twentieth century is the primary learning objective throughout the undergraduate curriculum. This also potentially excludes other types of classical musics, such as Hindustani music and Arab takht music, from music education in Taiwan. 

Although the emphasis on art music allows Taiwanese music educators to include jazz, which is commonly deemed as black music, in higher education, the issue of music and race is still not the primary focus in jazz programs. This indicates that not only racial blindness in Taiwan’s music education is tangible but antiblackness. For example, as I took jazz ensemble lessons as an undergraduate student in a music department in Taiwan, my peers shared with me that some instrumental instructors at university prohibited their students from learning jazz and western popular music due to a surprisingly ridiculous fallacy that learning non-European music would “contaminate” their musical techniques of playing classical pieces. This is problematic and perpetuates the colonial racial ideology.

Toward a More Racially Equitable Future

Whiteness and antiblackness are inseparable. They are everywhere in Taiwanese people’s musical life. Currently, music scholars in the US academy are contenting that not only western philosophy but many theories throughout the disciplinary history of ethnomusicology prioritise white-heterosexual men’s perspectives and have racial and gender biases. As these racial and gender implications of the knowledge system have been heavily criticised because they reinforce inequality in the US, what can we do to foster racial equity in Taiwan? 

This internalisation of whiteness is the colonial baggage of Taiwan. It echoes Howard Winant’s suggestion that studying global race and racism in the twenty-first century needs new theories and models because they are very different and more complex than in the twentieth century. Blackness and whiteness may intertwine with other ethnic identities, and global adoption and adaptation of the US-based racial concepts will bring new insights to our scholarly interpretation of the boundaries between each racial category. Interrogating whiteness and antiblackness may be provocative and floundering in Taiwan. Previous experience indicates that such action often progresses under the disguise of decolonization in South Korea, Hong Kong, and many other Asian countries and places. Still, all that support racial equality are difficult before they get easier.

Mark Hsiang-Yu Feng is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Davis. His email address is hyfeng@ucdavis.edu.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Invisible Discrimination in Taiwan.”

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