Written by Ya-Hui Cheng.
For eight years, under the leadership of Taiwan’s President, Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan and China had maintained close ties. When President Tsai took power in May 2016, however, she diverted the Taiwanese economy toward South Asia, simultaneously seeking to strengthen relations with the United States and Japan. These policies helped to chill relations with China, and a subsequent diplomatic crisis erupted on December 2, 2016 when America’s President-elect Donald Trump and the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke briefly on the phone. This telephone call brought to the forefront an almost forgotten issue regarding the triangular relationship between America, China, and Taiwan. The issue was soon resolved, however, as China, Taiwan, and America, attempted to minimalize the controversy.
In a survey after the Tsai-Trump call, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation revealed that 67.9% of the public approved of the call, 48.2% were dissatisfied with current China-Taiwan relations, and 38% approved of Tsai’s leadership. While the survey showed that the Taiwanese liked America, it did not increase people’s support of Tsai. Asked which countries Taiwan should maintain a close relationship with, the poll showed a 42.1% preference for America, 25.8% for China and only 13.7% for Japan. This was the first time China had been favoured over Japan. And although poll results may change, it revealed, at least for that particular moment in time, that most Taiwanese preferred to maintain a good cross-Strait relationship, regardless of the position of Taiwan’s present leader.
Economic concerns are usually cited as the primary reason for this change in attitude. Rarely is the importance of mass culture considered. Before the new millennium, Taiwanese entertainment productions were superior to those from China. The Taiwanese hardly ever consumed any kind of Chinese entertainment. But following the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, larger and larger sums of money have been invested in Chinese entertainment. Television dramas based on classical Chinese stories, such as Dream of the Red Chamber (The Story of Stone) or Empresses in the Palace, were produced in China and broadcast in Taiwan. This phenomenon was not just limited to TV serials. Televised singing talent shows produced in China such as I Am a Singer and Sing! China! have also been broadcast in Taiwan and achieved significant popularity. Have TV talent shows helped Taiwanese citizens view China differently?
The popularity of these singing competitions has increased the demand for music professionals in China. These program producers recruited Taiwanese music professionals to join their production teams. When famous Taiwanese singers were invited to participate in competitions in China, it created the impression for the Taiwan audience that they were watching Taiwanese programs. Top-tier performers from both Taiwan and China participated. These programs helped spread Chinese popular culture to Taiwan. Conversely, this also helped Taiwanese musicians to reach worldwide Chinese audiences.
Music has now become a powerful method of mass culture exchange across the Taiwan Strait. This cultural exchange is exemplified by the song Ordinary Road (Ping fan zhi lu), written and performed by Pu Su, a Chinese singer. The song, The Ordinary Road, was featured in the Chinese-produced movie Cold War. It won Best Original Film Song Music at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards in 2014. This was the second time a film song produced in China had won this prestigious award. Pu’s song combines elements of folk and rap to deliver a positive life message. This song has been frequently performed in the above-mentioned talent shows. In 2016, Jeff Chang (Shin-Che Chang), a Taiwanese superstar, covered Ordinary Road in I Am a Singer. Chang remixed the melodies from Ordinary Road and Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again featuring Charlie Puth, and he eliminated the rapping and added gospel singing to the newer version. His cover ends with an English lyric, ‘When will I see you again?’ to add a nostalgic note. His performance was well-received and has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube.
Lion Band, composed of Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jam Hsiao and also featuring musicians Lala and Vanness, covered Ordinary Road in the same show in 2017. In Lion Band’s cover, the folk tune from Ordinary Road has been fused with Faded’s Where Are You Now? This version synthesizes the two songs into a coherent whole. The phrase ‘Where Are You Now?’ repeats in the background, a lyric consonant with the song’s original meaning, that of seeking out the ordinary. Although both Chang and Lion Band have interpreted the song differently, Pu Su’s Ordinary Road has become extraordinarily well known outside of China, particularly following its reinterpretation by these leading Taiwanese singers.
As more Taiwanese singers now perform music written by songwriters in China, the popularity of music from China has gradually increased in Taiwan. At the beginning of this century, music from China was rarely reproduced in Taiwan. In less than two decades, popular tunes from China have made their way into Taiwanese mass culture. Regardless of the political tensions between the two places, their deep and abiding cultural roots have entwined people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Alongside economic concerns, TV talent shows have brought the two Chinas closer together. Long after the novelty and surprise of the Tsai-Trump telephone call has dimmed, perhaps it is the popular tunes that will dictate the sentiments of ordinary people in the coming years.
Ya-Hui Cheng is writing a book on Chinese Popular Music interaction across the Taiwan Strait. She teaches undergraduate and graduate Music theory courses at University of South Florida. She is an assistant professor of Music Theory at USF. Image Credit CC by simone pittaluga/Flickr.