The evolution of Taiwanese pop, the vibrant epicentre of Mandarin music

The evolution of Taiwanese pop, the vibrant epicentre of Mandarin music

Taiwan’s music scene is rich with history and diversity, and its long history of Mandarin pop music makes them an irreplaceable force in the genre. Trailing back Taiwan's pop music lineage reveals something truly unique about the country. 


The 60s, music reflecting times of turmoil

The development of Taiwan’s pop music originated from Taiwanese opera, and reached its peak in the 30s. The earliest examples of Taiwanese pop are songs like 'Wang Chun Feng (望春風)' and 'Yu Ye Hua (雨夜花)' were written during the period of Japanese Colonization by the “Father of Taiwanese Songs”, Deng Yu Xian.

These compositions astutely reflected the sorrow of being colonized, and the emotional resonance of both songs led to mainstream popularity after WWII.

Songs like 'Wang Ni Zao Gui (望你早歸)', composed by Yang San Lang (楊三郎); and 'Shao Rou Zong (燒肉粽, originally called Mai Rou Zong)', written by Zhang Qiu Dong Song (張邱東松) were shaped by the perspectives of the working class. At that time, many Japanese songs were also adapted to Hokkien.

In the late 60s, the classic singing variety show Qun Xing Hui (群星會) was aired, and many superstars and hits were born in this era. Teresa Teng (鄧麗君), Fong Fei Fei (鳳飛飛), Liu Wen Zheng (劉文正) and Louise Tsuei (崔苔菁) became well-known artists, and their careers spawned some of the most memorable songs in the Taiwanese pop canon. These singers moved Taiwan’s music scene forward, and are now still considered as the most unforgettable legends in the industry.

On the other hand, during the period of martial law, many creative ideas were considered taboo, resulting in the popularity of politically correct patriotic songs that eulogized national spirit and characters. With inclusive love in mind, 'Victory (梅花)', 'Ode to the Republic of China (中華民國頌)' and 'Nation (國家)', songs written by Liu Jia Chang (劉家昌) became highly popular — more importantly, they encapsulated the change of times, transitioning to a pivotal period that saw an emerging Taiwanese music scene solidified. 


The 70s, when campus folk songs rose up and love movies struck the entirety of Taiwan

In the 70s, western culture was still fully embraced by the Taiwanese people, even though the United States and Japan had broken off their diplomatic relations with the country.

A young Li Shuang Ze (李雙澤) advocated the concept of original songwriting it, or in his words, “singing my own songs (唱自己的歌)”. The public was highly influenced by his folk songs performance at Tamkang University (淡江大學) in 1975 that it ignited the Campus Folk Songs mania.

Popular radio host Tao Hsiao Ching (陶曉清) allowed her program to be a platform for young singer-songwriters to share their works. Folk songs had since become prominent for Taiwan’s music development from the 80s to the 90s. Singers like Li Chien Fu (李建復), Bao Mei Sheng (包美聖), Chyi Yu (齊豫), Allen Chao (趙樹海) and Wang Mon Lin (王夢麟) had all gradually become well-known folk singers. This period has been highly celebrated in recent years, with many of these pioneering artists appearing at modern Folk Song Live Concerts.

Speaking of the highlight of the 70s, folk song is not the only one. Taiwan’s television and film industry entered its booming era in the 70s as well. Romance movies by Qiong Yao (瓊瑤) turned actors like Qin Han (秦漢) and Brigitte Lin (林青霞) into superstars of their generation, and his movies featured theme songs that became iconic over time.

Songs with moving melodies like 'Cloud of Romance (我是一片雲)' and 'A Love Seed (一顆紅豆)', sung by Feng Fei Fei; 'Dreams Link (一簾幽夢)' sung by Hsiao Li Chu (蕭孋珠); and 'Romance in the Water (在水一方)' by Chiang Lei (江蕾) featuring Frankie Kao (高凌風) are just a selection of many songs borne out of the love for cinema.


The 80s, when local record labels stepped up and a great variety of music flourished

With the burst of creative energy from the last decade, the writers and producers in the 80s continued to show their talents.

Lo Da Yu (羅大佑) received massive attention because of his album Zhi Hu Zhe Ye (之乎者也). Songwriter Jonathan Lee (李宗盛) kicked off his promising career as a producer by producing 'Light Rain Just Comes in Time (小雨來的正是時候)', a song sung by Zheng Yi (鄭怡). In 1987, with the abolishment of the martial law, the long-suppressed creative culture in Taiwan broke free and a great variety of pop music started flourishing in the market.

The path for Hokkien songs became even wider. Lim Giong (林強), Wubai & China Blue (伍佰&CHINA BLUE), Cheng Ming Chang (陳明章) and Jody Chiang (江蕙) all sang moving songs in Hokkien.

Besides the flourishing singer-songwriters, Japanese style idol groups like The Little Tigers (小虎隊) became very popular in Taiwan as well, creating a whole new idol mania. Music of all genres enriched the industry, local record labels such as Rock Records (滾石), UFO Records (飛碟), and What’s Music (上華) were as competitive as international major labels, spawning numerous superstars and leading artists of the generation with brilliant achievements. 


From the 90s to Recent Years, the music industry brought indigenous music to the international stage

The very inclusive music scene of Taiwan has genres of all kinds. From the 80s to the 90s, singers like Sarah Chen (陳淑樺), Stella Chang (張清芳) and Emil Wakin Chou (周華健) graduated to mainstream success.

In the late 90s, Tracy Su (蘇慧倫) and Yuki Hsu (徐懷鈺 ) brought in a dance music mania. In the same period, powerful and creative indie music was rising, artists from Taiwan Colors Music (角頭音樂) and Magic Stone Music (魔岩唱片) attracted attention from young listeners; singers like Chang Chen Yue (張震嶽), Naiwen Yang (楊乃文) and Cheer Chen (陳綺貞) influenced the whole generation.

Entering the 2000s, David Tao (陶喆), Jay Chou (周杰倫), a-Mei (張惠妹) and Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) brilliantly made their way in the industry; MayDay (五月天) even ignited a wave of mainstream, stadium-headlining bands.

The 90s was also the period when Taiwan’s indigenous music shined brightly. The song 'Return to Innocence' by European band Enigma became the theme song for 1996 Olympics. Fractions of the song were sampled from 'Elders Drinking Song'”, a song sung by the Ami tribe singer Difang Duana (郭英男), which received massive praise internationally.

On the other hand, the Golden Melody Awards in 2000 presented the Best Mandarin Male Singer award to Chen Jian Nian (陳建年), the police singer of Puyuma tribe and the Best New Artist award to Samingad (紀曉君), who sings in her tribal mother tongue Pinuyumayan (卑南語). Indigenous music has since been a limelight on mainstream stages. You can see the inclusivity of Taiwan’s music scene in our local works that wrote about the affections to land and relationships.

Even till now, Taiwan’s music industry is still growing. For the past ten years, singing competition television shows had attracted a bunch of music lovers. Shows like One Million Star (超級星光大道), Happy Sunday (快樂星期天) and Super Idol (超級偶像) had made many ordinary contestants like Yoga Lin (林宥嘉), Lala Hsu (徐佳瑩) and Weibird (韋禮安) became pop singers. Meanwhile, established artists like a-Mei, Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai and MayDay continued to keep their growing fanbases hooked.

Singers of different genres kept working hard to make new masterpieces as well. The highly-coveted Golden Melody Award broke ground by allowing digital releases to be eligible for submission. By lowering the threshold of music format, the award hoped to encourage more releases. 

Entering the 21st century, the styles and genres of Taiwan’s music have grown to be more and more abundant. Indie and non-mainstream music of all kinds have become a power in the industry that couldn't be ignored, and its influence has extended into pop music culture.

Some examples would include indie rock band No Party For Cao Dong (草東沒有派對), whose concert tickets have sold out as fast as major artists; Fire EX. (滅火器), the punk band that gained massive popularity since the Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) and later expanded its career to Japan and Dadado Huang (黃玠), the folk singer who successfully made his way from live houses to the mainstream stage. They have all gained a substantial fan base, crossing the boundaries previously separating mainstream and indie music.

In addition, the proliferation of Golden Indie Music Awards (金音獎), an honor presented to genres like rock, folk, jazz and electronic, has led to audiences increasingly engaged with the music they listen to, and a mainstream acceptance of diverse music. The future has never looked brighter for Taiwanese music, and its path will continue to flourish as long as people keep listening.


The 5 Most Important Taiwanese Pop Artists of Today

Jay Chou

Debuted in 2000, Jay Chou’s first studio album Jay contained R&B, rap and various music elements, bringing a breath of fresh air to the Mandarin pop music scene. Mixing themes like video games, martial arts, and adventurous elements into his works, Jay Chou subverted expectations of Mandarin pop music, receiving attention from the entire industry. 

He has set a record for his album sales and popularity. Besides his talents in singing and songwriting, he’s also expanded his career into becoming a director, actor and so on, making him one of the most famous artists in Asia.

Jolin Tsai

Jolin Tsai released her debut album 1019 in 1999, quickly gaining popularity with her sweet and teenage girl idol image in the early days. In the middle of her career, she started to record more dance music-influenced pop. This new style increased the influences and popularity of her songs, making her one of the most famous female singers in Taiwan.

From fashion styles to live performances, she became one of the most talked-about artists. Throughout the past few years, she has constantly released original works, setting new trends in the pop industry, and staging larger-than-life concerts.

Mayday

Formed when they were still students, Mayday has become a huge sensation amongst the youth of Taiwan. Their refreshing honesty and grounded sensibilities have made them an everlasting favourite, selling out stadiums all over Asia.

Mayday’s music has not only influenced a great number of audiences, but also motivated many young musicians to form their own bands. 

a-Mei

Made her breakthrough by competing on a singing variety show, a-Mei’s debut album Sisters has sold millions of copies. She has brought an immense amount of energy to her upbeat songs, and a unique sense of sentimentality to her slower tempo songs. For over two decades, she has won numerous awards and set a bunch of records, making her one of the most iconic singers in Taiwan’s music scene.

Jody Chiang

Hokkien pop diva Jody Chiang is no doubt the treasure of the country. Starting her career by singing sorrowful and moving songs, her three consecutive albums, including Words After Drinking (酒後的心聲), had set a record for selling more than a million copies each.

In recent years, she has added pop elements into her works, bringing fresh sounds to her Hokkien repertoire. Her brilliant singing achievements include receiving 13 Golden Melody Awards. In 2015, she announced her retirement from the stage, and wrapped up her singing career by a 25-concert farewell tour, setting unprecedented records, including an audience that would never forget her.


The 5 Must-Listen Songs of Today

'Nunchucks' by Jay Chou

The creative styles of singer-songwriter Jay Chou highlight Mandarin culture and characters significantly. In this song, he fuses rock with rap elements. The powerful composition and innovative writing has made this a signature song, even spawning an international edition. Fun fact: this song charted in Italy.

'Wife' by Jody Chiang

This song was written by the talented songwriter Cheng Gin Yi (鄭進一) from a woman’s perspective about the loyalty and love of a wife to her husband in a traditional Taiwanese family. Performed with grace and subtlety by Jody Chiang, the catchy song has since become a hit with audiences worldwide. It was even voted as the number one song of the last decade in an online campaign held by Golden Melody Award called “My Favorite Song (我的最愛,一首歌)”.

'Ocean' by Purdur Chen

The freewheeling guitar playing and singing in 'Ocean', the title track of Puyuma singer Purdur’s debut album, featured exquisite imagery that highilghted the country's natural greenery. Purdur’s simple and moving vocals deliver the beauty and power of local Taiwan to the ears of the public. Purdur has won the Best Mandarin Male Singer and Producer of the Year at the Golden Melody Awards and many other awards. Currently, the talented singer-songwriter is still enjoying doing his day job as a police officer.

'Island’s Sunrise' by Fire Ex.

Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) is a protest initiated in 2014 by students and civil groups that drew international attention. This song was written at the time by the band Fire Ex. and the students of National Taiwan University of Arts.

With inspiring melodies and lyrics, the song was sung numerous times during the protest. The strong relatability made the song become the most symbolic work of the movement, and earned the band a Golden Melody Award in the category of Song of the Year the following year.

'Xi Ha Zhuang Jiao Qing' by Nine One One

Nine One One is a group that originated in Taichung and later became an Internet sensation. The local rap style and the catchy melodies make the songs of Nine One One quickly spread around the island, gradually making them a major popular group.

In 2016, the video of this song has accumulated over 50 million views on YouTube, becoming Taiwan’s number one video of the year. Its videos of other singles have accumulated more than 10 millions views as well, making the group members the most successful hip-hop artists in recent years.


5 Important Events of Modern Taiwan

Sing My Own Songs

In the 70s, the United States and Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The young Li Shuang Ze (李雙澤) advocated the concept of “singing my own songs”, and later influenced the start of Campus Folk Songs Era (校園民歌時代). Youngsters wrote and sang their own creations, making this period the renaissance of Taiwan’s pop music and helping establish the future direction of Taiwan’s music. 

Golden Melody Charts

Golden Melody Charts was a pop music variety show that first broadcasted in 1989. The show not only released charts based on sales and viewer’s voting, it also featured various interesting programs that would engage and entertain a wide local audience.

It soon became a very prominent music program, and almost all singers would go promote their new releases on the show. The show featured an annual top 10 idol awards that the winners were selected based on popularity and sales records. 

Spring Scream Music Festival

Started out in 1995 by Jimi and Wade, both musicians, Spring Scream is a music festival that was held at the most southern point of Taiwan—Kenting (墾丁). Promoting Taiwan’s thriving music scene, they have invited numerous international and local artists to come and perform. Being the longest-running international music event in Taiwan, Spring Scream influenced the recent boom of local music festivals. 

The Band Era

In 2000, the 11th Golden Melody Awards did not feature an award category for “Best Band”. However, in the “Best Group” category, the nominees included MayDay (五月天), Luantan (亂彈), Quarterback (四分衛), and Tolaku (脫拉庫), which were all bands.

When the winning band Luantan went on stage to deliver their acceptance speech, the lead vocalist Ascent proclaimed that “the band era is coming." He was right.

Reality Television Singing Competition

In 2007, Taiwan was struck by an immense popularity of singing competitions on television. One Million Star (超級星光大道) and many other similar singing competitions had all achieved high ratings.

Featuring creative competing rules and talented contestants, those shows became more like reality programs and continued to be popular with audiences. These shows allowed a platoon of contestants like Yoga Lin (林宥嘉), Lala Hsu (徐佳瑩) and Weibird (韋禮安) to become pop stars and spawned numerous chart-topping songs, bringing freshness to the entire industry.