A Wave of Nostalgia Is Sweeping Taiwanese Artists Back Into the Chinese Limelight
Jay Chou and Cyndi Wang are among the legacy stars reemerging in mainland China's evolving market amid renewed tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
TAIPEI — Back in the early 2000s, Taiwanese artists such as Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai dominated Chinese-speaking markets throughout Asia, creating a golden era for Taiwanese pop music. While some, like Chou, continued to be influential, other music stars from the island disappeared from the public eye amid increasingly fierce competition from Japan, South Korea and mainland China.
Two decades years later, Taiwanese artists are making a comeback, as TV variety shows and music platforms in mainland China, in a wave of nostalgia rife with political undertones, have pushed their re-emergence. In May, over 100 million people watched re-screenings of Chou concerts from his 2013 and 2019 world tours as part of Tencent Music Entertainment’s Live Concert Series — a record for online concerts that emerged during the pandemic.
That same month, Cyndi Wang — the now 40-year-old Taiwanese singer dubbed the “Sweetheart Goddess” for her sugary pop songs — topped a Chinese music chart after her appearance on the variety show Sisters Who Make Waves. Nine of her songs from the early 2000s took over Chinese streaming site QQ Music’s “rising hits” chart for about a week. Wang’s fans called to buy shares of Mango TV, the station broadcasting the show, and threatened to dump shares if she was eliminated from the show, according to Weibo posts.
“Her appearance on the variety show and the need for entertainment during pandemic lockdowns created the hit,” says Shao I-Te, former China representative of Channel V and general manager at EMI Music China. “It’s a sense of nostalgia. Her fans who have the most purchasing power are now in their 30s, and artists like Cyndi Wang are like a symbol of their youth. With her, everyone starts to miss the good old days of the millennium era.”
Yet with tensions between Taiwan and Beijing’s communist government mounting once again, Wang’s sudden return to fame has also drawn online criticism in mainland China. After former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s visit to Taiwan in August, netizens accused Wang of not supporting the “one China” principle after she initially failed to share a propaganda post from CCTV (Chinese state television) on social media site Weibo which declared “there is only one China in the world.”
Wang was among about 30 Taiwanese artists, including Chou and Tsai, that people online called out for not supporting the statement without hesitation. (She later reposted the CCTV message on Weibo and expressed support for the “one China” principle, which then generated criticism from Taiwanese citizens.)
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, while Taiwan has its own constitution and democratically elected leaders. China has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control and has held military drills in the air and seas around Taiwan, including the firing of ballistic missiles after Pelosi’s visit.
The Rise and Fall of Taiwanese Music in Mainland China
Taiwan’s pop music export wave started in the 1980s when Teresa Teng swept mainland China by storm. Then Jacky Cheung‘s 1993 album The Kiss Goodbye sold 1.36 million copies in Taiwan and over 4 million copies in greater China — sales that surpassed U.S. album sales for Madonna and Bruce Springsteen around that time, which helped entice global record companies to enter the Asian market.
Universal, Warner, Sony, EMI and BMG established their Asian hubs in Hong Kong, bringing capital and production technology and further spreading the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop music across Asia.
After the financial crisis in 1997, Hong Kong’s economy struggled, and a group of newcomers appeared in Taiwan. In 2001, Shao’s Channel V named Chou best male singer; it was the first time someone replaced Hong Kong’s Four Heavenly Kings in this award category. Since then, artists such as F4, Mayday, Tsai and Singaporean artists Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin — who went to Taiwan to jumpstart their careers — started to influence the next decade’s music.
“People born from 1980 to 1995, this entire generation has become an important generation supporting these singers, who have purchasing power and great acceptance of pop music, and with their help, these artists created the music taste of a generation,” Shao says.
In 2004, during the Taiwanese golden age, Wang performed her hit “Love You” on the Sisters Who Make Waves variety show. But after the global financial downturn of 2008, and the rise of China’s economy that followed, the fortunes of Taiwanese artists began to change.
Around 2010, Chinese internet giants Tencent, Netease, Alibaba and Baidu kicked off an era of online music streaming that created a more distinct mainland Chinese market, which made it tougher for Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop music to break into China.
By 2018, despite a history of rampant piracy, China had grown into the seventh-largest music market in the world with $531.3 million in total revenues that year, according to IFPI. (Taiwan, which has 23.5 million people — a small fraction of China’s 1.4 billion — has held around No. 25 the past few years.)
“Taiwan continues to breed contemporary pop acts but with reduced probability of success in the mainland market,” says Xing Xiaole, French music distributor Believe’s Beijing-based head of artist services for China. He says that’s because Taiwanese artists have struggled to adapt to the distinct ecosystem of Chinese social and advertising platforms, and had to endure travel and group gathering restrictions during the pandemic.
Xing, who also deals with Taiwanese clients, says the biggest Taiwanese music influence in mainland China today comes from indie bands such as the jazz-influenced synth-pop group Sunset Rollercoaster and The Chairs, which releases songs written in English, Mandarin, Japanese and the Taiwanese dialect.
But the rise of mainland China’s market means that Chinese-speaking musicians can no longer rely on Taiwan as a starting point to become as influential as before. Some of them choose to head west to China. And when tensions flare between China and its island neighbor, they often get tangled up in the political wrestling across the Taiwan Strait.
In the 1980s, the Taiwanese government used Teresa Teng’s love ballads, which were popular across China and then banned by communist Beijing, in anti-communist propaganda broadcasts.
The Chinese government, for its part, often requires artists to toe the party line, including referring to Taiwan as being part of China. Taiwanese singers whose careers are based in China have been invited to attend CCTV’s New Year’s Gala to spread pro-unification thoughts.
“There’s always been a red line for Taiwanese artists in mainland China, ever since the 1980s,” Shao says. “What the new generation of artists can do is draw from their everyday experiences and create music that can connect with the world.”