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There's tension between China and Taiwan but that's not the case with their music

: [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, we refer to the civil war between Taiwan and China. That civil war was fought between the rival regimes in Taiwan and mainland China in the last century and has never officially ended.]


The civil war fought between Taiwan and China over the last century has never officially ended. The two still maintain tight connections through culture, though - pop culture. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China's leader Xi Jinping repeatedly hints at a military invasion of Taiwan. And at the same time, the people of China consume huge amounts of Taiwanese music and film. It's a cultural entanglement mirroring their long history of migration and, yes, war. It's an entanglement in which Taiwan, a tiny island of just 23 million people, has outsized leverage.

JOCELLE KOH: They started way earlier, at a period where China was basically shut off from the world.

FENG: This is Jocelle Koh, the founder of Asian Pop Weekly, a music outlet on Asia. Taiwan is where megastar Mandarin singers like Teresa Teng took off, enrapturing a generation of Chinese.


TERESA TENG: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: And in more recent years, Taiwan superstar Jay Chou and bands like Mayday provide a ubiquitous soundtrack in movies and TV dramas in China.


MAYDAY: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: Since the 1980s, people in China, sometimes at great risk, listened to purloined cassettes and later CDs of Taiwanese artists.

KOH: And for a lot of them now, it reminds them of, like, their childhood. It's very nostalgic for them.

FENG: And now Taiwanese artists are routinely in the Top 50 charts in China.


FENG: Among the Taiwanese artists popular in China is this band - The Chairs, from Taipei. And they've picked up a cult following in China after starring in a reality show there called "The Big Band" - kind of like China's "American Idol," but for up-and-coming groups. NPR met The Chairs in 2022 in Beijing. Here's their manager, Eazie Huang.

EAZIE HUANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He said he and his bandmates had done more than 100 total days of COVID quarantine in 2022. This was when China was in the middle of the pandemic. But China is a much bigger market than Taiwan, and it's where a lot of their fans are.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) Our fans in China are so warm-hearted. They set up chat groups and sometimes are even able to learn news about our band before I find out.

FENG: Through the connections they've built through music, Huang said the band feels none of the tensions between China and Taiwan.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) The Taiwanese presence runs very deep in China. Many of the larger Taiwanese recording labels have collaborations in China. Obviously, lots of Taiwanese perform here. The cooperation on selling music rights is very close.

FENG: But this decadeslong entanglement is starting to change. There's more competition from Korean and homegrown Chinese artists. And then there's the cross-strait tensions. In January, Mayday, the Taiwanese super band, was investigated for lip syncing in China. Taiwanese officials say it's because Beijing wants the band to be more pro-China. Weining Hung co-founded one of Taiwan's biggest music festivals, LUCfest, and she says younger Taiwanese artists are not as keen to go to China.

WEINING HUNG: Some Taiwanese young artists don't feel safe going there because they probably already say something on social media, and some of them, like, have very strong political views.

FENG: There's been instances where Chinese fans have named and shamed artists for appearing too pro-Taiwan. They've even boycotted and banned them from performing. And that's got some bands rethinking how tied up they want to be with the Chinese market - bands like Prairie.


FENG: They're an experimental rock band. Their vocalist, Yi Zhi, says more of their fellow musicians are explicitly critical of China.

YI ZHI: (Through interpreter) A good half of Taiwanese bands now are willing to express their political views and values. Before 2014, many bands didn't dare talk about politics.

FENG: 2014 - that was when Taiwan saw mass protests against closer trade ties with China. And so China is no longer the ultimate destination for Taiwanese artists. I met up again with The Chairs a few weeks ago, this time in Taiwan. They were promoting their new album, which is mostly in English.


THE CHAIRS: (Singing) So stand in the sun. You frown.

FENG: Their lead singer Yong Jing said it was eye-opening to tour in Europe and the U.S. last year.

YONG JING: (Through interpreter) We hope to reach out to different communities in addition to the Chinese-speaking world.

FENG: And their ambitions are growing alongside their fame - from Taiwan to China and now beyond.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.