How Beautiful It Will Be: How Campus Folk Changed Taiwan

How Beautiful It Will Be: How Campus Folk Changed Taiwan
Photo Credit: 圈圈音樂誌

What you need to know

Campus folk continues to influence Taiwanese contemporary society through nostalgia. One of the key elements of campus folk songs which gave it a unique element in comparison to other Chinese pop music was its simplicity and purity.

When Lee Shuang-tze (李雙澤) stormed a stage in 1976 during a folk music festival at Tamkang University, proclaiming that “we should sing our own songs!” before smashing a coke bottle, nobody thought twice. What became known as the Tamkang Incident, (淡江事件) however had a profound and long-lasting influence on Taiwanese society.

Lee’s frustration inspired many musicians to write their own lyrics in Chinese, and so the foundations of the Campus Folk Movement (校園歌運動) were laid.

Appearing in a time when Martial Law enforced the idea of recapturing "Mainland" China and heavily restricted artistic development alongside Taiwan’s role in the international community rapidly diminishing, campus folk represented a rising nationalist sentiment for Taiwanese youth; a rejection of long-standing cultural domination by Westerners and the desire to create something that was uniquely theirs.

Prior to the 1960s, musicians lamented that popular music in Taiwan was “Made in America.” The establishment of what is today ICRT (International Community Radio Taipei and formerly Armed Forces Network Taiwan), which only played English language songs, allowing for U.S. pop culture to blossom. Pirated copies of songs by The Rolling Stones and Elvis would find their way onto the streets of Taipei.

Chinese pop had a distinctly opposite effect on the youth: if songs were not tasteless, then they were old-fashioned. Under the Kuomintang (KMT), many songs were lyrically militaristic and nationalistic in sentiment. The other subset of Chinese language music was idealistic and romantic, accompanied by slow, orchestral music, lyrically considered to be overly simplistic.

Anything that didn’t fit into the KMT’s notion of what China "is" was outrightly banned. Songs that violated traditional Chinese values were also banned, such as “I Wish I Met You before I Got Married.”

Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations in 1971 and the normalization of Sino-U.S. ties in 1978 saw Taiwan’s place in the world shattered. Domestically, the Zhongli (中壢事件) and Kaoshiung incidents(高雄事件) saw protests and requests for democracy violently repressed. This growing isolation from the international community and a lack of understanding and recognition from a nationalist government gave rise to a sense of disillusionment and loss of identity.

If they were not Chinese, who were they? If this was not China, what was it? There was a vacuum within which a Taiwanization process of society could take place, and ultimately a Taiwanese identity could develop.

If this is the environment in which Campus Folk Music Movement arose from, What made it Taiwanese? Lyrically, Taiwan’s campus folk songs allowed musicians to express not only their own emotions, but also us to understand societal changes and feelings towards the socio-political changes that Taiwan was undergoing at that time.

While the thematic nature of the campus folk movement was diverse, some themes dominated. Many songs related to personal relationships, either of love or friendship. This was likely a result of the youthfulness of the singers who were not only restricted to viewing external global events ongoing at the same time but perhaps also had a somewhat shallow and naive mindset.

Nature was also prominent. Whether that be songs that talk about familial love and longing such as Grandma’s Penghu Bay” (外婆地澎湖灣), childhood memories in “Childhood” (童年) or even those whose lyrical content is focused on identity and nation (for example “Young China” (少年中國), nature played an integral role in the descriptive and atmospheric song settings.

Many songs dealt with nationalism, both Chinese and Taiwanese. Chinese nationalism manifested itself primarily through a longing and romanticism of mainland hometowns, emphasizing the distance, and using nature, manmade structures, and ancient mythology to cultivate notions of China.

In the early stages of the movement, some would simply put traditional poems to song. Many of those singing or writing the songs, however, had never actually been to China. Taiwan had only ever been at the periphery in the concept of what China is, meaning that where they were now, to them, was not China, even if they themselves felt they were Chinese.

This idea of associating China as an important part of Taiwan’s history whilst being separate is vitally important in the development of Taiwanese identity. Even from the very beginning, a sense of being Taiwanese was apparent, the inevitable result of several generations growing up only knowing Taiwan as home. Performers not only wrote songs about the island (calling it home) but combined this with stories about China and traditional Chinese beliefs to create an amalgamated and unique identity.

One of the best examples of this is 1977’s “Meilidao (美麗島)." The song itself praises Taiwan’s natural resources and states that the ancestors of the island's inhabitants are watching over them. It describes Taiwan as being similar to a mother’s embrace, insinuating that Taiwan is actually the motherland. The song became symbolic of the democracy movement, which resulted in it being outlawed. “Meilidao” was not alone in this conception of Taiwan as a home.

Indeed some university students saw the folk song movement as a way to directly subvert China and the KMT. Many local artists who were part of the local literature movement would contribute song lyrics, meaning the music itself became a part of this movement, even leading it in terms of sheer popularity.

We can see that campus folk was not only treasuring the past but was a space within which young Taiwanese could cultivate a future. The loss of international recognition showed Taiwanese people that returning to China was an unattainable dream. Therefore the longing for something lost is acceptable, as is the beginning of the acknowledgment that Taiwan was now home, and that they were Taiwanese.

Many of those involved in the Dangwai (黨外) saw the folk music as sharing many similarities with the correlating literary movement, and therefore a representation of a Taiwanese consciousness. Whether representing nationalism of China or Taiwan, romanticizing teenage love or commenting on the socio-political factors affecting 1970s Taiwan, campus folk resolutely represented the Taiwanese youth at the time and what was important to them.

In terms of production and instrumentation, campus folk was primarily influenced by the West, which was surprising, since one of the integral concepts behind the movement was renouncing foreign influence. Musically, songs were simplistic in nature, often just a guitar and percussion, with a focus on a singer-songwriter musical style and image, strikingly similar to American protest-folk songs by artists such as Bob Dylan.

Dylan and other singers also influenced campus folk artists through their style of dress, choosing to hit the stage in a casual shirt and jeans. Western style music and images, accompanied by Chinese language lyrics which directly reflected the lives of those living in Taiwan, is evidence of a unique cultural movement whereby global and local forces interconnected to create something unique and new.

Interestingly, the songs resonated not only with those in Taiwan but around the Sinosphere and are seen as one of the first uniquely Taiwanese cultural exports.

Going mainstream

How was this possible? The commercialization of the folk song movement was integral to the voices of students resonating with other groups in Taiwan. Record labels were able to exploit media sources such as TV and radio to promote the acts they signed (the term “campus folk” was actually created by record labels in order to commodify the style).

The founding of Xinge Records (新格唱片) in 1976 and the establishment of the Jinyun Awards (金韻獎) allowed campus folk artists to catch the attention of the public in Taiwan and beyond. Although the Jinyun Awards were only held until 1981, they shot more than one hundred folk singers to fame and single-handedly managed to both popularize and commodify campus folk as a genre by allowing the artists to perform on a national stage.

From 1978 onwards, restaurants and bars were set up specifically so people could listen to students perform folk songs, and this continued into the mid-1990s. Other record companies saw the commercial success of Xinge Records and attempted to launch their own performers with campus folk style and image, to great success. Xinge records (now Rock Records) went on to become one of the most popular record labels in Asia.

The launch of these labels and artists would not be possible if it were not for the emergence of the campus folk song and its popularity spreading to other countries, allowing Taiwan to assert itself as a dominant cultural force, both in terms of music and industry.

Campus folk also continues to influence Taiwanese contemporary society through nostalgia. One of the key elements of campus folk songs which gave it a unique element in comparison to other Chinese pop music was its simplicity and purity.

Many critics of contemporary music from Taiwan are vocal both in their disdain for the fast paced and equally rapidly forgotten vacuousness of the music and at the same time lament that it isn’t more similar to the campus folk songs of the 70s and 80s, whose simplistic nature implies both a song less reliant on gimmicks and nostalgia for a simpler time.

We are therefore able to see a direct cognitive connection between the yearning for Taiwan’s past with campus folk music and what it represented, cementing the theory that regarding its importance in the foundation of Taiwan identity.

It is not hyperbolic to state that campus folk songs have become a national treasure and a distinctive feature of Taiwanese culture. The intense popularity both inside and outside of Taiwan for more than four decades allowed for the birth of the contemporary Taiwanese pop music industry. The legacy of its international influence has allowed the nation to maintain a soft cultural dominance across Asia.

Pop culture is possibly one of Taiwan’s strongest contemporary assets and the campus folk movement acted as one of the first international waves of its international cultural influence. Campus folk itself has seen a resurgence since the beginning of the 21st Century, with elementary school students being taught how to sing them, singing competitions for foreign nationals, and annual concerts, where stars of the movement a perform to sold out crowds, alongside smaller events held around the world.

Published books highlight some campus folk records as some of the best collections of music in Taiwanese history. Hu Defu (胡德夫), one of the key founders of the movement, works on both sides of the Strait in order to remind younger generations of the movements historical importance.

As sung in “The Great Sunshine Way” (一條日光的大道) “Ah Kappa, Where are you running? The sun is right over your head.” Through campus folk, Taiwan arguably found its voice for the first time: Whilst it can acknowledge and appreciate the past, the movement embodied the fermentation of a new place and identity, an identity that saw decades prior, the influence of the folk song movement continues to this very day.

Editor: Edward White