The two passions of TC Yang’s (楊祖珺) life — music and political activism — went hand-in-hand during a time of major change in Taiwan.
It was November 1986 and bold protests to lift martial law, which had been in effect since 1949, were in full swing.
Yang and a handful of protestors stood on Boai Road (博愛路) in Taipei outside the Taiwan Garrison Command (警備總部), the military unit that enforced martial law.
Facing a line of 30 soldiers standing guard, Yang yelled through a megaphone: “The Garrison Command has been a malignant tumor in our society!”
Then a battle ensued — a battle of song. Yang sang Flood of Passion (熱血滔滔), a Chinese anti-war tune from the 1930s. The soldiers sang back Help Our Own Country (自己的國家自己救).
“We even heard soldiers from inside the [Garrison Command] building singing,” Yang chuckled in her raspy voice, during an interview last week.
Martial law was lifted in 1987, and the dangwai (outside the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT) movement gained momentum, paving the way for Taiwan’s first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As Yang became more deeply involved in the movement, “there was no time to sing.” By the 1990s, she had given up music.
But now Yang, a professor of culture studies at Chinese Cultural University, is in the process of “recovery.” She is revisiting her music with a new compilation CD, A Voice That Could Not Be Silenced, which was released in February. The album is a retrospective of songs from the 1970s and 1980s that trace Yang’s path from singer to activist. She is on a lecture tour for the album that ends this month.
The relationship between music and politics is “very natural,” says Yang, dragging on a cigarette.
“People say I’m an activist, I started a social movement. But I didn’t aim [to start a] social movement. I was just doing what I thought should be done.”
Yang was already known as a talented folk singer in her first year at Tamkang University in the mid-1970s. An avid record collector, her main inspiration came from Joan Baez. “Hearing her, I decided that when you sing, it’s got to be like that!”
But it wasn’t Baez or Bob Dylan — also popular at the time — that set Yang’s music on a political trajectory. It was Li Shuang-ze (李雙澤), a singer and fellow student at Tamkang. Li caused a stir in Taiwan’s nascent folk scene: tired of hearing English songs, he started to write and sing in Mandarin and Hoklo.
Two of Li’s songs, Formosa and Young China, became signature songs for Yang and her friend, Paiwan Aboriginal singer Kimbo Hu (胡德夫). To the KMT, the songs were “pro-Taiwan independence” and “pro-unification with communist China.” To Yang, the songs were an awakening: “My ‘China’ was right under my feet, my ‘Taiwan,’ my beautiful island, was right under my feet.”
“Those songs made me feel alive,” she said.
Yang became determined to spread Li’s music after his unexpected death in 1977: “It was like I was on a mission … it was something I had to do.” Li had inspired Yang and Hu to start the Sing Our Own Songs movement (唱自己的歌), which placed them at the forefront of the Taiwanese folk music scene.
Yang’s musical “mission” put her on a crash course with the repressive elements of the KMT regime. After graduating, she recorded a popular album, and became the host of a television program on folk music. But Yang quickly became frustrated: a third of the songs on the show had to be government-approved. And she was forbidden to sing Li Shuang-ze’s songs on air.