Sun, Feb 09, 2020 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Searching for their ‘musical mother tongue’

Alarmed that the influx of Western music in the 1960s would spell the end of local music, two European-educated composers collected over 2,000 Aboriginal, Hoklo and Hakka folk songs in less than two years

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Hsu Wei-liang records Chen Ta singing in July 1967.

Photo courtesy of Taiwan Music Institute

Feb. 10 to Feb. 16

Chen Ta (陳達) was a destitute old man living alone in a shack when Hsu Chang-hui (許常惠) “discovered” him in July 1967. When the illiterate 62-year-old picked up the yueqin (月琴), or moon lute, and started to play, Hsu knew immediately that he was hearing something extraordinary.

When he returned to Taipei, Hsu couldn’t wait to play a recording that he had made of Chen to his fellow researcher, Shih Wei-liang (史惟亮).

“It’s like finally finding the precious treasure that we’ve been searching for for so many years!” Shih exclaimed.

This was the high point of the duo’s Taiwan folk music collection initiative, which involved over 20 field researchers and yielded over 2,000 recordings in under two years. They found Chen on the final trip, where Hsu led a team down the west coast while Shih took on the east. They reconvened in Taipei to share their findings, which covered nine indigenous peoples as well as the Hakka and Hoklo people.

Hsu’s journal during the trip reflects their motives, lamenting that people who knew Taiwanese folk songs saw them as vulgar and were reluctant to sing them, and the few “connoisseurs” who enjoyed traditional Chinese music saw these rural tunes as uncultured.

“Nowadays, people are enthralled with Western-style music without even understanding it,” he writes.


Growing up in rural Changhua in the 1930s, Hsu was constantly exposed to Taiwanese folk music. But he didn’t start using these and other Chinese elements in his work until he studied in Paris, referring to them as his “musical mother tongue.”

Shih, on the other hand, did not grow up in Taiwan. Born in northeastern China, he joined the underground resistance against the Japanese as a teenager and didn’t start learning music until 1947, when he enrolled in Beijing University and studied composition under famed Taiwanese musician Chiang Wen-ye (江文也). Shih moved Taiwan in 1949 and to Europe afterward, where he too realized the importance of using traditional music in modern compositions.

Both cited Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who collected folk music and incorporated it into his work, as a major inspiration. They sought to emulate Bartok’s balancing of tradition and modernity.

Shih writes that Bartok “was neither a narrow-minded nationalist, nor an absurd globalist.”

Hsu writes in Draft of Taiwan Music History (台灣音樂史初稿) that the 1960s was a time where the influx of Western culture had superseded traditional art forms.

“Once a new trend starts, the old things are immediately abandoned,” he writes.

In 1962, Shih published an op-ed, “Do we need our own music?”, in the United Daily News. Hsu responded to Shih in a letter to the editor: “We do need our own music.”

“We look down on our own music, we look down on our feelings and even deny our feelings,” he writes. “Vienna conquered the whole world [musically] but never lost its soul. Not only have we not made any gains musically, we are walking down the perilous path of losing our identity.”

When Shih returned to Taiwan in 1965, the two began working closely together. He founded the Chinese Youth Music Library (中國青年音樂圖書館) with funding from the China Youth Corps, and later the two co-founded the Chinese Folk Music Research Center (中國民族音樂研究中心). The expeditions were carried out under these two entities.

“Even when we make modern music, it’s imperative that these folk music traditions remain available to inspire our creations. As traditional folk music continued to be seriously neglected and destroyed, we needed to launch a movement to rescue it,” Hsu writes.

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