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History of music in Taiwan

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Modern Music[edit]

The earliest musical education program in Taiwan was established by Western missionaries during the 17th century, when southern and northern Taiwan was under the colonial rule of the Netherlands and Spain respectively. Missionaries from Europe set up their churches throughout Taiwan for evangelical purposes; this included Protestant missionaries from the Netherlands and the Catholic Dominican Order from Spain. During this period, Western music was first introduced to Taiwan, though church music was the mainstay. It wasn't until the ruling Qing government opened up to trade exchanges with Europe in the mid-19th century that secular Western music began to gain to a foothold in Taiwan. In 1895, Taiwan became occupied by Japan, and formalized Western music education was thus introduced. Under Japanese rule, music was included as part of the core curriculum of Taiwanese academic education and became a compulsory course of study. Notable musicians from this era included Wen-ye Jiang and Chih-yuan Kuo.

Qing Dynasty Rule[edit]

Rule by the Qing Dynasty began in Taiwan in the 18th century; Taiwan’s music scene at the time was still largely dominated by Beiguan and Nanguan music brought over by immigrants from mainland China. However, in the middle of the 19th century, the armies of the Qing Dynasty suffered one devastating loss after another against European troops, forcing the Qing government to open up the ports to European traders and missionaries. As trade between Taiwan and Europe flourished, the European Chambers of Commerce and Industry set up branches in Taiwan, setting the stage for strong Western influence and an influx of more Christian missionaries. In 1872, Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay established Presbyterian churches in Tamsui (formerly known as Huwei), as well as schools and hospitals. He also introduced Western liturgical music and art music education to Taiwan[1], founding Oxford College (now the Taiwan Graduate School of Theology) and Aletheia University. Su-Ti Chen (1911-1992), one of the first-generation Taiwanese composers, was an alumnus of TamKang High School (now TamKang Senior High School), which was founded by Dr. Mackay’s eldest son, George William Mackay. Su-Ti Chen studied piano and Western liturgical music alongside Margaret Gauld, the wife of Rev. William Gauld. After his graduation, he enrolled at the Taipei Seminary School (now the Taiwan Graduate School of Theology), majoring in Western Art Music. Afterwards, he continued his music studies in Japan. [2]

Meanwhile, Dr. James Maxwell, a Presbyterian/Calvinist missionary from England, began preaching in southern Taiwan in 1865. In 1869, he and Rev. Hugh Ritchie together established “The Student’s Class” in Cihou and Taiwan Fu (now Tainan), which were coalesced by Reverend Thomas Barclay in 1876 into the Capital College, the first western-education university in Taiwan and the predecessor of the current Tainan Theological College and Seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. The seminary not only had the goal of evangelizing and cultivating theological students, but also brought Western liturgical music and art music to southern Taiwan through mandated courses for its students, nurturing many musical talents in southern Taiwan. To this day, “cultivation of musical talent” remains one of the most important goals of the Tainan Theological College and Seminary.[3]

During Qing Dynasty rule, Taiwan’s churches played a major role in the spread of Western music through congregation members, foreign merchants, and missionaries.[4]

During Japanese Rule[edit]

In 1894, the First Sino-Japanese War began, during which the army of the Qing Dynasty was defeated by the Japanese army. This led to the Qing Dynasty government signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan to Japan. In 1895, Japanese rule of Taiwan began, leading to a formal introduction of a Western music education system in the core curriculum of Taiwanese schooling. From then on, Western art music became a firmly-rooted element in Taiwan’s musical scene, with Western art music courses becoming mandatory in Taiwanese schools. Su-Ti Chen, one of the first-generation Taiwanese composers, received his formal music education in Taiwan schooling before traveling to Japan for further study.

Tyzen Hsiao, a composer born in Fongshan, Kaohsiung, was taught to play the piano by his mother, who was one of the first-generation pianists to study in Japan. Afterwards, he received further training from Prof. Fu-mei Li, who also studied piano in Japan. Graduating from the Christian Chang Jung High School, Hsiao enrolled in the two-year music program of the Taiwan Provincial Teachers College (predecessor of the National Taiwan Normal University), before continuing his studies in Japan.

From the life history of these Taiwanese composers, we can clearly trace the development of the culture of Western music in Taiwan through two sources. One is the church system and the other the Western music education introduced during the Japanese rule and musicians returning to Taiwan after studying abroad in Japan. Many of the works by these musicians were liturgical, including those written by Su-Ti Chen; although other musicians such as Chuan-sheng Lu and Chih-yuan Kuo created original folk songs. They also composed large-scale works: Chih-yuan Kuo produced the opera Xu-Xian and Madame White Snake, while Chuan-sheng Lu produced Castrated Chicken, a Taiwanese Hokkien opera that attracted the attention of the Japanese ruling class for its incorporation of Western composition techniques.[5]

After 1949[edit]

The government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Due to political factors, cultural elements related to Mainland China and Russia, including symbols of communism, became taboos in Taiwan and Western culture became especially prominent. Musicians and music students from mainland China also came to Taiwan to pursue their music education.

After the Second World War, Taiwan's political atmosphere and economic situation shifted abruptly, a change which was reflected in contemporaneous music activity. Scholar Edwin A. Winckler divided the post-war development of Taiwan’s music into three periods in his Cultural Policy on Postwar Taiwan (1994):

1. 1945-1960

2. 1960-1975

3. 1975-1990

In 1946, the school that was known as Taihoko High School during the era of Japanese rule was renamed the Taiwan Provincial Teachers College and became an important center for cultivating music teachers. In 1955, it was again renamed to Taiwan Provincial Normal University; at this time, Er-hua Xiao from Fujian Music College, Ou Kang and Cui-lun Dai from Shanghai Music College (the predecessor of Shanghai Conservatory of Music), and others joined its faculty and redesigned the music educational system of Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwanese musicians who had traveled to Japan for study, such as Ci-mei Gao and Cai-xiang Zhang, also joined the faculty after their return to Taiwan, resulting in the school’s music educational curriculum reflecting the principles of two different systems. At the time, Taiwan's art music was greatly influenced by post-romantic music from the West. This was particularly distinct in the works of alumni of Taiwan Provincial Normal University, including Tyzen Hsiao, Tsang-houei Hsu, and others.[6]

The National Taiwan Academy of Arts (the predecessor of today’s National Taiwan University of Arts) was established in Banqiao, Taipei County (now New Taipei City), in 1955. Through the effort of the successive directors of its music program, including vocalist Xue-yong Shen, Wei-liang Shih (1926-1977), and others, numerous professional performers and composers received trainings that blended the Western theory of composition together with elements of traditional Chinese music and used Western composition techniques to reinterpret classics of Chinese literature. For example, The Song of Pipa for a female soloist and orchestra, composed by Wei-liang Shih, adapted the poem of the same title written by poet Juyi Bai of the Tang Dynasty as its lyrics. This modern music work combined the Chinese pentatonic scale and western polyphony and atonality. It was premiered at Taipei’s Armed Forces Cultural Center in 1968, with soprano Sai-yun Liu as the female vocalist and Cui-lun Dai conducting the Taiwan Provincial Symphony Orchestra (predecessor of today’s National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra) as accompaniment. This piece was known to be the late composer’s favorite of his works. Other alumni of the National Taiwan Academy of Arts included musicians Tai-xiang Li, Chang-fa Yu, and others.

Composers of this generation were deeply influenced by the heritage of Chinese culture, with deep cultural literacy and awareness of local trends, enabling them to excel at combining Western music and classic Chinese literature together. For example, Shui-long Ma portrayed his hometown Keelung in his Suite Taiwan for Piano Solo. In his later Bamboo Flute Concerto, the piece which brought him fame as a composer, he combined the Chinese pentatonic scale and the orchestration of Western music together, not only showcasing the performance skills of the bamboo flutist but also bringing Taiwanese music to a whole new level. The Bamboo Flute Concerto was selected as the theme song of the Broadcasting Corporation of China based on its reputation as a monumental Taiwanese musical piece [7]. This piece was followed by Shui-long Ma’s symphonic suite Xiang Yu and His Concubine, a work based on the history of the Chu-Han Contention in ancient China. Originally written in the form of a singspiel with spoken dialogue, Ma used traditional Chinese instruments in place of the vocals. For example, the bass part for the character Xiang Yu is replaced by the suona, the soprano part for Consort Yu is replaced by the nanhu, and the tenor part for Liu Bang is replaced by the pipa. Combining Chinese traditional instruments and a Western orchestra, this symphonic suite weaves exchanges between these three traditional instruments throughout. Xiang Yu and His Concubine won the Best Art Music Album award at the 26th Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music.

The music conservatory serves as a base for cultivating musical talents, while the establishment of musical organizations founded by patrons supports a variety of musical events. The Association of Taiwanese Culture was established by Taiwan’s elite Hsien-tang Lin, the scholar Mosei Lin, politician Mi-chien Yu, and others in 1946 for actively promoting musical activities. Musicians returning from their studies in Japan, including Chih-yuan Kuo, Chuan-sheng Lu, and Erh Lin, and others, were fervent in creating new pieces for the events held by this society. However, during this period of post-war reconstruction, these events were unsuccessful in attracting attention and support. [8] In 1955, Chih-yuan Kuo wrote the Symphonic Variation in Taiwanese Style for Orchestra, the first orchestral piece by a Taiwanese composer. With themes celebrating Taiwan's beautiful scenery and folk music, the work was premiered by Taiwan Provincial Symphony Orchestra. [9] In 1972, Kuo wrote the Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra, the first piano concerto by a Taiwanese composer.

Students studying composition at Taiwan Provincial Normal University and the National Taiwan Academy of Arts received a great deal of exposure to Chinese traditional music, operas, and works written by Chinese composers from the first-half of the 20th century, such as art songs by Tzu Huang, Yuen-ren Chao, Bao-chen Li, and Xue'an Liu, and others, in their tutelage led by musicians from Mainland China. After these students graduated, some taught music at schools, such as Yen Lu, while some worked as researcher or orchestral musicians in the Taiwan Provincial Symphony Orchestra, including Loong-hsing Wen, Hsuan-wen Chang, and Deh-ho Lai, etc. In their spare time, these graduates collected and analyzed Taiwanese folk music, and blended it with Western composition theory to develop a new form of contemporary art music belonging to Taiwan.[10]

The Division of Research for the Taiwan Provincial Symphony Orchestra was established by its former director Wei-liang Shih in 1972. He invited several alumni of the National Taiwan Academy of Arts and composers returning from abroad to join this division, including Deh-ho Lai, Loong-hsing Wen, Chang-fa Yu[11], among others. These young composers founded the Music Society of the Sunflower in 1967. In addition to the composers mentioned above, Mau-liang Chen, Chin-tang Shen, and Shui-long Ma, also alumni of the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, were also members of this society. [12]

Private Music Organizations[edit]

Tsang-houei Hsu, who studied abroad in France before returning to Taiwan to teach at Taiwan Provincial Normal University, founded the Assembly for Composition in 1961. This group did not have fixed members, with Tsang-houei Hsu inviting different composers to write pieces for each concert. In 1961, New Music in First Performance, an orchestra for the performance of modern music, was founded by the violinist Chang-guo Deng, Japanese pianist Anna Azusa Fujita, Hsien-liang Koo, Tsang-houei Hsu, Kuo-huang Han, and others in order to perform modern music both in Taiwan and overseas. Other important groups during this period included the Chiang Lang Music Assembly and The Five. They held concerts to present their own works as well as conduct international exchanges.

The Asian Composers League - National Committee and The Composers’ Association of the Republic of China (ACL-ROC) was co-founded by Tsang-houei Hsu, Yoshiro Nabeshima (Japan), Yoshiro Irino (Japan), Sheng-shih Lin (Hong Kong), and Un-young La (Korea) in 1973 in order to exchange ideas about music with other Asian composers. Through this organized system for carrying out international exchange of contemporary art music, development of Taiwan's contemporary art music expanded greatly. Frequent and regular cross-cultural exchange also helped improve the composing standard for Taiwan’s art music significantly and many notable composers arose.[13]

At the time, the art music of Taiwan, in addition to new musical styles that combined Chinese and Western music, also encompassed abstract musical styles influenced by Modernism. When Tsang-houei Hsu returned to Taiwan after his studies in France, he brought with him the latest contemporary music trends of Europe, including serialism music. Although this style was not widely-accepted in Taiwan, his students at Taiwan Provincial Normal University and the National Taiwan Academy of Arts were influenced by this musical theory. [14] Works written by Hwang-long Pan (1945- ) used this modern musical language, enhancing the sonority and ambiance of sound. Compared to works written by his contemporaries, Pan's compositions were more abstract. For example, his quartet for the clarinet, percussion, piano, and cello Labyrinth - promenade places great emphasis on mood and atmosphere. In recent years, Hwang-long Pan has worked closely with the Chai Found Music Workshop, an ensemble that focuses on the performance of contemporary art music in Taiwan. In addition to performing traditional Chinese music, the Chai Found Music Workshop also utilizes Chinese traditional instruments to perform contemporary art music. It has presented numerous works written by contemporary Taiwanese composers at many international contemporary art festivals.

Since 1980[edit]

The development of Western art music in Taiwan primarily took place in educational institutions, both public and private. The earliest such music programs included those at Taiwan Provincial Normal University and the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, as well as Chinese Culture University (1962)¸ Shih Chien College of Home Economics (today's Shih Chien University, 1969), Soochow University (1972), Fu Jen Catholic University (1983), and the National Institute of the Arts (predecessor of today's Taipei National University of the Arts, 1982). [15] After the 1980s, all the junior teachers colleges were restructured into teachers' colleges, allowing the founding of several departments and institutes of music. These new programs trained numerous music teachers for different types of schools and also promoted general enthusiasm for music. Around the same time, the United Experimental Orchestra (predecessor of the National Symphony Orchestra) and the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center (predecessor of the National Theater and Concert Hall) were established respectively in 1986 and 1987. Together, they held a series of concerts with many Taiwanese and overseas musicians invited to perform and commissioned new pieces from local composers. All of this contributed to the vigorous growth of musical activities in Taiwan. Musical talents flourished in large numbers and the standards for composition and performance shot up markedly. [16] Leading musicians at the time included Hwang-long Pan, Shing-kwei Tzeng, Fang-long Ke, Nan-chang Chien, Shan-hua Chien, and Shu-si Chen.

At the suggestion of Dr. Robert Scholz, Taiwan began to send talented music students for pursuing further study abroad in the 1960s. The earliest students selected included pianists Pi-hsien Chen, Lina Yeh, and Tai-cheng Chen, among others, who went to Europe for their musical studies. After they graduated, some of them remained overseas, while others returned to Taiwan and devoted themselves to education. Several of these music talents have won awards in renowned international music competitions. [17] Examples include pianist Siao-pei Yang, who won the third place in the Concours international d'exécution musicale de Genève in 1967; [18] pianist Pi-hsien Chen, who won the first place in the Internationaler Musikwettbewerb der ARD in 1974; Nai-yuan Hu, who was the first place winner of the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in 1985; and Yu-chien Tseng, who won the second place in the violin section (in which first place was not awarded) of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015. As for conductors, Helen Quach, Wen-pin Chien, Shao-chia Lü, Mei-ann Chen, and Tung-chieh Chuang are all well-known conductors in the international music scene that has brought Taiwan international prestige.

In 1990, composer Shui-long Ma launched the Spring and Autumn Music Collection, a platform for sponsoring aspiring composers, funded and organized by the Chew’s Culture Foundation. Entrepreneur Andrew Chew supported this endeavor in acknowledgment of the dire need for more Taiwanese composers and the recognition that composers serve as the cornerstone of all artistic works. Theatrical as well as choreographic performances all need background music, with composers playing as vital a role as accompanists. The Spring and Autumn Music Collection launched its first concert in the spring of 1991, presenting the works of aspiring Taiwanese composers in their prime, such as Shu-si Chen, Shan-hua Chien, Kwang-i Ying, Hwei-lee Chang, Ming-chung Sheu, Shyh-ji Pan, and Yann-jong Hwang, with a variety of styles of music represented. The autumn concert held later the same year brought in veteran composers, such as Tsang-houei Hsu, Hwang-long Pan, Yen Lu, Ting-lien Wu, Nan-chang Chien, Shing-kwei Tzeng, and Hao Chang. They produced new works that blend Chinese culture with Western compositional techniques.[19]

The difference between the spring and autumn concerts held by the Spring and Autumn Music Collection is that the spring concerts feature works by aspiring composers, while the autumn concerts focus on works by seasoned composers. As of 2016, the Spring and Autumn Music Collection may not hold concerts every year but the participating composers represent the development of Taiwan’s Western art music scene. Many of the outstanding composers featured in the concerts have won prizes in the international composition competitions, for example, Jing Peng, Ming-hsiu Yen, Wei-chih Liu, Ching-meio Lin, Chiu-yu Chou, Shih-hui Chen, Yuan-chen Li, Chung-kun Hung, Tzyy-sheng Lee, and others.

As for the development of Western opera in Taiwan, the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO, 1986 – 2003) produced one opera every year under the directorship of Felix Chiu-Sheng Chen. The operas primarily featured local vocalists with only a few internationally renowned vocalists invited to participate. Moreover, the staff in charge of stage production and backstage work was led by Taiwanese stagehands, administrators, and musicians. This system offered opportunities to local vocalists to showcase their talents and other art workers to develop the skills needed for handling the delicate and complicated work that goes into producing an opera.[20]

The Taipei Opera Theater was established by professor and vocalist Dau-hsiong Tseng in 1973. Although not as large as the Taipei Symphony Orchestra in scale, the Taipei Opera Theater has performed many Western operatic masterpieces over the past 50 years. Both the quantity of performances and the production standards are on par with those produced by public orchestras and the theater serves as an important base for nurturing local opera singers and conductors alike. From Tai-li Chu in the past to the more recent Li-chin Huang, Keng Li, I-chiao Shih, Chia-fen Wu, Hanying Iaia Tso, Taiwan on the whole has raised many young and aspiring vocalists active onstage in many international opera houses.[21]

Cloud Gate Dance Theater is also a major driving force in the Taiwanese composition scene. For example, Deh-ho Lai was commissioned by Hwai-min Lin, the founder of Cloud Gate Dancer Theater, to write the music for White Serpent Tale and The Dream of the Red Chamber. Shui-long Ma was also similarly commissioned for Liao Tian-ding.[22] As for theatrical works, Kuei-ju Lin, a composer in her prime who has devoted herself to theatrical music production and is active in theatrical and art music circles, began her career as an undergraduate. After she received her Ph.D degree in the United States and returned to Taiwan to teach, she collaborated with M.O.V.E. Theatre to design and host Dear John[23], which became one of five finalists for the twelfth Taishin Arts Award.


  1. 淡水基督長老教會. "認識馬偕牧師". Retrieved 2023-01-22.
  2. 顏綠芬、徐玫玲 (2006). 台灣的音樂. 台北縣: 財團法人群策會李登輝學校. p. 159. ISBN 9572975242. Search this book on
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  7. 顏綠芬、徐玫玲 (2006). 台灣的音樂. 台北縣: 財團法人群策會李登輝學校. pp. 182–183. ISBN 9572975242. Search this book on
  8. 游素凰 (2000). 臺灣現代音樂發展探索(一九四五—一九七五). 台北市: 樂韻. pp. 33–34. ISBN 9570342579. Search this book on
  9. 呂郁秀 (2021). 臺灣音樂史. 五南. p. 153. ISBN 9789865228521. Search this book on
  10. 呂郁秀 (2021). 臺灣音樂史. 五南. pp. 147–153. ISBN 9789865228521. Search this book on
  11. 游素凰 (2000). 臺灣現代音樂發展探索(一九四五—一九七五). 台北市: 樂韻. p. 170. ISBN 9570342579. Search this book on
  12. 顏綠芬、徐玫玲 (2006). 台灣的音樂. 台北縣: 財團法人群策會李登輝學校. p. 176. ISBN 9572975242. Search this book on
  13. 游素凰 (2000). 臺灣現代音樂發展探索(一九四五—一九七五). 台北市: 樂韻. pp. 55–97. ISBN 9570342579. Search this book on
  14. 顏綠芬、徐玫玲 (2006). 台灣的音樂. 台北縣: 財團法人群策會李登輝學校. pp. 170–173. ISBN 9572975242. Search this book on
  15. 陳虹苓、陳碧娟 (2007-12-19). "台灣音樂史". 聯合民族管弦樂團. Retrieved 2023-01-22.
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  17. 呂郁秀 (2021). 臺灣音樂史. 五南. p. 151. ISBN 9789865228521. Search this book on
  18. tinglulee (2015-09-17). "留法鋼琴家楊小佩民國64年7月26日舉行松山公園訂劃基金募款獨奏會". Retrieved 2023-01-23.
  19. "春秋樂集". Retrieved 2023-01-22.
  20. "【人物】 陳秋盛". 國立傳統藝術中心臺灣音樂館. Retrieved 2023-01-23.
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  23. 李秋玫. "劇場就是音箱 解構六十分鐘的共鳴". PAR表演藝術. 國家兩廳院. Retrieved 2023-02-09.

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