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Prodigy of Taiwan, Diva of Asia: Teresa Teng

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Teresa Teng (1953–1995) is the best-known and most beloved singer in the history of modern East Asia. Born on the island of Taiwan soon after it became the seat of the anti-Communist Republic of China (ROC), Teresa quickly emerged as a Mandarin pop sensation among overseas Chinese. In her early twenties, she proceeded to take Japan by storm as a surpassing singer of pensive Japanese ballads. By the end of the 1970s, in turn, her fame had spread far into the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where her careful renderings of ‘30s Shanghai classics made her a symbol of their society’s movement away from Cultural Revolution-era radicalism and toward an appreciation of everyday pleasures for tens of millions of Chinese. In the early 1980s, her career reached its zenith with a mammoth Fifteenth Anniversary Tour—including six straight days of sold-out concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum—following which she spent the final decade of her life unsuccessfully seeking a new role for herself. Teresa Teng has been remembered since her death in 1995 both for her sheer talent as a singer and performer and as an emblem of the cultural unity of greater China—mainland China, Taiwan, and ethnic Chinese communities worldwide—even as its political divisions refused to heal.

Author’s Note:  I have relied heavily on two Japanese biographies for much of the information contained in this essay: 1) Hirano Kumiko, Teresa Ten ga mita yume: kajin kasei densetsu(The Dream Teresa Teng Dreamed: Legend of a Chinese Diva) (Shōbunsha, 1996); and 2) Arita Yoshifu, Watakushi no ie wa yama no mukō: Teresa Ten, Jūnenme no shinjitsu(My House is Across the Mountain: Teresa Teng, The Truth Ten Years Later) (Bungei shunjū, 2005). Among numerous English-language sources I consulted, two provided particularly helpful background: (Teresa Teng Forever) and Mark Levin, “Death of Teresa Teng Saddens All of Asia: Singer’s Popularity Spanned National Borders,” Billboard Magazine, May 20, 1995, 3, 110. Year-by-year timelines of Teresa Teng’s life appear in both the Hirano volume listed above and Zhao Jun and Shi yonggang, Deng Lijun quanzhuan: Deng Lijun cishi shizhounian diancang jinianban(A Complete Biography of Deng Lijun: Treasury Memorial Edition on the Tenth Anniversary of Deng Lijun’s Passing) (Mingbao, 2005). Owing to its prevalence, I have chosen to use pinyin to transcribe nearly all Chinese terms besides a few that have become established in English in other forms, e.g., Chiang Kaishek and Hong Kong

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