The music of Taiwan’s death metal star turned national politician

Frontrunner material.
Frontrunner material.
Image: Reuters/Pichi Chuang
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Freddy Lim is running for a legislative seat in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, hoping to win in national elections that take place Jan. 16. He is also the lead singer of Chthonic, arguably the biggest death metal band in Asia.

The gap between death metal and politics may seem wide, but Chthonic’s music has long been deeply political. So has Lim, now 39, who in 2012 was elected chair of Amnesty International’s Taiwan branch. Chthonic’s music, and Lim’s platform, tap into an increasingly popular way of resolving Taiwan’s great identity crisis, which revolves around whether Taiwan is a part of China or something different altogether.

In 1949, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party lost its civil war to the Communist Party, and fled to Taiwan to regroup. It never left, and since then Taiwanese identity has been torn between historical closeness with China and the separate experience of life in Taiwan, a full-fledged democracy versus China’s one-party rule. Recent decades have seen a clear shift away from Chinese and toward Taiwanese identity, according to surveys conducted regularly by Taipei’s National Chengchi University.

Chthonic and Lim tap into and fuel this increase in identification as “Taiwanese.” To see how, just look at the hyper-political music of Chthonic.

Here is ”Supreme Pain for the Tyrant,” a song that is rather explicitly anti-KMT. It tells the story of the failed 1970 assassination attempt on Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son, by a pro-independence activist. “Let me stand up like a Taiwanese / Only justice will bring you peace,” the lyrics conclude. (The video is full of imagery that compares the KMT to the Nazis.)

The KMT is certainly seen by many as corrupt, out of touch, and too close with China, but “Taiwanese identity” is about more than just likening the party to Nazis. Chthonic and Lim also declare Taiwan as distinct from China by reaching back to before the KMT arrived at all. Lim often sings in Taiwanese, which is distinct from Mandarin and has been widely spoken in Taiwan for hundreds of years, and writes lyrics centered on aborigines that predate Chiang’s arrival by many centuries. The song “Takao,” for example, tells the story of Taiwanese aborigines who fought in the Imperial Japanese Army in the Second World War.

Chthonic songs often come with an explanation of their historical inspiration, usually posted on Facebook or in the video’s YouTube description. “Defenders of Bú-Tik Palace,” Chthonic explains, is about the 1930 Wushe Incident—in which Taiwanese aborigines were killed for rising up against Japanese oppression—and for “all martyrs who sacrificed themselves in resistance against dictators and fought for independence.”

The shift toward Taiwanese identity, found in its purest form in Chthonic, is likely to manifest itself in a big way when the election comes around two weeks from now. The KMT is still a powerful political force in Taiwan, but is almost certain to lose the presidency this month to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), thanks to bad economic policies and association with the rapidly falling “Chinese” and “Both” lines in the chart above. The DPP, whose politics are more in line with Taiwanese identity, may even win a parliamentary majority for the first time ever. As fewer people identify with China, fewer find the KMT’s message appealing.

Lim is too hardcore for the the DPP, though, and will instead be representing the brand-new New Power Party (NPP). This newcomer formed out of the Sunflower Movement of 2014, when Taiwanese students occupied the legislature to protest a trade agreement with China. The NPP is explicitly pro-Taiwan independence, unlike the DPP, which has softened its stance on the issue.

Lim is gunning for a seat in Taipei’s Wanhua District, long a KMT stronghold, and polling suggests (link in Chinese) he has a chance. He is certainly popular—tens of thousands attended a free concert/rally in Taipei last month.

While he no doubt owes much of his success to death metal, Lim might only win thanks to his willingness to set aside the rock persona, donning suits instead of face paint and releasing campaign videos of himself slow-motion running to softer music.