Western audiences may recognize Teresa Teng (邓丽君 dèng lìjūn) for her song “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心 yuèliàng dàibiǎo wǒ de xīn) — arguably the most recognizable modern Chinese tune in the world, and a favorite of beginner Chinese learners everywhere — but across Asia, Teng is celebrated for the entirety of her musical legacy.
Known for her smooth, hypnotizing voice and romantic ballads, Teng performed from the late ’60s until her tragic death in 1995. The Taiwanese folk singer was popular not only in the Mandarin-speaking world, but in Hong Kong, Japan, and Indonesia. She died at age 42 after suffering a severe asthma attack.
Teng’s popularity on the mainland is a testament to the size of her musical talent. Just as she signed her first record deal in 1968, Chairman Mao was sending thousands of young urbanites into rural areas to unlearn their bourgeois ways as a part of the “Down to the Countryside Movement.” In Taiwan, Teng wore the nickname “the soldier’s sweetheart” because she regularly serenaded the Nationalist army, and in 1989, she performed in multiple pro-democracy concerts in support of the student protestors at Tiananmen Square. But in spite of this, the Taiwanese folk star managed to win hearts in China all throughout this period, with her albums proliferating via black markets. After Deng Xiaoping rose to power, there was even this popular saying: “Deng the leader ruled by day, but Deng [Teresa Teng] the singer ruled by night.”
There are many songs we could share here, but I’m going with “What Do You Have To Say” (你怎么说 nǐ zěnme shuō): In it, Teng sings of heartbreak in her characteristically honeyed voice. Yet even as she rues being forgotten by a lover, her voice rings with dignity. It’s no wonder that her music was able to transcend borders and political strife.
wǒ méi wàngjì, nǐ wàngjì wǒ
I didn’t forget you but you forgot me
lián míngzì nǐ dōu shuō cuò
You even say my name wrong
zhèngmíng nǐ yīqiè dōu shì zài piàn wǒ
Proves all this time you were lying to me
kàn jīntiān nǐ zěnme shuō
Let’s see what you say today
nǐ shuōguò liǎng tiān lái kàn wǒ
You told me you would see me in two days
yǐ děng jiùshì yī nián duō
I waited for more than a year
sānbǎi liùshíwǔ gè rìzi bù hǎoguò
365 days pass slowly
nǐ xīnlǐ gēnběn méiyǒu wǒ
I was never in your heart
bǎ wǒ de àiqíng huán gěi wǒ
Return my love to me