Academic journal article The Hymn

Unity in Song: The Creation of an Indigenous Chinese Hymnody through Hymns of Universal Praise

Academic journal article The Hymn

Unity in Song: The Creation of an Indigenous Chinese Hymnody through Hymns of Universal Praise

Article excerpt

In 1818, Scottish Presbyterian Robert Morrison, Protestantism's first missionary to China, issued that country's first hymnal.1 Although it might seem strange that Morrison, who had only been in the country for eleven years, chose to focus his energies on translating the thirty hymns that made up that publication, it actually was a fairly common practice among Protestant missionaries. Congregational singing has long been a hallmark of Protestant worship, so in order for new converts to participate fully in the church's activities, missionaries had to translate hymnals. Neither was this focus on hymnody peculiar to China. Translation efforts in hymnody have so dominated Protestant mission work, that, around the world, the first exposure most non-Western societies have had to Western music has come through church music.2

What is unique about hymnody in China is that during the twentieth century, a strong tradition of indigenous hymnody quietly emerged, completely overtaking efforts at translating Western hymnody and in many ways uniting Christians persecuted there under the Communist regime. In fact, distinctly Chinese hymnody has affected the Western world in a powerful and reciprocal fashion not often seen when Western and non-Western musics come into contact. Not only do missionaries today often encourage the people with whom they work to compose their own worship music in their own musical style; Chinese hymns have entered American and European hymn books. Far from merely copying a Western tradition, composers of these hymns adapted literary and musical features from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, altered Western features to match Chinese musical conventions, and created a hymnody that is now used by all denominations and languages across the nation, a feat of unification not seen anywhere in the Western world.

These hymns were primarily composed for a small hymnal published in 1936, Hymns of Universal Praise. That one book and its compilers did more for the development of Chinese hymnody than any one or thing else, but it has rarely been studied for its cultural and musical impact. This article seeks to correct that fault. Beginning with a brief historical overview of the situation that prompted its publication, this study explores the difficulties Protestant missionaries encountered in translating Western hymns and the call for an indigenous hymnody that arose at the beginning of the twentieth century. It then proceeds to examine the hymnal's genesis as a collaborative effort among denominations and the ways in which the men and women of the Union Committee that compiled it overcame the obstacles earlier efforts had encountered. Finally, it looks at the hymnal itself both in the textual themes the hymns encapsulate and the musical traditions from which it borrows. By way of conclusion, this study ends by connecting the theme of unification woven throughout the discussion with the reason for Hymns of Universal Praise's remarkable success and its broad influence in the space where two cultures interacted.

Lost in Translation-Early Attempts at Chinese Hymnody

Although American missionaries carried a variety of hymn types with them as they went to China in the mid-nineteenth century, by and large they preferred gospel hymns to any other. This preference had musical and theological origins. The musical aspect lay in the hymns' singable melodies, repetitive and hearttugging lyrics, and slow harmonic movements with chord changes happening once per measure at the most. The theological aspect rested on the hymns' direct communication of their largely emotional message.

Gospel hymns originated during the second Great Awakening in the 1850s, particularly in the MoodySankey revivals.3 Revivalists enjoyed using them because their lyrically direct and musically simple style generated an overwhelming emotional reaction in congregations. In fact, gospel hymns were partially responsible for the emotionally-charged atmosphere that characterized American revival meetings. …

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