Supporting Article

Singing from Underground to the World

Listening to the Music of Contemporary Chinese Christianity


The contemporary Chinese church was formed in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Many underground meetings and house churches emerged in southeastern and central China. As part of these flourishing fellowships, many localized hymns were created, then shared and passed along by traveling pastors and evangelists. Studying these hymns and spiritual songs can shed light on the little-known history of contemporary Chinese Christianity, especially the development of the underground house church network.

Hymns composed and sung during the age of persecution in 1960 and 1970

In 1966, Chairman Mao (毛泽东,1893-1976) and “The Gang of Four” (四人帮) held supreme power in China. They initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution with the aim of purging remnants of imperial and feudal elements from Chinese society. This political cult viewed Christianity as the “Daring Vanguard of Western Imperialism.” Many churches were forcibly closed; priests were persecuted; and Bibles were confiscated and torn to pieces by Chairman Mao’s Red Guards (红卫兵). In the midst of this persecution, most Christians went underground and resorted to secret meetings.

These Christians faced the daunting question of how to lead a normal Christian life under the grave threat of this disastrous, national, political climate. It was a severe problem for those surviving in this era. Singing hymns helped to quiet their souls and offered a beacon of hope to other believers as well as to suffering, non-believers alike. When these Christians were sent to compulsory camps for “re-education through labor” (劳动改造 ) , they walked in the countryside singing hymns that were engraved on their memories.

Among those precious songs that inspired many Christians were hymns written by Watchman Nee (倪柝声, 1903-1972). For example, the hymn "Olives That Have Known No Pressure" (你若不压橄榄成渣) spread widely and rapidly through the underground church.

Olives That Have Known No Pressure

From olives that have not been pressed
No oil will burst out;
If the grapes escape the winepress,
Cheering wine can never flow;
Only when Spikenard is crushed,
Does the fragrance fill the room.
Shall I then, Lord, flinch at suffering
Which Thy love for me would choose?

Chorus: Each blow I suffer
Is true gain to me.
In the place of what Thou takest
Thou dost give Thyself to me.

你若不压橄榄成渣,它就不能成油;
你若不炼哪挞成膏,它就不流芬芳;
你若不投葡萄入酢,它就不能变成酒;
主,我这人是否也要受你许可的创伤?

副歌:每次的打击,都是真利益;
如果你收去的东西,你以自己来代替。

Although Watchman Nee passed away in prison in 1972, his hymns and teachings continued to exert great influence over Chinese churches, especially during the time of the Local Church Movement.

Other spiritual songs that spread widely in the 1970s and 1980s also inspired Christians. The famous song entitled "The True Disciples" (真门徒) was shared and cherished in the underground churches in the Zhejiang area. This song was said to be written by an unknown Christian.

The True Disciples

Breaking through the barriers ahead,
Stepping over the mountains before us,
Stand high, advance bravely, and never look back.
There is only bitterness in the world,
There is only sweetness in the Lord.

There is only difficulty in the world,
There is only striving to keep up for us Christians.
What are the difficulties, hardships, and sorrows?
We have uprooted all of them with a hoe.
Sometimes we found no way out, but still feel worthwhile.

True disciples gave their lives long ago,
Hoeing strongly, begging without shame.
Wearing rags as formal dresses.
Standing against the wind, airing no complaints while being persecuted.
If only we could spread the Gospel around the world,
We are willing to be crucified upside down!

冲破前途的壁垒,踏平拦路的高山,
挺身昂首勇往直前,绝不回头看。
世界上只有苦中苦,在我们只有甜中甜,
人世内只有难上难,在我们只有赶上赶。

什么是艰难困苦、愁烦怨恨?在我们早己一律铲。
偶尔日暮途穷,也觉得实在上算。
真门徒命早捐,锄地有力,讨饭不丢脸。
衣彬褴褛当作礼服穿。
冻死迎风站,屈死无怨言,
只要把耶稣传遍,十架倒悬也心甘。

Undoubtedly, the composers and singers of these hymns had been cruelly treated by the local police. Many Christians were imprisoned several times. While in prison, they gradually made the prison into a “silent church” sustained by a deep love for one another and communion with God. Often, when someone sang a verse from a Christian hymn or just hummed the melody, others in different rooms would respond with the next verse. Although imprisoned, they were able to continue to lead a Christian life in particular ways: one was by singing hymns. Eventually, the state apparatus became a musical instrument of the Holy Spirit and these songs became the underground documentation or souvenirs of those hard times.

In 1976, Chairman Mao passed away and the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution ended. Many priests, pastors, and lay Christians regained partial freedom. Although the brutal persecution of Christians had ended, the prospect of freely practicing the Christian religion in China remained problematic; churches continued to develop primarily in the “cracks.”

The Canaan Hymns and revival of the house church movement since the 1980s

Henan, also referred to as “China’s Galilee,” has enjoyed several revivals since the 1970s. During the hard years under Mao, Christians in Henan sang rural spiritual songs due to a lack of hymnals. After China’s Reform and Opening Up policy was implemented in 1978, Henan churches regained access to many hymnals from abroad. They began to sing formal hymns again, just as they did in the former Republican period. However, these traditional hymns seemed cold and incomprehensible to most adherents of the growing Henan churches as many were illiterate peasants and factory workers. While the traditional hymns were not a good fit for Henan Christians, God provided a way to encourage and nourish them and similar young Christians.

In late 1989, Lu Xiao-min (吕小敏), a female peasant who was born in Henan, joined a house church; her aunt having shared with her about Jesus. After dropping out of middle school due to poor health, she prayed and was healed. In 1990, at age 19, she began writing down verses the Lord gave her as she worked in the fields or during the night when she could not sleep. Her songs are now published as the Canaan Hymns and number more than 1800. They have been widely welcomed in the Henan church and throughout the entire Chinese church body. They have become the most famous, local, Chinese hymns. These songs have not only helped the world to understand the revival occurring in China but have become a symbol of the Chinese church’s resurgence and passion.

Five O'clock in the Morning of China (中国的早晨五点钟) (Canaan Hymns #268)

At five o'clock in the morning in China, there arises the sound of prayers. 
Prayers bring revival and peace, bring harmony and victory. 
At five o'clock in the morning in China, there arises the sound of prayers.
Everyone offers sincere love.
In each corner of the earth, we are brothers.

At five o'clock in the morning in China, there arises the sound of prayers.
Spreading across mountains and rivers, melting icy hearts and souls. 
No more bondage, no more war. 
Bringing about blessings, turning around destiny; this is a year of harvest.

中国的早晨五点钟,传来祈祷声,祈祷带来复兴和平,带来合一得胜。
中国的早晨五点钟,传来祈祷声,人人都献出真诚的爱,五湖四海皆弟兄。

中国的早晨五点钟,传来祈祷声。飞越了万水千山,融化冰冷的心灵。
再没有捆锁,再没有战争。带来了祝福,扭转了命运,今年是好收成。

In addition, many Chinese missionaries left their hometowns for other lands to deliver the gospel by singing the Canaan Hymns. From that great revival of the Central Plains in the 1980s, there have emerged large missionary teams in Henan and Anhui such as the Fangcheng Gospel Team and the China Gospel Fellowship, also known as the Tanghe Fellowship. Within such fellowships, the Canaan Hymns serve multiple roles, functioning as personal spiritual exercises, corporate praise, mission mobilization, and even identity expression—a way to communicate to nonbelievers that they are Christians.

The Canaan Hymns played a very special role in 2008 during the rescue operation after the devastating Wenchuan earthquake that killed tens of thousands. More than 500,000 Christian volunteers from over 300 house churches came to the front lines and offered help to the suddenly homeless families and newly orphaned children. As they passed out food, water, and clothing, many sang the Canaan Hymns to bring comfort, hope, and perhaps faith to a shocked and hurting people.

Singing the new songs of the Chinese younger generation

Every generation has its own collection of songs. With the Reform and Opening Up policy, Chinese people and their churches began to reopen to the world again. The Internet transformed the landscape in 1994 and the WTO brought more of the outside world into the homes of the average Chinese. By 2001, the whole of society had made a huge step forward and the younger generation of Christians sought more modern hymns in the popular style.

Among these younger Christian fellowships, Streams of Praise (赞美之泉), along with praise and worship music from Hong Kong and Taiwan, were welcomed and widely adopted. These hymns replaced the songs sung during the days of persecution with catchy melodies and simple lyrics in a modern style.

In addition, many gospel singers, like Huang Qi-shan (黄绮珊), Zhao Jun-lu (趙珺露), Li Ying-feng (李映峰), and Lin Yue-xuan (林岳轩), have been featured on TV shows and mass media events. To survive under the stringent censorship rules that often severely restrict Christian activities, Christian singers have had to present the gospel message more implicitly in their performances. For example, Huang Qi-shan, a famous singer and now a committed Christian, sings many songs carrying spiritual messages on some popular TV shows, expressing deep spirituality but omitting ecclesiastical terminology.

In 2015, Huang Qi-shan sang "The Lighthouse" (灯塔) on Zhejiang Satellite TV. This song was about someone’s search for eternal love. On the surface, this song was not about the gospel. However, it was clearly adapted from the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace." The lyrics of "Amazing Grace" were carefully rewritten for "The Lighthouse," with the names God, Lord, and Christ changed to “Eternal Love” (屹立不变的爱) and heaven to “the other shore” (彼岸), a term commonly used by Chinese people to describe an eternal world. Such popular songs sung by gospel singers share their spiritual journeys without using explicitly religious terms. In this unique way, the gospel, along with clear testimonies of Christian faith, has been successfully brought into the public sphere. Christian voices are reaching the hearts of the Chinese people.

Conclusion

Since the mid-1970s, the number of Christians in mainland China has increased remarkably. Because of the political situation in China, many Christians have expressed their faith and their gospel message in creative ways such as writing and singing hymns. Different hymns and spiritual songs have appeared in different periods as different generations have needed to write and sing their own songs.

With the reopening of society, many Chinese churches have moved from underground into the public sphere. Listening to their hymns provides insight into the hearts of these Chinese Christians during both the difficult days of the past and today’s contemporary church.

Editor’s Note: The author wishes to thank BJ Arthur and Ellie Li for their assistance with this article.

Image credit: Peter Chou Kee Liu via Flickr.

XU Song-Zan

XU Song-Zan (徐颂赞) is an independent scholar and writer in China with a Master’s degree in religious studies from National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He may be contacted at songzanxu@gmail.com. View Full Bio