Note: This post is the first in a series on music in the church in China, in which I will look at music used in both registered and unregistered churches.
From 1990 to 1998 I lived in the northeastern city of Changchun, first studying Chinese, then directing a program for others who were studying Chinese.
On Sundays we would often attend the Changchun Christian Church in Xiwu Lu. We loved worshipping with our Chinese brothers and sisters, and also enjoyed the opportunity it gave us to practice our Chinese. We used the services to learn Christian terminology (not taught in Chinese textbooks, obviously) and afterwards would hang around in the courtyard chatting with people.
Like all other Three-self churches in China, the hymnal we used was the Xin Bian Zan Mei Shi (新编赞美诗), usually translated as The New Hymnal. It was published in 1983 by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council (the “Two Organizations”) in numerical notation and a staff notation edition two years later. In the 1990s, in order to serve the growing number of Christians from overseas who were attending church in China, a bi-lingual version (Chinese-English) was commissioned. It was published in 1998.
Here is a description of the contents from the preface to the Chinese edition (as translated in the bilingual edition):
The present volume is a collection of 400 hymns. Of these 292 are widely known in churches all over the world, the lyrics and melodies have been chosen from hymnals used in the past in various Chinese churches. In addition, there are 6 translated hymns which did not appear in any past Chinese hymnal, or for which a new translation has been made. 102 of the 400 hymns either have lyrics or melodies composed by Chinese Christians or are adaptations of Chinese tunes. 56 of these have been composed by Chinese Christians in very recent years. In addition to the 400, 42 short spiritual songs or choruses have been selected and appended at the end of the book.
During the eight years that I lived in Changchun, every single Sunday morning the first hymn we sang was hymn #1 in the hymnal: “Holy, Holy, Holy! The Lord God Almighty.” In the Three-self churches that I attended in Beijing, it was also sung a lot, although not every Sunday. It remains one of the most well-known and well-loved hymns in China.
The hymn with lyrics is available on YouTube.
For more information about the numerical notation system used in Chinese music, go here.
As a language learner, this song was a gold mine of important theological terms, including shèngzāi (圣哉 holy), quánquán (全权 all powerful), rongyào (荣耀 glory), and zànměi (赞美 praise). As my comprehension increased, my singing in Chinese became a true act of worship.
In some ways it is not surprising that this is the first song in the hymnal, as it presents so many clear statements about the nature of God that are fundamental to the Christian faith.
He is holy.
He is Lord God almighty.
He is God in three persons.
He is merciful and mighty.
His glory cannot be seen by sinful man.
He is perfect in power, love, and purity.
If those statements are not true, then we as Christians have nothing to sing about, no matter what language we are using.
Header image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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