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Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo: Asian Hymns in Their Cultural and Liturgical Contexts

Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo: Asian Hymns in Their Cultural and Liturgical Contexts

by I-to Loh

A new, highly authoritative reference for all things related to Asian Christian hymnody, this tome examines the hymns of Sound the Bamboo in their historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts of 22 countries. Noted hymnologist I-to Loh has gathered and assembled his studies and experiences and that of many colleagues relating to the history and practice of


A new, highly authoritative reference for all things related to Asian Christian hymnody, this tome examines the hymns of Sound the Bamboo in their historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts of 22 countries. Noted hymnologist I-to Loh has gathered and assembled his studies and experiences and that of many colleagues relating to the history and practice of hymnody in a part of the world that comprises many cultures and countries, not to mention spiritual influences. Few resources, especially ones accessible to Western readers, have delved into the Christian sacred music of Asia, and those that have tend to give only minimal examples, attempt to somehow combine all of Asia under a single umbrella, or examine only a few countries. This book, on the other hand, includes in-depth, all-encompassing information in addition to the usual background stories of texts and tunes of specific hymns in the related hymnal and biographies of their contributors.

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Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo

Asian Hymms in Their Cultural and Liturgical Contexts

By I-to Loh

GIA Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62277-024-3


Asian Hymns in Their Historical Perspectives

Asian Identities and Their Expression of Christian Faith

Asia covers such a broad geographic area and is so culturally diverse that no simple statement or general description could do justice. This discussion is therefore limited to the cultural aspects that have a direct bearing on the formation of Asian Christian expression, on the words and music of hymns, and to a lesser degree on their liturgical contexts. Bishop Emerito P. Nacpil, former director of the Association of Theological Education in Southeast Asia (ATESEA) and dean of the Southeast Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST) lists seven characteristics, which, though somewhat outdated, still provide insight for understanding certain Asian cultures:

1) Plurality and diversity of races, peoples, cultures, social institutions, religions, and ideologies

2) Experience as a former colony

3) In the process of nation building, development, and modernization

4) Desire to achieve authentic self-identity and cultural integrity in the modern world

5) Home of the world's living religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.)

6) Searching for a form of social order beyond the current options

7) Christian community is the minority (except in the Philippines) (ATESEA Handbook 2000-2001, 68-69)

This list suggests the complex state of many Asians caught between contrasting worlds: native and global, traditional and contemporary. While most Asian countries have completed the nation-building process, many are still far from achieving an ideal situation. Development and modernization have positive and negative aspects. For example, most Asian countries that have emerged from colonization are now trapped by globalization. Asian as well as Third World countries constantly struggle to affirm their identities in an ever-changing world.

Searching for New Asian Identities

Many Asians have had vivid experiences of the region's dramatic changes since the end of World War II: the sweetness and agony of new freedom and democracy, the rapid social transformation, the pressure toward industrialization and commercialism, the development of mass media, the amazing ability and power of computers, the tremendous speed of travel and communications, and the inevitable formation of the "global village." While all of these factors compel Asians to cooperate with one another, they have also made it more difficult for Asians to maintain ethnic identities, traditions, and values. It appears the closer we are to contemporary global culture, the less we are able to retain our national heritages. It is with little wonder that many Asians today have difficulty finding their roots and convincing others of their own cultural identities.

One of the most significant changes in South and Southeast Asia is the freedom from colonial rule by imperialistic Asian neighbors and/or Western European countries, the latter often abetted by the Christian church and its missionary activities. A notable exception is Thailand, which for several centuries has maintained its sovereignty and cultural identity. In most cases, colonization, dictatorship, and political oppression were accompanied by cultural genocide. People were forced to accept and learn the cultural values of their colonizers or dictators, including their language, arts, and music. However, many Asian nations seized opportunities to fight for freedom, and they eventually gained their independence from colonizing countries, as shown in the following list:

Bangladesh: from Pakistan, 1971
Cambodia: from France, 1949; full independence, 1953
Hong Kong: from the United Kingdom, 1997
India: from the United Kingdom, 1947
Indonesia: from the Netherlands, 1945
Korea: from Japan, 1945
Laos: from France, 1954
Philippines: from the United States, 1946; from Marcos dictatorship, 1986
Malaysia: from the United Kingdom, 1957
Myanmar: from the United Kingdom, 1948
Pakistan: from the United Kingdom, 1947
Singapore: from the United Kingdom, 1957; separated from Malaysia, 1965
Taiwan: from Japan, 1945; from Chinese Nationalist dictatorship, 1996
Vietnam: from France, 1954

After these countries acquired freedom, democracy, and prosperity, their institutions re-educated the citizens to respect their own cultures, arts, and traditions. Consequently, many Asians have gained new understanding of their history, cultures, and ideologies, and they no longer accept or rely exclusively on the views of their former colonizers or Western scholars. At the same time that these countries have gradually gained confidence and self-esteem in developing their own democracies and cultivating their artistic heritages, they have been confronted by global political and economic structures, as well as the powerful mass media. These global forces have exploited each country's shortcomings and have created consumers' desires for the perceived lifestyle of the West. Slowly, Asian countries have entered the trap of globalization.

General Expression of Asian Christian Faith

Struggling to define their old and new identities, Asian churches are also discerning the impact of globalization while reviving their cultural heritages to recreate Christian arts and expressions. In 1988, I was invited to give a lecture in Hong Kong for the Conference of the World Association of Chinese Church Music. This lecture articulated widely held impressions of Chinese- speaking churches:

1. The concept of "banana churches": All Chinese-speaking Christians around the world appear "yellow" from their skin, but deep in their hearts and minds they long to be as "white" as Caucasians in the West. Their Christian faith is expressed by the wholesale acceptance, imitation, and replication of Western models.

2. Translated and borrowed theologies: The churches learn and express Western theologies translated into Chinese and accept them with little or no critical evaluation regarding contextual applicability. They do not develop their own theologies.

3. Copied music: The great majority of Chinese composers imitate Western styles of composition and harmony. They also copy and translate Western anthems without acquiring permission from the composer, author, or publisher.

4. Second-hand liturgies: Church leaders who resist contextualization have absolutized liturgies introduced over a century ago by missionaries.

(Loh 1992, 120–22)

In conclusion, I challenged musicians and pastors attending the conference, essentially asking, "Where is the rice? Where are the staple foods, the substance of a Chinese Christian expression?"

Unfortunately, the above observations and comments reflect the general situation and attitude in today's Asian churches, seminaries, and other institutions. Exceptions are found in India (United Theological College in Bagalore, Thamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, and the [Roman Catholic] National Biblical, Catechetical and Liturgical Center in Bangalore); the Philippines (Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music); Taiwan (Tainan Theological College and Seminary, Yushan Theological College and Seminary); Thailand (Isaan Community Church); and Indonesia (Yamuger, Duta Wacana, and Protestant Church in Bali). Of course, there are likely many others. Also, during the past two to three decades, a few Asian theologians in the West and in Asia have written on Asian theologies or their interpretations. For example, C. S. Song wrote The Tears of Lady Meng (WCC Risk Books, 1981), Third-Eye Theology(Orbis Books, 1979), The Compassionate God (Orbis Books, 1982), Theology From the Womb of Asia (Orbis Books, 1986), and three volumes on Christology: Jesus, the Crucified People (Orbis Books, 2001, paperback), Jesus and the Reign of God (Orbis Books, 1993, paperback), and Jesus in the Power of the Spirit (Orbis Books, 1994, paperback). Other contributions have been made by Kosuke Koyama'sWater Buffalo Theology (Orbis Books, 1974, revised and expanded 1999), Yong-Bock Kim's Messiah and Minjung(CCA, 1992), and Thomas Thangaraj's in-depth dialogues about Hinduism, The Crucified Guru (Abingdon, 1994). More Asian Christians, including church musicians, pastors, and theologians, will continue to learn from these and other writers, so that more contextual theologies, liturgies, and hymns (including music) will be created for the nurture and growth of all Asian churches.

Recent Impact of Globalization

The central theme of my life's work has been the struggle between Asian contextualization and Westernization, and more recently the phenomenon of globalization. Having emerged during the past two decades, globalization has affected people around the world in many ways. This discussion will be restricted to the impact of globalization on music and worship. Seen as a positive force, globalization brings new ideas, stimuli, and challenges that lead to progress. It has created and sped the sharing of resources through all kinds of media, all of which impact Christian music and worship. But globalization can also be seen as a new invasion of Western powers. Because the effects of globalization are often too strong for local people to resist, it has been difficult to contextualize their music and worship within their own cultures. The following are a few examples of globalization's effect on local churches in Taiwan and other parts of Asia.

1. The wholesale importation of Western praise choruses and pop-style hymns has caused a host of problems. First, church leaders use these styles of music to warm-up the congregation for a half-hour or longer without considering its relevancy to the liturgy. Second, the music weakens the congregation's musical ability and discourages interest in other types of music; consequently, native traditions and newly composed songs in ethnic styles have little chance to be taught and thus to survive. Third, by using this music, the church loses its historical and ecumenical links, resulting in narrow-minded Christians and neglected and distorted doctrines of God and the church.

2. Entertainment-oriented worship services of "success theology" formulated after globalization have become the primary mode for preaching and evangelism.

3. Some Western editors/compilers have recorded songs from Asia and other parts of the Third World and published them under their own names as arrangers. But in fact, they have only transcribed existing tunes, changed a few notes at best, and then claimed ownership of the music.

4. Some Western composers have arranged simple Asian or Third World songs into larger Western-style choral works, altering the original styles such that their uniqueness is lost. Even worse, the arrangers then copyright the songs, and the original composers have to pay fees to access their own diluted music.

To summarize: The West has the knowledge and the financial resources to appropriate the musical works of Asia and the Third World. Composers randomly apply Western harmony to render Asian and the Third World songs more palatable for Western consumption. This is akin to forcing the poor or people in hot climates to wear formal suits and ties before allowing them to worship God. Asian or Third World people have been led to feel pride in music that is no longer anything to be proud of, and some of them do not understand how their music has been manipulated (Loh 2005c, 125f).

I frequently tell my Asian colleagues and students that modernization is not the equivalent of Westernization. If you copy others all the time, then you lose your sense of self. In the Christian context, this has occurred primarily in two ways. First, the early missionaries initially transplanted the gospel to Asia with little or no regard for local cultural context. Even if the missionaries had good intentions, they did not have better expressions to contextualize their theology. This was the fundamental cause of the problem. Second, rapid globalization is compounding the situation. Local people have come to see their own culture as having little or no value; local culture is being thrown out in favor of Western ideas. This is by no means a new concern.

The Causes of the Problem: Transplantation of the Gospel

Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970), the cofounder of the Christian Conference of Asia and its first general secretary, recognized this problem decades ago. Although he did not live to experience the phenomenon of globalization, his observations and suggestions for solutions are still valid. Niles used an elegant metaphor to explain the problem of transplanting the gospel:

The Gospel is like a seed and you have to sow it. When you sow the seed of the Gospel in Palestine, a plant that can be called Palestinian Christianity grows. When you sow it in Rome, a plant of Roman Christianity grows. You sow the Gospel in Great Britain and you get British Christianity. The seed of the Gospel is later brought to America and a plant grows of American Christianity. Now when missionaries came to our lands they brought not only the seed of the Gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flower pot included! So, what we have to do is to break the flower pot, take out the seed of the Gospel, sow it in our own cultural soil, and let our own version of Christianity grow (Hawn 2003, 32).

Here, Niles points to the heart of the problem, not only of the gospel but also of Asian expression of faith through music and worship. The majority of efforts in Asia today, unfortunately, are still focused on translating, imitating, and copying Western ways of singing and worship, with the belief that they are the only authentic Christian expressions. Instead, efforts should be focused not only on breaking the Western flowerpot but also on taking out the seed of the gospel and figuring out how to plant this seed. Asians need to cultivate a version of Christianity that is appropriate to their cultural soil.


From Acculturation and Inculturation to Contextualization

The cultivation of Asian Christian faith and forms of worship has not been an easy task, primarily because it was thought the only authentic Christian expressions were those taught by missionaries. In addition, church leaders have assumed that a ritual will lose its meaning and power if one does not rigidly follow it. Consequently, early Asian Christians had to learn Western culture, music, and hymns; to accept Western doctrines; to imitate the Western ways of life; and even to wear Western clothes. A paradox of Christian expression and native culture emerged: "The closer the Christian expression to the Western culture, the easier for the traditional Christians to accept; the closer to the native culture, the more resistance it causes" (Loh 1993a, 55). Thus, many Christians who were reconciled with God and were assimilated to Western culture became alienated from their own people and rejected their own culture. This was often regarded as a "true conversion." It is no wonder the Christians in Bali were called the "Black Dutch," for they showed much pride in dressing, thinking, and acting like the white Dutch missionaries (Loh 1988, 7).

The African specialist Albert Nolan has commented, "One of the biggest problems with Western theology is that it thought it was a universal theology" (Hawn 2003, 140). It may still be so, but it is not only a problem for the West. Many Christians in Asia and the Third World today still believe that Western theologies, music, and liturgies are universal and still want to follow, protect, and propagate them.

During the early stage of missionary endeavor, the new converts' superficial assimilation into Western Christian culture was not very difficult. But it was not easy for some Asians to sing Western hymns, because the scale system, rhythms, and harmony were foreign to them. They had to change or modify them; this is the problem of acculturation.


Aylward Shorter defines acculturation as "the encounter between one culture and another, or the encounter between cultures, and it is the communication between cultures on a footing of mutual respect and tolerance and a necessary condition of a Church that claims to be universal" (Shorter 1988, 7f).

Here is one example of acculturation: When missionaries introduced early Korean Christians to Western hymns, the Koreans had to change the melodies to suit their folk singing style. Korean traditional music is usually in a compound meter, 9/8 or 6/8, and usually the tunes do not repeat the same note in the melody but prepare or anticipate the next tone. According to Seongdae Kim, the hymn tune Nettleton("Come thou fount of every blessing") was sung like this (Kim 1999, 194):


Excerpted from Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo by I-to Loh. Copyright © 2011 GIA Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of GIA Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

I-to Loh is a renowned hymnologist and the editor of the 1990 and 2000 editions of Sound the Bamboo: CCA Hymnal.

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