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Localising Church music in China
HONG KONG (UCAN): China has experienced an increase in locally composed liturgical songs, which is evidenced by a new website listing various hymns that are sung across China today.
Last year, one priest released his own album of songs that he composed himself.
Sanyuan, in northwestern Shaanxi province, and Xianxian in northern Hebei, both held sacred music festivals in late 2016 attracting many choirs from the areas.
But sacred music experts see challenges ahead.
“Chinese liturgical music is still in the budding stage, but it is delightful that people are enthusiastic about it,” Father John Baptist Zhao, from Hebei and the first Chinese priest to graduate from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome since some religious freedom returned to China around three decades ago, commented.
“However, the Chinese Church does not have an official, unified, high-standard hymnal. There is also a lack of sacred music composers and hymns. So in fact, many songs do not really meet liturgical requirements,” Father Zhao explained.
Father Zhao said that the Catholic Church in China really needs to develop its own liturgical music in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, as most sacred music formations in use in China today do not have the correct concept of liturgical music or systematic learning.
Vanise Kwok Wai-suen, who brought the Veritas Cup back from a hymn composition contest showcased in Macau in 2014, says that she believes that the most challenging aspect is the content of the hymns.
“The Catholic Church is very strict on this as the messages conveyed in hymns are supposed to be theologically correct,” Kwok pointed out.
“People who are good at music may not be good at theology or vice versa. It is not easy to find someone who is good at both and very few formations are available to link them together,” she observed.
Kwok believes that going through the Ignatian spiritual exercises helped her and the band she is part of, as they greatly contributed to their spiritual growth.
Besides prayer and meditation, Father Zhao also stressed the need to devote study time to Church traditions, in order to avoid an ad hoc attitude in composing liturgical music.
He added that another problem with modern Church music in China is that it often lacks solemnity and tends to resemble the modern pop culture rather than any recognised liturgical style, which he believes is degrading.
Father Zhao observed that some modern Church music, even if the words are appropriate, is still not suitable for use in the liturgy, because it only express passion.
But he added, “Of course, to compose non-liturgical music for Church gatherings is still appreciated.”
The competition run by Radio Veritas Asia in 2014 received more than 182 original entries from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, the United States of America, The Philippines and Europe.
It is regarded as having been so successful that the Chinese section of Radio Veritas Asia is organising a second contest and will be accepting entries up until May 31.
“After the first contest in 2014, we received hundreds of letters asking for a second. The contest has really become a platform for Church music composers to share their works,” Father John, the director of the Chinese section, explained.
Kwok commented that her experience shows her that the event does provide a good opportunity for people to compose hymns in the service of God and the people.
“I met many local and overseas participants at the last event and through the contest more people got to know about our Catholic band, AMDG (the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—For the Greater Glory of God), Kwok, who still feels thrilled about her success, said.
AMDG has performed and composed theme songs for major Church events, including World Youth Day 2016 and the Year of Mercy. It has also released its first album.
“A parent told me that her child keeps singing my songs day and night. I was really touched that children can get closer to God through Church music,” Kwok smiled.
However, Father John noted that multiplicity of languages is also a problem, as the top three winning hymns in 2014 were in Cantonese, which is mostly only spoken in Hong Kong and southern Guangdong province, so it has been difficult to promote them to Mandarin speakers, although Kwok has also recorded her award winning song about creation in Mandarin.
Even so, he was convinced that localised Church music is important as part of the inculturation movement that seeks to adapt Church teaching to local cultures.
“Music can help Chinese Catholic communities to better express their faith, stay close together and evangelise,” he said.
While planning to enter the second Veritas Cup, Kwok said AMDG is considering composing hymns in Mandarin so they can also reach people on mainland China.
Besides liturgical music, Kwok said that the Church needs more hymns for non-liturgical gatherings, as well as for faith formation activities and especially children.
“We may have Gregorian chant or traditional sacred music. But I believe there should be a wider spectrum for people to praise the Lord,” she stated.
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