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History of Hymns: "Praise Our God Above"

Chao Tzu-chen

Chao Tzu-chen

“Praise Our God Above”
by Chao Tzu-chen; trans. Frank W. Price,
The Faith We Sing, No. 2061.

Praise our God above,
source of boundless love:
Spring wind, summer rain,
then the harvest grain;
pearly rice and corn,
fragrant autumn morn.
Though our work is hard,
God gives us reward.

The Christian faith developed deeply in China during the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese Christians numbered around 55,000. Today China has at least eighty million Christians. In the beginning, Chinese people commonly thought that Christianity was a “foreign religious belief.” However, for the past one hundred years, the Christian faith has spread speedily and taken root in China. This has been due to the efforts of many churches and theologians. Chao Tzu-chen (赵紫宸) (1888-1979) is considered to be one of the most important theologians in twentieth-century China. He is the first advocate for a “Chinese systematic theology,” emphasizing a contextual theology rooted in Chinese culture. In China it is said that Chao Tzu-chen is the chief scholar who conveys and interprets the Christian faith to Eastern souls.

Chao Tzu-chen (the family name appears first in Chinese culture) was well known as a theologian, educator, poet, and author. He was born in Zhejiang Province, China. Chao graduated from Dongwu Methodist University and was baptized at age 19. In 1914, he entered Vanderbilt University in the United States and earned the master’s degree in Sociology (M. A. 1916) and bachelor’s degree in Theology (B. D. 1917). Afterward, he returned to Dongwu University and taught sociology; he was also the head of the religion department and the chaplain of Yanjing University (1925-51).

An ecumenist, Chao attended the interdenominational Missionary Council three times – 1929 in Jerusalem, 1939 in Madras, India, and 1947 in Whitby, Canada. He was ordained by the Reverend He Minghua in 1941, becoming a priest in the Zhonghua Shenggonghui (Chinese Anglican Church). In the same year, Japan started the Pacific War, and Chao was imprisoned by the Japanese military police on December 8, 1941, and was released on June 18, 1942. His life in the prison was a turning point in Chao’s life; he became more humble and trusted in God’s guidance. After the war, he went back to Yanjing University and taught Chinese literature and the poetry of Du Fu (712 – 770) and Tao Yuan-min (365 – 427), famous Chinese poets, with an emphasis on the religious beliefs in their works. Chao was awarded an honorary doctorate by Princeton University in 1947. He was elected as one of six presidents of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the founding year of the Council. Chao Tzu-chen is, without a doubt, one of the most significant theologians in twentieth-century China.

Chao had a great impact both in literature and theology. He believed that Chinese Christians should not only rely on Western Christian thinking, but also emphasize their Chinese context. Chao received a Ph.D. in literature at Dongwu University; therefore, he specialized in using Chinese traditional culture, such as Chinese verse, Chinese opera and calligraphy, to express Christian theology. Some of his many contributions to theology include Jesus’ Philosophy of Life (1926), The Life of Jesus (1935), The Religious Thought of Karl Barth (1939), Speaking of Christianity from the Perspective of Chinese Culture (1946), Interpretation of Christianity (1947), Four Lectures on Christian Theology (1948), My Experience in Prison (1969), and many others. In the first two works, he compared the thought of Jesus and Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.). These works are still influential in China today. He also contributed many English scholarly essays to journals such as the Chinese Recorder and International Review of Missions.

As a theologian and church leader, Chao proposed innovative ideas for churches. He energetically practiced the movement of “self-reliance, self-support, self-propagation, and self-rule,” tenets of the Three-Self Church, the church recognized officially by the government of China today. With this effort, he promoted a fully contextualized Christianity in China. However, Chao suffered much due to political persecution, first during the years following the Chinese Revolution in 1949 through “self-examination exercises” and “re-education for change of thought” and then during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chao died on November 21, 1979, in Beijing. Though a religious ceremony could not be held at the time of his death in mainland China, a memorial service was held by many of Chao’s fellow Anglicans and other friends at St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong on February 10, 1980.

In addition to his contribution of Chinese-Christian philosophy, Chao also devoted himself to hymn writing. Some of his hymns are included in The Hymns of Universal Praise (1936), edited by Methodist missionary Bliss Wiant (1895-1975) and The Chinese New Hymnal (1983). Chao has several principles of hymn writing:

  1. Hymns must be specific so that the congregation can sing to the Lord with their hearts and souls;
  2. Hymns must be concise and understandable for all ages;
  3. Hymns need to contain Chinese cultural identity and mingle with the Chinese people's daily lives;
  4. Hymns need to be based on the Bible, so that congregation can learn the biblical understandings while singing;
  5. Hymns should express sincere religious experiences and praise God;
  6. Each hymn should be a sermon. Leaders, or cantors, shall help the congregation understand the meaning of hymns.

With these principles, he wrote many remarkable hymns. In addition, Chao was concerned with social issues very much, especially for the farmers and poor; and he used simple folk melodies to convey Christian faith.

Chinese HarvestThe hymn “Praise Our God Above” was written by Chao in 1931. Frank W. Price (1895-1974) translated the lyric in 1953. This hymn describes grateful feelings for the harvest and the praise to the Creator; it carries out a very important Chinese idea to revere Tian; Tian refers to heaven, the creator, or the unknown natural power from the sky in Chinese culture. The life of most Asians depends on farming; thus, following the changing seasons, working, and respecting – Tian – is crucial for Asians. Chao captures this feature and represents it in this hymn. For example, in the first stanza, the translation reads, “spring wind, summer rain, then the harvest grain.” The original Chinese text refers to all four seasons: “spring wind, summer rain, autumn harvest, and winter store.” Thus, each season has its meaning and all are important for the life of Asians. This concept also echoes the idea of Jing-Tian (to revere heaven).

HarvestThe poetic structure is eight lines of five syllables each. The first stanza conveys the idea of thanks for the harvest, especially in the third line, “pearly rice and corn, fragrant autumn morn” vividly pictures the sweetness of harvest. The second stanza expresses praise to God. Taiwanese ethnomusicologist Dr. I-to Loh (b. 1936), points out, “the words, images, and descriptions are very picturesque and Chinese in character.” For instance, in the last sentence of the original text,

Song-Yang Hao Sheng De,
Rong-Yao Zao-Hua Gong

means to praise heaven’s care for every living thing, and to glorify the achievements of the natural created order. The last two words “De” and “Gong” (literally meaning “achievement” and “virtue”) are often used in Chinese culture. Doing “Gong-De” means doing good things, and this is a very important idea and lesson for the Chinese society, an influence of Confucian philosophy as well as Christianity.

The melody, XUAN PING, is originally taken from one of the Dacheng chants. Dacheng Chants are a collection of songs mainly used in the Confucian religious ceremony. A very important thought of Confucian ceremony is giving thanks for blessings from heaven (Tian), a thought exactly matching the text. The melody uses the pentatonic scale (A, C, D, E, G; or, as in The Faith We Sing, C, Eb, F, G, Bb) and repeated rhythmic pattern throughout the entire song. W. H. Wong (b. 1917) arranged the modal harmony in 1973; though Wong provided harmony to make the rhythm move fluently, the hymn should be sung in unison. The tune name XUAN PING literally means to proclaim peace, and thus this hymn should be sung in a solemn and august manner. This hymn may be used liturgically during the New Year, Thanksgiving, and harvest seasons.

Guest Writer Huang Ching-Yu is a student of Dr. I-to Loh at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in church music. She is currently a Th.M. student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University where she studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.