Give Me Five

The five-note scale gong, shang, jiao, zhi and yu in Chinese music can be traced back to antiquity. It is associated with cosmological foundations of the universe and correlated with the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal and earth). Gong represented earth, shang (metal), jiao (wood), zhi (fire) and yu (water). Pentatonic scales are not unique to China, but the five pitches in China were intimately bound up with statecraft. In the crucial nexus between heaven and earth, rulers sought to tune themselves and their terrestrial realm to pitches that were said to ensure successful governance.

In the imperial pecking order, the number nine was considered the most auspicious 'yang' number. There were nine dragons in the Chinese cosmos; the dragon was metonymy for the emperor. The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City was the most potent display of the emperor's power, a power that combined physical prowess, courage and fortitude, qualities that were exemplified by the 'outstanding man' or hero (yingxiong). The number nine also loomed large in the music of the court. State sacrificial songs were composed with nine or less pitches and within the range of a ninth. (On the nine dragons see: http://www.ninedragonbaguazhang.com/dragons.htm)

Many 'traditional' and 'folk' European melodies are anhemitonic pentatonic, that is, a five-note scale with no semitones. It is this scale which in often characteristically dubbed by western listeners as 'exotic, 'Asian, 'Oriental.' Pentatonism has been explored by many Western art and film composers and perhaps less known by Protestant missionaries in China in the late nineteenth century.

Writing hymns for the Chinese church based on the pentatonic scale appeared as early as 1885 with the publication of Timothy Richard’s Little Hymn Book (Xiao Shipu). Other foreign missionaries who wrote hymns based on the pentatonic scale included J.E. Walker, William C. Burns and C.S. Champness. Discussions and debates on incorporating pentatonic melodies into Christian hymns became increasingly conspicuous in the missionary journal the Chinese Recorder by the 1890s. In some cases, western tunes based on a diatonic scale had the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale removed because it was thought that pentatonic scales would be easily assimilated into a Chinese congregation.

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