Singing by Chinese Catholics

by Justin Berg

Moving to China, I exchanged Americana for strange habits and challenging food. Though I didn’t depart a missionary, I knew I’d need Mass to ground me. My first Sunday at Sacred Heart, Ningbo (southern coastal China), I was dazed by the choir of worshippers. That was Sunday night, a Mass-time for workers who know no weekends. They sing! And how they sing!

China children

Yes, there is a choir of 80 in the loft, and all – including a toy keyboard – is painfully over-amplified, but none of that deters the gang. There are several Chinese Masses, typically attended by 300 or more people each, and an English Mass with some 120 worshipers, at least half of them Chinese. The remainder is motley, representing every continent save Antarctica, and including faithful from Burundi, Uzbekistan, and beyond. Among us are Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. I’m always astonished how the assembly defies barriers of culture, language, and religion. We are actually a family.

Masses here are stuck with the four-hymn syndrome, and many of those tunes are 19th c. war-horses, both Catholic and Protestant, but there are also native tunes, pleasant, pentatonic. Hymns are never shortened: stanzas may be repeated, never cut! The altar is incensed at the entrance, following which the celebrant intones the greeting. From then on, Mass is chanted — Gregorian tones, sung to Chinese!

That’s a problem with orations: Mandarin is tonal, and chanting destroys those inflections. So, celebrants here read each oration, then chant the doxology, letting everyone sing “Amen”. Similarly, readings are spoken but the concluding responses sung, always to the Missal tone. The Ordinary is sung, even the Creed, sometimes to new Chinese melodies, other times to Gregorian ones. Masses VIII and XVIII are especially beloved.


At the Sign of Peace, people wrap both hands together and bow to their neighbors, a traditional gesture of respect. Then comes Communion. On a good day, the procession is orderly. When the church is packed, it can turn into a bit of a struggle. Despite that, everyone sings while processing. Long ago a church musician in the States, I had abandoned all hope of getting the assembly to sing during Communion. Here, they just do it.

The singing is neither artful nor elegant, but the Chinese love to sing, and these Catholics know why they sing. And they do it together in one great blast of sound. In the States, when the singing was especially hearty, a classmate of mine used to crow, “This morning, we had church!” Here, we have it every week.


Justin Berg lives in China, where he teaches English and Music and works as an editor and tour guide. Throughout his six years there he has volunteered at the local parish as music director and catechist. He is currently compiling and composing a new hymnal for use at English Masses. He holds degrees from Oberlin, Notre Dame and Duke, and is now enrolled at the University of Nottingham Ningbo.


  1. Thanks, Justin.
    “Neither artful nor elegant” – I remind the congregation now and again that singing in church is not for singers; it’s for believers.
    You don’t happen to have an audio clip of a little of the singing? Or video?

  2. Just how can you set a tone language to (pre-existing) music without losing or distorting meaning? English, of course, is not devoid of tone, but in English tone is suprasegmental rather than morphemic, so we can get away with it more easily. The author of this paper
    ( suggests that tone languages contain more ‘clues’ to meaning than pitch alone. He’s primarily concerned with Dinka, but there are references to Cantonese and Mandarin, and the list of references is intriguing.

    1. @Tony Phillips – comment #3:

      Because intonation carries a substantial burden for distinction of vocabulary in Mandarin, as it does in any tonal language, setting the language to any melodic contour, pre-existing or newly composed, represents an immediate compromise of intelligibility, to a greater or lesser degree. In the various operatic and folk music traditions of the Han, this situation was deftly side-stepped through performance practices that favoured highly inflected pitch. In modern pop song, the problem is essentially ignored, as the various predictable tropes of such lyrics render the question moot (i.e. falling in love, sadness, and the like). Similarly, such issues are rendered inert by liturgical texts of the Ordo and Ordinary. Memorization remains a staple of Chinese education, as has been the tradition for a full 2,500 years, and most likely rather longer, with the liturgical consequence that weekly reiterations of text can be sung with no fear of misunderstanding. As to the Propers, those texts are typically replaced by hymns of European origin, though the problem also persists in that musical form. Generally, the Responsorial Psalm is set to a Gregorian Psalm tone, again with the result that meaning is distorted. However, there yet are two primary points to bear in mind: 1) liturgical lexis is sufficiently specialized so as to facilitate comprehension even when information is missing or distorted (e.g. compare the occasional difficulties of speaking with those possessing different accent or use of vocabulary from your own); 2) the sheer complexity of the Chinese writing system insures that meaning is not lost even when tone is. Hence, those who speak mutually unintelligible dialects of Chinese can still read the same script. The character system is and long has been China’s great wall of literacy.

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