By Martin Roth
Britain’s Daily Telegraph has reported that a man in Shenzhen, China, a member of an unofficial house church there, is suing the police for arresting him shortly before Christmas when he was singing hymns in a local park.
He told the newspaper, “We were just singing the gospel and preaching Christian principles. I think they just found an excuse to detain people, to warn and to threaten.”
The report does not tell us what hymns they were singing. But I like to think they were some of the Canaan hymns, the melodic and slightly sentimental songs that are sung at underground churches throughout the country.
Last year I wrote about them. Here is what I said:
One of the unexpected joys of doing research for my novel “Brother Half Angel” – set in China – was discovering the gorgeous and moving Canaan Hymns.
These are Christian hymns, to be sung in church – in China.
So they are somewhat different from the hymns we sing in our Western churches. Different from our traditional hymns, and different too from our modern praise-and-worship music.
The best explanation I can give is that they carry a slightly sentimental tone to them, a sense of nostalgia, with unpretentious melodies and lyrics that speak of the beauty and majesty of China and of a simple life spent in the presence of God. They are slow, melodic and a little dreamy. They are not deeply theological. They will not be to all Western tastes.
When I lived in Japan I became a big fan of the Taiwan singer Teresa Teng, who died tragically of an asthma attack at the age of 42. She specialized in folk songs and romantic ballads, with a voice that was described as conveying “seven parts sweetness and three parts tears.”
That’s what the Canaan Hymns sound like.
But just as moving as the hymns themselves is the story of how they came to be written.
One night in 1990 a young Chinese peasant girl named Xiao Min, unable to sleep, found a song flooding into her consciousness. Over ensuing weeks and months more songs arrived, unbidden, often while she was at her work in the fields picking cotton.
These were songs about God, about His great love for the Chinese people, about the Christian life of prayer, worship, joy and sacrifice.
Traveling evangelists realized the songs were a direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and began to spread them throughout the country. Soon Chinese believers everywhere, especially those in the underground home churches, were singing these songs whenever they worshipped.
Over the years Xiao Min received many more songs from God, until their number reached around one thousand. They were named the Canaan Hymns.
Go to YouTube and you can find examples, as well as some documentaries about the hymns and about the composer Xiao Min.
Here are some of the lyrics for “Dark Night,” one of my favorites:
In the dark night, flowers are more fragrant.
In the dark night, footsteps become surer.
A journey in the dark is nearing its end.
Stay true to God.
Listen to it here, and experience, as I have, the warm feelings of love and compassion that percolate from these tender and very special hymns.