The Chau Gong: Honorable Ancestor
The Gong that has the longest history of continuous use, as well as being the most prolific and popularly played, has its origin in the Han Dynasty of China (206 BC to 220 AD). This was the Golden Age of China, comparable to the heights of the Roman Empire and Greek Civilization in the West. The oldest surviving example of this gong was unearthed at the Guixian site in Guangxi Zhuang area.
The Gong was first made in Suzhou in eastern China near Shanghai, and was first called a “Su Gong” to reflect its place of origin. It was also called by people of the time “Kaido” which means “to clear the path.”
And indeed one of the first uses of this Gong was to announce the arrival of an important government official in order that the path would be cleared. Depending upon the rank of the official, the gong could be struck once (for a minor personage) and up to three times or more for royalty. When two officials met in the same location, the one with the lesser gong strikes would bow down to the superior official.
The Gong was extensively used in the intense spiritual drumming that marked tribal meetings and ritual gatherings over a thousand year period in China. Chau Gongs were first used in wars in the Wei Dynasty in the sixth century when an ancient text revealed that “the drum was beat to advance the attack, and the gold (gong) was beat to retreat.”
For reasons unknown to history, this Gong later became known by its popular name today, the Chau Gong.
It was the Chau Gong that first came to the Western world in 18th century musical compositions and was commonly referred to as a “Tam Tam” to distinguish its flat surface from the nippled or bossed gong from Indonesia that was called “Gong Gong” (which was soon shortened to simply Gong, the now commonly accepted name for all gongs, either flat surfaced or with raised centers).
With its distinguishing large dark center surrounded by polished bronze and framed in a dark rim, the Gong earned its nickname of “Bullseye Gong.”
A Chau Gong is made of a copper-based alloy (75% to 80%) with the rest of the metal being tin with traces of zinc and iron. The cheaper, and less resonant Chau gongs, typically contain more iron and less copper.
The gong is slightly turned up at the rim, unlike the other popular Chinese Gong, the Wind Gong, and unlike the wind gong, the surface of the Chau Gong appears slightly concave with its center being a little thinner in comparison to the rest of the surface.
The center of the Chau Gong and its rim are left coated with the black copper oxide that forms during the manufacturing process while the rest of the gong is polished to remove the coating to give a bright shiny finish.
Indeed, the black oxide may continue to come off the gong when it is handled or played for some time. There is no harm done (except for a dirty mallet!) and is considered natural and does not affect the integrity of the gong.
The polishing of the mid-area of the gong is done not only for appearance but to also prepare it for lathing when various sound grooves are etched onto the surface and then hammered to create its tuning.
Chau Gongs, like most Chinese gongs, are distinguished from the popular Western gongs in that they are formed from melted and poured metal as opposed to the flat sheets of rolled metal used by Paiste, Meinl, and other major gong makers.
This melting and pouring of the metal into forms is one reason for the obvious difference in sound that a Chau Gong produces when contrasted with Western gongs. There is a lessening of resilience and resonance in the metal when melted, as opposed to being rolled, but at the gain of a solidity and depth of sound common to Chinese gongs.
The manufacturing steps of the process in producing a Chau Gong are as follows:
The metals are first melted in a smelter or oven and poured into molds at the proper temperature
Either by a belt-run lathe or by hand, the “crust” from the firings are removed. The etchings or various sound-grooves are then etched onto the surface.
As the metal cools, the castings are removed from the molds and then hand-hammered to the proper thickness; sometimes by hand and almost always assisted by machine-hammering.
Periodically the metal is reheated to the proper malleability so the hammering can continue to mold the metal. This hammering, cooling, reheating, and continued hammering can continue over a long period.
Although machine hammering has reduced the time required, as recently as the 1990s, it could require six gong makers working on the gong over a six-week period to make the largest of the Chau Gongs.
After this, the final process is done by an individual who uses a hammer and an anvil to finish the tuning process by ear.
Chau gongs typically range in size from 7 to 80 inches (18 to 203 cm) in diameter. A comparative price range as of 2018 is around $25 for a 7” gong and up to $11,500 for a 60” gong, often running about 40% to 60% less in price than some Western gongs of comparable size.
A low price does not necessarily mean low quality, yet because of their mass production, it is important to get a Chau Gong from a respected gong maker or distributer. Quality can vary widely, more so than for Western Gongs.
The Chau gongs are heavier than the thinner Western gongs. For comparison a 36” Chau gong may weigh around 40 lbs while a 36” Paiste symphonic gong is 29 lbs.
Since Chau gongs are molded as opposed to the rolled Western gongs, they can possibly crack when dropped from a distance on a very hard surface while the Western gongs will simply bend or crimp. While neither is a great outcome, the Western gongs can be more easily fixed than a damaged Chau gong.
On the other hand, Chau gongs are much more weather resistant than the Western gongs and can be left outside in a garden or open temple, something never done (hopefully) with the Western gongs. They are more easily cleaned with conventional metal cleaners than the Western gongs.
Because of their more forgiving nature when mishandled (and lower price), the Chau Gong is a popular choice for school bands and marching bands, as well as for untrained gong players to simply strike (think of a salesperson hitting one to celebrate a new sale).
While it may be tempting for players to strike a Chau Gong in the center, like hitting a target of a bullseye, there is actually very little vibration at this “node” of the gong, and it is possible to actually hairline crack the center if done with too much inexperienced enthusiasm. Always best for safety and sound to strike the Chau Gong slightly off-center.
Experienced Western gong players will find that a Chau Gong requires a different approach and style of playing than Western gongs that are used for meditation and sound healing.
When the Chau Gong is struck moderately, there is a strong fundamental tone, a deep sound, and then some overtones and harmonics but not nearly to the extent produced by the thinner Western gongs. If struck hard, there is an impressive and immediate crash, with a lot of overtones but then a quick decay and much less of a sustain than a similar size Western gong.
If you play the Chau Gong more subtly and with proper mallets, you can pull a surprisingly complex sound structure but, like all instruments, you need to re-learn how to play from your typical approach.
You will likely use different mallets on a Chau Gong than a Western gong, although I personally find the Chinese mallets, usually given “free” with the gong, are worth about the price you pay. And while the hard yarn mallets are often suggested for a Chau Gong, they are more appropriate for the single strikes given in a band or symphony environment.
A good mallet for a Chau Gong, in my opinion, tends to have a heavier and less soft head than one used for a Western gong, but not so hard that it creates a sharp attack. And for a sublime experience, use two small mallets simultaneously to explore the different areas of the Chau.
Because of its strength for a fundamental tone, the Chau Gong is excellent for Shamanic work and trance journeys, as well as an excellent counterpoint when played with Western gongs.
Musicians also find the Chau gong that have been specifically tuned to specific notes delightful when playing with others.
However, because of its more limited harmonic overtones favored by sound healers, the Chau Gong may disappoint if it is the only gong used in such an environment.
Yet there is a reason the Chau Gong is the most popular and widely used gong in the world, with a respected history and lineage over the centuries.
We are living in a time when East meets West and that’s the best. A multicultural gong ensemble can add depth and dimension to hearing and playing the Gong, so let’s give honor to the venerable Chau!