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Mitch Nur
from: Mitch Nur

The Gong - Separating Truth from Myth

A recent 'Gong Talk' in front of a group of Gong enthusiasts brought some interesting dialog to the forefront, and I would like to share some of this dialog.

Within the room that day and in many programs I do around the Gong, the question that is brought up quite often is whether Paiste makes the best Gong in the world. I chuckle a bit about this because Paiste does not make the metal, they handcraft from a sheet of nickel-silver made by another manufacturer. Like Meinl, and others who use this process they are simply taking that 'rolled alloy’ and turning it into a Gong (the metal comes from Wieland in Ulm Germany and is called Nickel Silver - copper, zinc, and nickel or brass with nickel added). Granted they do quite the good job fashioning the metal into a Gong, and have been very successful in doing so. Gauging by worldwide sales figures on Paiste Gongs, they have perfected a system of providing consistent high quality Gongs. But the German alloy is quite different than say bronze hand manufactured in other Gong making centers in the world. Bronze from Burma for example, or Vietnam, Indonesia, and China all have different characteristics, or the nature of their sound. It's really not about whose making the best Gong, but who is making the best sounding Gong to the ears of the listener - a personal choice. When evaluating the alloy itself, there is quite a difference between an alloy that is rolled into a sheet, because the alloy needs to be consistent throughout the entire sheet, and the grain size of the crystal structure is important. Bronze that is pounded by hand into a flat disk is another story. When the molecular structure is observed, the electron's are arranged differently between a rolled alloy and hand hammered bronze, with the hand hammered bronze containing more electrons under stress, making it more resonant. Keep in mind that bronze is an alloy of copper and tin at a ratio of 88/12, and the resonant bronze ratio is 80/20 or B20 (the first bronze was actually copper and arsenic). Also, B20 is difficult to work with and requires extensive reworking and annealing due to its natural brittle state, but it has been used longer than any alloy (nearly 400 years by Zildjian). I have been running an annual advanced Gong Study for many years, which features Gongs from all over the world, in many types and styles. I have conducted side by side blindfold tests with the students on all the Gongs. What amazes me, is that the German Gongs who receive an enormous amount of hype, don't fare as well in blindfold tests against other Gongs. In fact, when Meinl first introduced their Symphonic line of Gongs we conducted a side by side blindfold test with their competitor Paiste. Eighty percent of the time, the Meinl Gong was selected as the best sounding symphonic Gong in the room, but when Meinl was compared to other Gongs from other countries, they lost their popularity. But I want to caution, Paiste and Meinl have consistent quality control, where Gongs from other countries do not. That's not to say that you can't find a magnificent Gong made in China, but generally you have to inspect dozens or even more before you find a decent Gong made in China. There's much to discuss in this area but I'm going to leave it to that.

Where did Gongs originate? Many people reference China, but the oldest Gongs (not military shields) unearthed have come out of the northern part of Vietnam actually. Inventories of caravans that traveled the Silk Road in ancient days contain records of Gongs coming from two locations to the Imperial Court. One can be found west of the port city of modern day Wuhan, roughly midway to Chengdu in an area called Qiannan. The other is modern day Turkmenistan. What's interesting about the mention of the caravan from Turkmenistan, is there's a record of Gongs being played for the birth of a son to a royal family in that area in about 1,887BC, long before the Bactrian Empire or roughly 1500 years before Alexander the Great; and 1,000 years before the beginning of the Greek Empire. But Imperial Court records show that Gongs were being used during the Song and Tang periods, and that they were used by the Han. Many people reference a place called 'His Yu', but this is a general term, and could be interpreted as the Jang Kingdom (Land of Women in some historical records) in old Tibetan historical records, but His Yu is not a town or city; but more of a region. For historians, this would be in the Qin Kingdom during the 7 Warring States period. The first detailed account on copper works appeared in Song Yingxing's Tiangong Kaiwu, a Ming illustrated work first published in 1637. As far as India, research shows that the people of Nagaland made and used Gongs, and there is a history of Gongs being made in Assam as well. An interesting note to Gongs from Assam, is that the legendary Gurkha fighters of Nepal use Gongs from Assam for military exercises. A survey of museums around India, shows no Indian Gongs being exhibited, the one rare case, is a Gong donated by an Englishman in the early 1900’s, but the Gong is Burmese and not Indian in origin. Researching Yoga, found no use of the Gong in Indian Yoga until modern day, and that influence seems to be Western in application. There seems to be a misunderstanding within the western Kundalini Yoga community concerning the use of Gongs citing the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita. I could not find a translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that mentions the word ‘Gong’, and there is one mention of the word ‘Gong’ in part 5 section 79-80 of the Gheranda Samhita. But it does not state that the Gong is used in the Yoga practice itself, but rather to a moment when the yogi covers their ears and listens to the internal sound of the body. Gongs did not appear in Turkey until the Armenian alchemist Avedis made the first Gong during the reign of Osman ll in 1618AD (some historians put Avedis’s first Gong at 1623AD). Although Central Asia Minor has a long history of cymbal making dating back to 1200BC.

The Tai Loi symbol that was put into use by Paiste, originated as a marketing ploy for the early Paiste Gongs, by Michail M. Paiste, who saw the symbol being used on imported Chinese Gongs and used it as a way of making the early Paiste Gongs more accepted. There is no confirmation that Mr. Paiste actually knew what it's meaning was at that time. The Tai Loi symbol that you see today is Mandarin, which did not become the official dialect of the Imperial Court until the 14th century AD, approximately 1900 years after Confucius. The Chinese language during the time of Confucius was a form of Proto-Chinese probably Hakka, Cantonese, or Min. So the connection between Confucius, the Buddha, and the Tai Loi is seriously suspect in it's nature to truth since the Chinese writing at the time of the Buddha is Da-zhuan not Mandarin which comes much later after Buddha’s death. It's an interesting story told by many in the Gong community, but there is no historical evidence showing any kind of linkage other than opinion or rumor. I can't seem to find it in my research, but if anyone knows of an accurate historical record or a credible book I can research pointing this out, I'd be happy to look at it.

Some of the early names for the Chinese Gong is Shaluo or Tong Shaluo, Lo, or Pao Chun Chih to name just a few. The term Gong, is associated with Indonesia and Java, and the largest old world sites for Gong making is Burma, Java, Turkey, Vietnam, China, Borneo and  Bali.

And finally, the Gong is more popular now than any time in known history. It has a storied past, not limited to just summoning the Sun or Moon back during eclipses by ancient peoples, or announcing the arrival of a caravan to the Imperial City in China, or leading a religious ceremony in Java, but also to provoke cataleptic fits at the Salpetriere in Paris or even Adolph Hitler playing his Gong after dinner during World War ll, but early performance pieces by John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Christopher Tree, and Nesta Kerin Crain have made the Gong more than just a conversation piece.

For those of you interested in reading books about the Gong, I would make these recommendations:

The Healing Power of the Gong by Johannes Heimrath
Gongs and Tam Tams by Phillip McNamara
Sound Healing with Gongs by Sheila Whittaker
In the Heart of the Gong Space by Sheila Whittaker

© 2015 Mitch Nur, PhD

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