The Evolution of the China Cymbal

Generally speaking, all cymbals share core universal features: a raised rounded bell, gradually sloping bow, and neat, uniform edges. This traditional Turkish construction yields a more even, consistent response that drummers have come to rely on and expect over the past century.

China cymbals, by contrast, are wildcards. With their conical bell, more dramatic bow profile, and an upturned flanged edge, they look like Salvador Dali’s idea of a cymbal. They’re brazen, aggressive, and a little unpredictable. But they’re also a distinctive sound that adds unmistakable character to a kit.

So how did these sonic oddities become a fixture for so many drummers?

Origins

The China cymbal’s beginnings are closely intertwined with the start of the modern drum set configuration. As the tom/snare/bass setup was gaining legs in the early 20th century, drummers complemented their kits with smaller cymbals aimed more toward providing accents than acting as sonic staples.

Early 1900's China Cymbal

Early 1900's China Cymbal

Cymbals from this era came from two sources: Turkey and China. Led by Zildjian, Turkish cymbals were characterized by a warmer, more sedate tone found in “Old Ks.” On the other end, a large swath of inexpensive cymbals were coming in from China marked by a moodier, atmospheric character. Though bearing tonal similarities, these early models are more like ancestors to today’s Chinas than they are close relatives.

These pieces, like early drums, were a little...rough around the edges. Hand-shaped and hand-hammered, these cymbals featured varying alloy mixtures and shapes more akin to ceremonial and military models than today’s models.

A prominent feature of these smaller cymbals was an enlarged bell, which produced a dirty, chime-like effect. In essence, the China started out as a mini China or China splash. Examples of these smaller models can be seen on kits of legends like Gene Krupa.

Taking Shape

As the Big Band era rolled on, amp technology continued improving as the need for more muscle in larger environments grew. In turn, cymbals began growing so that they could compete with the louder mixes, and the models we know today emerged from the nebulous size/weight system employed by the major manufacturers. Rides, crashes, and hi-hats emerged as specialized models, and the China started to take form.

World War II heavily disrupted Chinese cymbal imports during the ‘40s and ‘50s leaving companies like Zildjian and Paiste to fill the void in the market. Retaining the “trashy” character that attracted musicians to the model in a uniform, reliable package, these newer Chinas began gaining traction with jazz drummers. Adding new texture, they were primarily used in ride applications for their smoky response.

Then, in a flash, rock and roll took off and brought the China with it.

While the image of a big, boisterous China is inseparable from the likes of Neil Peart, the cymbal owes its current place in the gear world thanks to jazz/rock hybrid dynamo Billy Cobham. In the words of Geoff Nichols, author of The Drum Book: a History of the Rock Drum Kit, “I always think Cobham should be massively rewarded by the cymbal manufacturers since China-type cymbals immediately took off and have been in every drummer’s armory since.”

When used for the first real time for its sharply powerful crash, the China immediately found favor in rock and continued to become a fixture in metal, prog, and fusion. Today, it’s impossible to imagine artists like Dave Lombardo, Tommy Lee, Alex Van Halen, and countless others without a staple China in their rig.

Types of China

Traditional: The standard and most easily recognized model. Made with a conical bell and unfinished surface on the underneath.


Novo: An invention of Paiste, the Novo combines the familiar bow profile of a china with a traditional rounded bell and reversed edge. The darkest and most aggressive type, Novos are typically found in louder environments.


Pang and Swish: Originated by Zildjian, the Pang and Swish is a china with the heart of a Turkish cymbal. More sedate and controlled, this model typically comes with rivets or a sizzle chain for a more atmospheric effect.


China Splash: The closest descendant to the original tiny models of the early 20th century, the China splash offers a trashy, staccato accent in sizes typically up to 12”. Generally thinner than larger models, they’re also used for stacking on rides, crashes, and other Chinas.


Rocktagon: Supremely ‘80s, the Rocktagon is a Sabian exclusive that still endures with some diehard fans. Not technically a China, the Rocktagon is a round cymbal cut into an octagonal shape which produces a trashier sound associated with Chinas.


Today’s China

The China’s place as a favorite effect cymbal in the modern landscape is undisputed. Major and boutique outfits alike carry full lines ranging from tiny china splashes up to 24” and even 26” models. There are literally hundreds of models on the market, and innovation has led to some of the most interesting designs yet.

While these vanguard designs are opening new possibilities for the China, Wuhan is perhaps the truest modern rendition of the original model. Full of character, Wuhan Chinas are dirty with an endearing one-off feel, so no two models are exactly alike. Plus, like the originals of yesteryear, they’re immensely affordable and offer an easy avenue to expanding your sound.

Expressive, atmospheric, and ultimately musical, the China is way more than that extra cymbal for a metal drummer. Whatever your genre, a China brings storied history and new sonic possibilities to any kit.

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