The term gong, which has been in use in the West since about 1590, comes from the Javanese name for a struck idiophone with the form of a vessel: gong ageng (large gong). The –ng ending indicates that the instrument was a knobbed gong.
Gongs appeared in China in about the 7th century BC. Although it is still not possible to say for certain in which country gongs originated, places of gong manufacture are found more or less all over Asia. The great importance of these instruments in Asia is shown not only by the wide variety of different forms but also by the fact that groups of gongs and gongs in combination with other instruments (metallophones) play a dominant role in orchestras (e.g. in gamelan orchestras in Java).
In the past gongs were used in religious rites and were richly decorated with images of animals, people or characters. Excessive painting may well have impaired the quality of the sound and nowadays only the pitch is generally painted on the instrument.
The gong arrived in Europe towards the end of the 17th century and was first used more for the purposes of exhibition than for making music.
In the 19th century the tam-tam and the gong became ever more distinct from each other: the tam-tam has an indefinite pitch, the gong a definite one. Because of this separation composers began writing the pitch and performance instructions into the score.
The first composition to feature the gong was probably Gossec's “Funeral Music for Mirabeau” (1791). Camille Saint-Saëns used a gong in his opera La princesse jaune (1872). In his opera Madame Butterfly (1904) Giacomo Puccini asks for a twelve-strong gong group. Carl Orff especially, in his operas Antigonae, Oedipus der Tyrann and Prometheus, requires a large number of deep gongs, while John Cage and Lou Harrison use a great many high instruments.