A beginner's guide to traditional Chinese musical instruments

We walk you through eight popular Chinese musical instruments

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Chinese instruments have a wealth of culture and diversity, thanks to Silk Road trade and over 3000 years of development. From lavish palace halls, to luscious gardens, to windswept battlefields, musicians made sure there was an instrument for every occasion. Traditional Chinese instruments were tuned for the pentatonic (five tone) scale, instead of the Western heptatonic (seven tone, with whole and half steps) scale, but while some devices retained their original characters, others underwent gradual modifications that allowed for playing larger venues and more intricate music. While origins of many instruments are disputed, general wisdom states that two-syllable pieces are foreign imports (pipa, erhu, suona, dizi and others), while one-syllable instruments are Chinese (sheng, xiao, xun, ban, and so on). This also applies to guzheng and guqin, which are locally known as zheng and qin; gu is a prefix meaning ancient.


Any Westerner who sat through an elementary school music class may remember the four instrument categories: strings, percussion, winds, and brass – the piano was always that tricky fit. But Chinese have a dizzying array of classifications, by material (clay, wood, skin – for drums – gourd, stone, silk – for ancient strings – metal and bamboo. Other categories went by method of play. Stringed instruments could be plucked or bowed, mouth instruments could be free-, single- or double-reed, and on and on. And each major instrument has a number of similar cousins. However, in brief, to match China’s lucky number eight, we’re looking at the eight most popular traditional Chinese instruments, profiled below:


The big four


Pipa (pee-pah)

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Probably the most difficult traditional Chinese instrument, the pipa is a pear-shaped lute with four strings and raised frets numbering anywhere from the antique 12 to the modern 30. While the exact history is still debated, most accept that that this version hails from the Middle East or India. Amazingly versatile, the portable pipa survived years of military and revolutionary campaigns, inspiring troupes of all stripes. The name possibly originated with the playing method; the Chinese character pi (means plucking strings forward, while pa is the reverse. Today’s musicians hold their pipa upright with their left hands, and pluck, slap, or bend the strings with their right. With the old silk strings, long fingernails were sufficient, but today’s steel, nylon-coated strings require taping on plectrums (fake nails) made from turtle shell or plastic. 'It’s one of the most difficult instruments, but the reward is great; you have a huge variety of music and voices,' says pipa artist Zhou Hui. 'You can play together with piano, cello, the whole orchestra – it’s the piano of the traditional Chinese instruments, and it’s one of the few with East-West roots.'




Guzheng (goo jung)

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Hear the words 'traditional Chinese music', and it’s probably the guzheng that echoes in your head – the cascading strings, or the gentle plucked notes leaving stillness that feels like moonlight. The best known of the Chinese zither family, the 2500-year-old guzheng’s popularity has waxed and waned. Unlike the pipa or erhu, which could be tossed in sacks and thrown over saddles, this was a palace instrument played on a special table and meant to inspire peace and tranquillity – a poor fit for the revolutionary era. However, as China’s incomes grew and homes expanded, owning a guzheng became a status symbol.


The zheng may be ancient, but the design has been anything but static, changing from catgut to steel strings and adding 20 to the original five. Players change keys by adjusting the moveable bridges; using pipa-style ‘fake fingernails,’ they pluck with their right hands and apply pressure or otherwise manipulate strings with their left. As the instrument has grown in complexity, modern players also pluck with their left hands, sometimes playing competing tunes. Guzheng artist Ji Wei also calls the zheng the Chinese piano, but for different reasons. 'It’s easy to learn at the basic level – it’s not like pipa, which you have to tune,' she says. ‘It always sounds beautiful, and for women, it looks beautiful too.'





Guqin (goo chin)


Easily confused with the guzheng, these two zithers have a core difference. While the ever-evolving guzheng has become a vehicle for contemporary composers, the guqin has proudly retained its traditional character. Translated as ancient (gu) stringed instrument (qin), and like the zheng, also known by its abbreviated name, the qin has seven strings and no bridges; this limits its tuning, which means its repertoire stays ancient. No matter, the qin has always been seen as the pinnacle of refinement and learning – Confucius himself was a master. Because traditional culture is so remote, the qin appears even more difficult, but that only elevates its reputation. '[Compared to zheng players], qin players think they have better taste,' says zheng artist Ji Wei. 'There are few instruments left, so many are playing an antique; it’s almost an investment for collectors.' Although countless instruments and repertoire were destroyed throughout China’s many wars, these records were better kept than most. In 2003, the guqin was designated a masterpiece of UNESCO’s Oral and Intangible Heritage.




Erhu (are-hoo)


Of the traditional Chinese instruments, the erhu is the most common, and by extension, the most overlooked; as the busker’s choice on street corners or pedestrian overpasses, its ubiquitous presence has almost reduced it to white noise. This is unfortunate, because when played well, the melancholy strains are unforgettable. Another Silk Road (or possibly Mongolian) contribution, the erhu is deceptively simple. Sporting a long neck, two strings and a small wooden body covered with snakeskin, the so-called spike fiddle is played with a bow, which passes between the strings instead of gliding, violin-style, on top. And since the instrument has no fingerboard, the player adjusts the sound by placing pressure along the string itself. But this tiny instrument packs a punch; for centuries it has provided the melody for Peking operas, and today has a presence in the rock scene.


The runners-up


Dizi (dee zuh) and Xiao (shaow)

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Much like the pipa, the dizi (horizontal flute) was probably a Silk Road import, but origins are disputed; certainly simple flutes have been found around the world, and in China, have a 9000-year history. Usually made from bamboo, modern dizi have a piece of copper that connects two smaller flutes, which expands the range, and by extension, the repertoire. Also, dizi often have a membrane over the mouthpiece to add a resonating, or ‘buzzing’ effect. Modern masters have dizi of different sizes and pitches, to fit every composition. Also from the bamboo family is the simple, rich, and mellow xiao, the China-born vertical flute commonly used in kunqu.






Suona (swo-nah)



Sometimes referred to as the Chinese oboe, the suona can reach heights of pitch, nasality and levels of shrillness that defy belief – combine a piccolo and a kazoo and you’re getting close. Hearing a suona ensemble would drive listeners to madness, but the instrument is an effective accent piece; furthermore, the suona’s projection makes it ideal for outdoor wedding and funeral rituals, military marches, and in Peking opera orchestras.




Sheng (shung)



The ancient sheng once held court with the guqin as the epitome of refinement and sophistication, but eventually made it out into the wider world. Made initially with vertical bamboo (now predominantly metal) pipes, and played through a mouthpiece, the sound resembles an intricate and complex harmonica, but its tonal character makes for a strong duet instrument, particularly with the dizi and the suona. Since the modifications allowed for increasingly virtuosic repertoire, the sheng has found a home as solo instrument. Pipes can number anywhere from 17 to 36, giving greater tuning range, and players can produce sound by both blowing and inhaling. Sheng also come with or without keys, depending upon the size of the instrument. Since players hold the sheng at the bottom and cover the upright pipes, they need long fingers. Sheng artist Dong Ying was training in piano when another sheng player complimented her musicality and then saw her 'long, elegant fingers, like slices of onion,' and convinced her to switch instruments. She did, and never looked back.


Traditional Chinese instruments have shown impressive versatility in pairing with Western orchestras, taking solo parts in unique and memorable concerti. However, even the musicians suggest avoiding the large ensemble 'Chinese orchestras', which follow a Western format but substitute Chinese instruments – erhu in the string section, xiao and dizi in the winds, and so on. These instruments have distinct characters and flavours, and the best repertoire is written for soloists or small ensembles. Sit back, pour yourself a cup of tea, and let the music wash over you – you won’t want to miss a thing.



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