Earliest documented evidence of Chinese culture has existed since around 2070 BC, and with it, a rich history of music has developed. Since the Qin Dynasty (221 BC), when the Imperial Music Bureau was instituted, a rise of many different musical themes and techniques occurred, and with it the invention of some truly unique and superb instruments.
There are eight categories of Chinese traditional instruments, called the “Eight Sounds”: bamboo, clay, gourd, hide, metal, silk, stone, and wood. And in this post, we’re going to take a look at some of these traditional Chinese musical instruments and explore their sounds and the part they play in Chinese music and culture.
First on the list of Chinese instruments, we have the Dizi which is a type of flute made from a straight piece of bamboo.
Dizis come in a variety of different lengths for different pitches with the longer the length, the lower the pitch, and vice versa.
They’re made with a cork stopper at the mouthpiece end and they are then wrapped in silk to prevent splitting.
Dizis typically have six finger holes (although some have more) and they also have a mirliton (an additional hole that contains a thin bamboo membrane).
To play the Dizi, it’s held horizontally and then the musician blows air across the mouthpiece.
It’s typically used in solo performances, ensembles, and orchestras and is generally related to civilian life in operas.
Erhus are a type of fiddle that is constructed out of two parts: the neck and the body.
The neck is made of long, round hardwood and is attached to the body which is a wooden resonating chamber that is hexagonal with a snakeskin soundboard in front and a carved wooden screen on the back and rests on a cushion of red velvet.
Erhus are held vertically and are similar to a cello in the way in which they are played.
But, unlike cellos which have 4 strings, Erhus have two and they’re played with a bamboo bow.
The bow (which needed to be held taut before using Western hair tightening mechanisms) is moved across the strings, while four fingers are used to stop the strings in three to four hand positions.
Unlike a violin or cello, An Erhu has no fingerboard, so stings are not pressed to the neck.
Erhus are generally used in operas and as part of regional ensembles as well as in teahouses, weddings, and on t.v. and radio.
The Chinese Gong is a large, circular metal disk that is a type of percussion similar to a cymbal.
They are played by striking them with a mallet to produce different intensity sounds.
Gongs feature in orchestras, traditional dances, and religious occasions.
There are three types of traditional Chinese gongs:
Tam tams are, without a boss, slightly convex and they are made of forged bronze and come in different sizes.
They have a slight depression circling the rim, with a raised middle section, and are played from suspended metal frames.
Daluos are different in that they are made from copper, zinc, and tin alloys.
They have a bent-over rim, which accommodates a rope handle, a slightly convex shape, and are associated with warriors and officials.
And finally, Xiaoluo is a smaller version of daluo.
They are struck with an unpadded mallet and are used to represent women and scholars.
Guqins are a type of wooden string instrument that is very unique.
It is comprised of a resonator below (with two different-sized holes in it) and a soundboard above.
They have seven silk strings (since the Han dynasty) spanning the soundboard.
Interestingly, Guqins have a lot of symbolism tied into their design.
For example, it is 3.65 Chinese feet long which represents the 365 days of the year.
The thirteen soundboard studs represent the thirteen lunar cycles in a year
And parts of it are named after dragons and phoenixes with the resonator shape representing Heaven and Earth.
It’s played by laying it horizontally on a table with the right thumb, first, second, and third fingers used to pluck the strings.
The left thumb and index finger are used to depress the string at different points along its length which creates different pitches or harmonics.
Guqins are often played as a solo instrument and you’ll see them used at civic and religious ceremonies and were believed to bring enrichment and peace.
As a result, these instruments were associated with religion and cosmology in China, pertaining to morality, learning, and life.
Many scholars used these instruments as part of their contemplations and even Confucius was believed to be a Guqin player.
A Guzheng is a type of zither that originated from the Qin Dynasty.
The resonator (with three holes cut into the bottom) is made of hardwood, with the arched soundboard made from softer wood.
The 16 to 21 strings span the length of the soundboard with a bridge at either end.
The additional bridges are used to tune each string accordingly.
The player sits and plucks the strings, using their right hand’s fingernails, while the left hand applies pressure to the opposite side of the strings, creating different string tensions and pitches.
It was played initially in court ensembles but is now features in personal use and solo performances.
Soloists like Liang Tsaiping resurrected these instruments between the 1950s and 80s.
The Konghou is similar to a harp, with three varieties, a horizontal one (Wo-konghou), a vertical one (Shu-konghou), and a phoenix-headed one.
Konghous are part of the strings section in the orchestra and were used as court instruments, in ensembles, and as solo performances.
The body is made of carved wood and the strings of the Konghou are plucked by the thumb and index fingers of both hands.
In the Shu-konghou, two rows of 36 to 44 strings are stretched in front of the upward-facing soundbox and are attached to corresponding bridges at the top and bottom of a frame.
The Wo-konghou is believed to originate from the Eastern Zhou period, while the Shu-konghou is believed to have arrived from trade with the West during the Han Dynasty.
The Liuqin is a pear-shaped mandolin that has become more popular in recent years.
Its body is made of wood of a willow tree, and it originally had two strings and seven frets although nowadays most have four strings and up to 29 frets.
The Liuqin is played by plucking the strings with one hand (often using a plectrum), while the other hand’s fingers depress the strings by a seated musician.
The Liuqin was mainly used in operas and was popular during the Qing Dynasty.
8. Morin Khuur
The Morin Khuur is often called the “horsehead fiddle” due to the carved horse head at the top.
It’s not technically from China and is actually of Mongolian origin being used by the central Mongolian people as an accompaniment to songs and rituals.
Similar in design to a cello, the Morin Khuur has a trapezoid body (soundbox), with a long neck, both made of wood.
Unlike a cello, however, it only has two strings (one made of 130 stallion tail hairs and one made of 105 mare tail hares) which run from the soundbox to the head suspended over a top and bottom bridge.
The strings are pinched with the joints of the middle and index finger or the tips of the pinky and ring fingers.
Morin Khuurs are also played similarly to a cello, upright between the musician’s legs, with a bow but, they don’t have an endpin (spike) and are gripped between the musician’s legs.
The bows used to play a Morin Khuur are made from hairs hair, coated in cedar resin, and are loosely strung.
The Pengling are two small, cup-shaped bell chimes that are typically made from brass or copper and are attached by a piece of string.
They are believed to have gained widespread use in the Northern Wei Dynasty although are thought to have originated from Tibet.
The bells are held in one hand and gently tapped together to produce a chime.
These bells were used in traditional songs and dances, as well as in orchestras and ensembles.
They are also associated with Buddhist rituals.
A Pipa is often referred to as a type of Chinese lute and has a pear-shaped body and short neck, made of wood.
They are three feet and five inches tall and have four strings, with thirty frets.
Like the Guqins, the Pipa is also a very symbolic instrument.
For example, its three feet represent heaven, earth, and man, its height (five inches) represents wood, fire, water, metal, and earth and its four strings represent the four seasons.
Held upright while seated, pipas are strummed and plucked with one hand while the other presses the strings on the fretboard.
The Pipa was played as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble in imperial households and scholars would often play these as part of self-improvement.
The Ruan is another example of a Chinese lute that evolved from the Pipa.
Ruans have a long neck with 13 to 24 frets and a round wooden body.
The four strings were made of silk, and the frets were made of ivory at one point although not so often nowadays.
The Ruan got its name from Ruan Xian, one of seven sages of the Bamboo grove, who was believed to have one made of copper.
The ruan is held vertically, and the strings are plucked with one hand, while the other hand presses down the strings over the fretboard.
Ruans have a mellow tone, especially when played with fingers, and are typically used in operas and orchestras under the string section.
A Sanxian is a long-necked lute that is very similar to the Japanese musical instrument the Shamisen.
Loud and percussive, Sanxians were believed to have been introduced to China through the Mongolians during the Han Dynasty.
It has three strings spanning a fretless neck connected to a rectangle resonator that has been rounded and whose front and back are covered with snakeskin.
The largest of these is around 48 inches, while the shortest is 37 inches in length.
The Sanxian is played by plucking the strings with the fingers of one hand while the other depresses the strings on the neck.
These instruments are usually played as an accompaniment to singers, in ensembles, or full orchestras.
Quite an unusual instrument, the Sheng is a type of mouth organ that is considered to be of the woodwind family.
They produce a melodic sound that are believed to have originated during the Han dynasty.
Originally made from reeds or bamboo, there are 17 pipes of five different lengths connected to a mouthpiece via a windchest.
To play a Sheng, you blow into the mouthpiece and then block the holes on the pipes to produce different notes by causing the reed (metal or actual reed) to vibrate.
A Suona is a type of double-reed horn that also came to China during the Han Dynasty from the Middle East.
They are often used in village ensembles, but they also appear in festivals and ceremonies.
The body is made of hardwood and has seven finger holes and a thumb hole on the back with the loosely fitting bell typically made of brass.
The first double-reed instrument on our list, the two reeds are bound together with copper wire at the mouthpiece.
The reeds are put into the musician’s mouth (without touching the mouth), and often a circular breathing technique is used to blow this horn.
Next, we have The Xiao which is another type of Chinese flute that originated during the Han dynasty.
This flute is made of bamboo (0.9inches in diameter), with all the inner nodes removed.
The mouth hole is cut into one end of the body with five finger holes, a thumb hole, and vent holes along its length.
Unlike a traditional transverse flute, the musician plays the Xiao by blowing down across the opening while holding the xiao almost vertically.
Dating back to over 7 thousand years and thought to be one of the oldest instruments in China, the Xun is a type of flute or whistle that is very similar to an Ocarina.
It is egg-shaped, made from pottery, and has three finger holes in front and two thumb holes at the back.
Xuns are played by blowing air across the top hole while blocking or releasing holes as needed to produce various notes.
They are usually played as an accompaniment instrument but are also used in ritual orchestras.
The Yangqin is a type of dulcimer that is made up of a trapezoid-shaped wooden body.
Two theories exist as to the origins of the Yangqin with one camp believing that the design was inspired by a similar Persian instrument during the Ming Dynasty, while others believe that a British instrument was the inspiration during the 1700s.
It’s made up of between seven and eighteen sets of strings that span across its frame and are attached to four or five bridges.
By striking the strings of the Yangqin with bamboo sticks, the player can produce a range of different sounds.
The Yangqin was often played in traditional ensembles although in modern times they are used in orchestras as part of the string section and as solo instruments.
The Yunluo, which is translated as “cloud of drums‘ is a vertical set of small gongs that originated during the Ming Dynasty.
A Yunluo usually has ten gongs of varying sizes attached to a wooden frame with string but modern versions of up to 40 gongs are used in orchestras.
The performer uses mallets with either hard or soft tips to strike each gong and is often played by two musicians simultaneously.
The yunluo are played in ensembles and during ceremonies (weddings and funerals).
The Zhonghu is a two-stringed fiddle with a circular, octagon, or other shaped, wooden soundbox that is a larger variation of the Erhu.
Zhonghus are played in a similar way to most fiddles, with a bow and depressing of the strings over the neck.
Although very similar, the Zhonghu is believed to be less versatile in range when compared to the Ehru but it still produces a rich and mellow sound with a deep tone.
The Zhonghu is used as an alto range of the string section in orchestras as an accompaniment to the Erhu.
Some have even compared it to the viola.
And lastly, we have the Bangu which is a type of drum made by stretching a membrane (animal skin) over a ten-inch circular body constructed out of hardwood wedges, with a metal band encircling the drum.
The Bangu is played with two small sticks made of bamboo; struck on the drum’s center, which is only around 2 inches in diameter, referred to as the “guxin” or drum heart.
The sound produced is high-pitched and dry.
This instrument was used in Chinese orchestras as part of the percussion section and was specifically played in operas where the sound was used to create dramatic music.
The musical director or conductor would often play the Bangu.
With the impressive span of Chinese history and the many foreign influences through trade and conquest, Chinese traditional instruments come in a fascinating range of shapes and sizes.
Some of them are familiar and have been adopted by western culture, while others are somewhat alien in design.
Whichever the case, these instruments work together to make music that represents and exemplifies Chinese culture in solo, ensemble, orchestral, opera, and daily life situations.