Traditional Chinese music has had a rich and diverse history; and a very different one from the Western world.
The fact that China remained isolationist for centuries, their musical culture didn’t spread much outside of the Sinosphere. This is what makes traditional Chinese instruments even more special.
Chinese String Instruments can be broadly classified into three types – Plucked, Bowed & Struck-string. Some of these instruments are less than 100 years old, while others are thousands of years old.
A lot of them underwent modifications in the 20th century such as use of modern construction materials, tuning modifications, silk strings replaced by metal strings etc. But what remains represents thousands of years of poignant sound & culture.
Here’s a list of 7 Famous Chinese String Instruments the world needs to know.
Also known as the Chinese violin, the Erhu is a very unique and beautiful instrument that first appeared in China over 1,400 years ago during the Tang Dynasty.
“Er” means “two” in Chinese, analogous to the two strings on the instrument which are usually tuned to a fifth. “Hu” means “Barbarian (or non-Chinese)”, which portrays that it originated outside of China.
There are no frets or fingerboard, and the pitch is controlled by pressing into the strings themselves. This makes it hard to play if you’re used to the violin. The horsehair bow is threaded in between the two strings and is moved over the strings to produce sound.
The Erhu has a poignant sound that resembles a violin, and is played in a similar fashion with a bow. However, it’s not as loud as the violin due to the smaller sound box.
Traditionally, Erhus have a resonator box that’s covered in python skin, but many modern ones are made with synthetic skin which is more durable but doesn’t have the same strong timbre of snakeskin.
Erhu is one of the few traditional Chinese string instruments that have a large range, about three octaves in this case. Its acoustics make it suited for solo acts or in small ensembles. It has also been featured in multiple film soundtracks.
Want to try an Erhu? A decent beginner one doesn’t cost a lot!
Guqin has its roots back to the ancient times, when it was simply referred to as “Qin” until the suffix was later used for several other instruments like the Yangqin, Liuqin and Huqin.
Guqin has been popular among royal families and bureaucrats who preferred to use Guqins made of rare and exotic woods like Red Sandalwood and Nanmu. But it commonly uses Paulownia wood for its construction.
A gentleman does not part with his Qin or Se without good reason.
The instrument consists of seven strings which were traditionally always made of high-quality silk, but recent changes have made the use of nylon-flatwound steel strings more prevalent.
The body of the Guqin is made of a hollow tong wood chamber with tuning pegs & sound holes on the underside. The seven strings sit on the top supported by the nut & bridge. This construction may seem humble enough to you, but the level of expression & detail it can produce is exquisite.
The instrument possesses acoustics that seem like a blend of steel-string guitar and a Sitar, however, it’s extremely quiet. The mellow, contemplative sound can be attributed to it being associated with scholars & intellectuals.
Pipa is a popular Chinese plucked-string instrument with a history of almost 2000 years. It strongly resembles a lute with its pear-shaped body, which is the reason why it’s sometimes called the Chinese lute.
Ancient Chinese texts use the word “Pipa” to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones. Although the origin of the pear-shaped lute is not clear, it is likely to have been originated in Central Asia or the Indian subcontinent and was brought into China during the Han dynasty.
The Pipa has 12 to 24 frets and 4 strings that are traditionally plucked using a large plectrum or nowadays, with fingernails or finger picks. The playing style and sound can be said to be similar to a banjo but it allows for greater string-bending.
Because of the way they are tuned and their distinctive “clattering” sound, Pipas are really only suited for Chinese music. But modern advancements have introduced steel-strings, 5-string variants as well as electric Pipas to fit better with the Western music style.
The Pipa has been used in contemporary classical music and even some rock and jazz music. It remains an integral part of the plucked-string section of a Chinese orchestra.
Liuqin is one of the highest-pitched Chinese string instruments known for its bright, piercing tone. This instrument has a very special role in the Chinese orchestra thanks to the penetrative sound that is never drowned out by other instruments.
Although it looks very similar to the Pipa, Liuqin is much smaller in size. It has 4-strings played with a plectrum, which is why it’s often called the Chinese mandolin.
The Liuqin is an excellent example of successful modernization. The earliest Liuqins had two to three strings and seven frets, which was increased and standardized to four strings and 29 frets over the years.
Modern Liuqins also feature a larger body and steel strings, which have solidified its role from a folk accompanying instrument to an indispensable part of Chinese opera & Chinese orchestra.
Guzheng is a large plucked zither usually made from Chinese Paulownia wood. The earliest specimens of the “Zheng” (generic term for a long plucked-string zither) date back to the Warring period (as old as 500 BC).
The first Zhengs consisted of 5 five strings and were played with one’s hands. Subsequent reformation and developments added more strings – to 12, 13, 18 and now 21.
Modern Guzhengs are designed with larger wooden boards, have movable bridges and are often decorated with carved art, mother-of-pearl inlays, paintings, calligraphy etc. These are usually played with finger picks.
This greatly enhanced the loudness, pitch range and tonal qualities of the instrument. Guzheng has amassed vast popularity in Chinese orchestra and has a large solo repertoire.
Traditionally silk strings were always used, but most modern instruments come with nylon coated steel strings. Playing techniques have also evolved, from basic slides & vibratos to harmonic progressions & basslines.
The Yangqin does fall into the plucked-string instrument category, but it is really a hammered Dulcimer. In fact, it’s said to be derived from the ancient Iranian Santur and came to China through the Silk Road.
The Yangqin traditionally used bronze strings unlike silk strings on other Chinese string instruments. But like most of them, the use of steel alloy strings has been prominent now.
With a body that’s shaped liked a trapezium, it consists of 144 strings in groups of four or five. Four to five extended bridges support the strings and one is supposed to “hammer” on the sides of the bridges to produce sound.
These hammers are nothing but lightweight bamboo sticks with a rubber tip at one end, and one can use either end to strike the strings for a softer or sharper more percussive sound respectively.
It sounds beautiful and sweet, just as a Dulcimer is supposed to sound like! On the other hand, some of its solo repertoire demands for adept technical skills, including vibratos, portamentos and rapid tremolos.
The Ruan is a traditional Chinese lute with a round body and a long, straight neck that exhibits 24 frets covering 12 semitones. Due to the characteristic circular body, it’s sometimes called the Moon Guitar (Such elegance!).
The present version of the instrument dates back its ancestry to the Qin dynasty. The Qin pipa is said to be the earliest form of the Ruan; It had a long & straight 24-fretted neck, four strings and a round body unlike the pear-shaped one found on the later Pipas.
Qin pipa was developed into the ‘Ruanxian’, and later the ‘Ruan’. It’s lower pitched that Pipa, which allowed it to fill a lot of the tenor and bass registers in the plucked-string section.
Ruan is played with either a plectrum or with acrylic nails glued to the fingers. The sound can be characterized as mellow & melancholic, but don’t let that fool you.
In addition to the traditional Ruan, several variations have been developed over the years such as – Diyin Ruan (Contrabass Ruan), Daruan (Bass Ruan), Zhongruan (Tenor Ruan), Xiaoruan (Alto Ruan) and Gaoyin Ruan (Soprano Ruan). A Ruan ensemble typically consists of multiple members from the family.
“Sanxian” literally means “three strings” in Chinese. It’s very different from the other lutes we discussed as well as the Erhu. Sanxian consists of a resonator box and a long fretless fingerboard with 3 silk or nylon strings.
It’s played using a plectrum. The loud, crisp sound along with the wide range make it suitable for orchestral accompaniment as well as solo performances. Due to its rich and percussive tonal qualities, it’s sometimes known as the Chinese banjo.
The Sanxian is also made in a larger sized variation with a less sharp tone & a range of three octaves. The larger sizes are mostly used as a vocal accompaniment.
It’s wildly popular in classical Chinese music, and has seen some modern rock and pop appearances as well. Also, the popular Japanese instrument Shamisen has its roots in the instrument, and looks very similar to the Chinese Sanxian.
I’ve decided to include the ancient Chinese harp in the mix. The harp is a string instrument after all, right?
The Konghou has a history tracing back to as early as 700 BC. Ancient Chinese texts mention at least three variations of the instrument – Wo Konghou (horizontal Konghou), Shu Konghou (Vertical Konghou) and Fong-Shou Konghou (Phoenix-headed Konghou).
It was widely popular in royal orchestras both as an accompaniment and a solo instrument. It reached its prime during the times of the Han dynasty to the Tang dynasty.
The traditional Konghou became extinct during the Ming Dynasty. Pingqiu Yue speculates the reason Konghou couldn’t serve the people who got more into complicated melodies and modulation.
Chinese harp was revived in the 20th century utilizing the principles of the modern Pedal harp. The modern Konghou was designed by Zhou Guang Yuen, who is a professor at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music.
It features double-rowed strings, multiple bridges, adjustable soundbox and has 72 silk-steel strings. The reformed version sounds enchanting and allows for advanced playing techniques like bending tones & vibratos.
So, these were some of the famous Chinese String Instruments that have shaped the long and broad Chinese musical culture. The variety of stringed instruments in Chinese orchestra is rather extensive, and is what makes the music so lively and charismatic.
I hope you enjoyed reading the article and learned more about these special (and obscure?) instruments. If you have any suggestions or thoughts after reading the article, please leave them in the comments.
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