China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization with over four thousand years of written history. In such a time-honored culture, various unique traditonal Chinese instruments appeared successively over time. These Chinese musical instruments were either invented by the ancient Chinese or introduced from other cultures and then altered to become a part of the traditional Chinese instrument family. This article provides the basic knowledge of the most representative Chinese music instruments.
Ancient Chinese Music Instruments
As early as three thousand years ago, up to 70 Chinese musical instruments were played to please the royal family and aristocrats. At first, the musical instruments were exclusive to the upper social class serving as a symbol for their status, power, and taste, distinct from the lower classes. However, the music managed to find its way to common people. Cumbersome instruments like the Bronze Chimes gradually gave way to compact musical instruments such as woodwind and string traditional Chinese instruments like Dizi and Guqin.
The pinnacle of the development of traditional Chinese instruments was reached in the Tang Dynasty, during which the emperors were masters in music, and many exotic instruments were introduced to and adopted in ancient China due to frequent cultural exchanges between China and other regions of the world.
Traditional Chinese instruments can be generally grouped into two common categories: string and woodwind. So what are these popular Chinese orchestral instruments?
Chinese String Instruments
String instruments are made from string and wood. Traditional Chinese stringed music is frequently used in movies to represent Chinese culture. The performance of Chinese string instruments can date back to the Jin Dynasty, which was around 1,800 to 1,600 years ago. The most common Chinese string instruments include Guzheng (古箏), Guqin (古琴), Erhu (二胡), and Pipa (琵琶), which have existed and developed for thousands of years. We’ll briefly introduce them one by one.
The guqin (古琴) is a plucked seven-stringed traditional Chinese music instrument made of paulownia wood or China fir, the perfect material designed for lighter weight and richer tone. In ancient China, the rich and royal family would use rare and expensive woods like mahogany, nanmu, or Pterocarpus santalinus to make the sound box of the guqin as a way to highlight their distinguished status and refined taste.
The guqin was traditionally favored by Chinese scholars and literati and was associated with Confucius, the famous ancient Chinese philosopher. The guqin’s melodies are pure, gentle, and free from vulgarity, echoing the uprightness (正) of Confucianism, the softness (輕) of Taoism, and the harmony (和) of Buddhism. The prefix “古” means ancient, and “琴” refers to the general term of all musical instruments. So the guqin (古琴) is referred to as “the instruments of the sages” or “the father of Chinese music”.
The guzheng, aka Chinese zither (古箏) is often confused with the guqin because of their resemblance in appearance. Although the guqin and the guzheng are traditional Chinese instruments without frets, the guqin is a musical instrument played without bridges under the strings. Unlike the seven-string guqin, a quiet instrument, the guzheng has 21 strings supported by moveable bridges underneath, making it louder and more suitable for public performance. Thus, the guzheng is among the widely-used Chinese orchestral instruments, while the guqin is not.
The guzheng dates back to over 2,500 years ago, during the Warring Period in ancient China. Its prototype was made of silk strings and a bamboo frame and developed in Qin Guo, which is why the guzheng is also known as the “Qinzheng”. Many Asian zithers, including the Korean ajaeng and gayageum, the Japanese koto, the Vietnamese đàn tranh, the Mongolian yatga, the Kazakhstan jetigen, and the Sundanese kacapi, were all derived from the guzheng.
The erhu (二胡) is a two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument with over a thousand years of history. It is a versatile Chinese music instrument capable of producing melancholy and joyful sounds, which is popularly used in traditional and contemporary music, including jazz, pop, and rock. The erhu is one of the most popular members of the huqin family. The prefix “er” (二) indicates the fact that it has two strings, and “hu” (胡) refers to the fact that this expressive instrument was invented by an ethnic group living in northern China during the Tang Dynasty. Like the guzheng, the erhu strings are made from metal strings instead of silk to enhance the instruments’ durability.
The pipa (琵琶)/the Chinese lute has been played for over 2,000 years since the Han Dynasty. It’s a pear-shaped musical instrument with four strings and frets numbering from 12 to 31. With its wide dynamic range, pipa can make remarkably rich and expressive sounds. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the pipa music in the contemporary music performance in which the pipa sound is integrated with western music.
The pipa is ancestral to several East Asian and Southeast Asian instruments, such as the Korean bipa (no longer widely used), the Japanese biwa, and the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà. Another traditional Chinese instrument that looks similar to the pipa is the liuqin (柳琴), a smaller four-stringed plucked lute.
Chinese Woodwind Instruments
Speaking of Chinese woodwind instruments, the most popular ones include the dizi and the xiao.
The dizi/di (笛子) or di (笛) is a Chinese transverse flute with a remarkably long history that stretches 7,000 years. As one of the oldest ancient Chinese instruments, the dizi was initially made out of bone. It wasn’t until 4,500 years ago that the ancient Chinese began to make the musical instrument with bamboo, which is classified more as “woodwind” in the West.
Since the seventh century, people have used membranes to cover the holes of the dizi. When the air is blown into the hole, the membrane vibrates, and the dizi can make clear and smooth tones. The dizi can play loud and sonorous tones, peaceful ditties, and cheerful dancing music.
Another Chinese woodwind instrument that is made with bamboo is the xiao (蕭) or shuzhudi (豎竹笛), a vertical bamboo flute. Unlike the dizi that’s horizontally blown, the xiao is end-blown vertically. The xiao has a time-honored history of more than two thousand years. When it first appeared in the Han Dynasty, the xiao was called by the name of Qiangdi (羌笛), indicating the ancient Chinese flute instrument was invented by the Qiang people in Sichuan and Gansu regions.
The xiao initially came with six holes and now has developed into eight holes. The xiao can make soft and graceful sounds, with which people can play slow and peaceful tunes in solo, concert, ensemble, folk music, and other forms of performance.
Traditional Chinese instruments have a time-honored history and a sizeable variety. The list of Chinese musical instruments seems endless, and the knowledge and culture behind each will take years to appreciate and master.
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