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String instruments from China

erhu, guqin, guzheng(zheng), konghou, liuqin, morin

khur, pipa, ruan, sanxian, yangqin, yueqin, ...
An Brief Introduction
I. The Plucked String Instruments
1. The Lute family

Pipa (
pi-pa or p'i-p'a) - four-stringed lute with 30 frets and pear-shaped
body. The instrumentalist holds the pipa upright and play with five small plectra
attached to each finger of the right hand. The pipa history can be dated back at
least 2000 years and developed from pentatonic to full scales. This instrument has
extremely wide dynamic range and remarkable expressive power. (more about
pipa ... )

Liuqin (
) -a smaller version of pipa with four
strings, which sound similar to mandolin. Liuqin is played
with a piece of spectrum, and is used to be accompany
instrument for folk songs and local opera. However, in
recent decades, Composer Wang Huiran made great
contribution to its making and composed many pieces
such that the Liuqin also becomes a soloist

Sanxian (
)- A long necked lute with three strings
without frets. In Chinese, "san" and "xian" stands for "
"three" and "strings", respectively. The sound-body is
made of round wooden box covered with snake skin, just like erhu. A piece of
plectrum is used to play the instrument. This instrument is often used for
accompanying folk songs and local opera. The sanxian is most popular in the

Ruan (
)- commonly referred to as "Chinese guitar", is an ancient four-stringed
moon-shaped lute with long and straight neck and various number of frets, dated
back at least to Qin Daynasty (around 200 BC). Ruan is used to be called "p'i-p'a"
(pipa) or qin-pipa. Since the introduction of the oud-like instrument through the
"silk-road" around 5th century, a new type of "pipa" with pear-shaped body and
bent neck has been gradually developed into the present form since the Tang
Dynasty (618-917AD), and the name pipa, which used to be a generic term for all
pluck string lutes, has been specifically given to this newly-developed version,
whereas the old form of pipa with straight-neck and round body got the name
"Ruan", after the name of the grand master of this instrument, Ruan Xian who was
one of the seven great scholars known as "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" in
Chinese history of the 3rd century (the Six Dynasties). They were truely good

friends and did spend much time together in arts and wine during one of the
darkest periods in Chinese history. Ruan Xian and Ji Kang (master of guqin, Chinese
7-stringed zither), are most famous for their musical achievements and the life as
true artists. The Ruan is mostly used for Peking opera, and now also in modern
Chinese orchestra. There are a family of ruan of various size including "Zhong Ruan"
(middle Ruan) and "Da Ruan" (large Ruan) used
in the same sense as viola and
cello in western orchestra.

Yueqin (
)- moon-shaped
lute with shorter neck and four
strings, played with a spectrum, used for accompanying local

operas. "Yue" stands for "the moon" in Chinese.

2. The zither family


Guqin (
) - seven-stringed zither without bridges, the most classicalChinese
instrument with over 3000 years of history. The guqin is often referred to as the
instrument of sages for the purpose of enriching the heart and elevating human
spirit. Confucius (around 600 BC) was a master of this instrument. In the Imperial
China's past, well-educated people of the elite society were expected to master the
four arts, namely, the qin (guqin), qi (weiqi, which has somehow been known as
"Go" in the West according Japanese pronuciation), shu (Calligraphy), and hua
(painting). Being on top of the four traditional arts, the guqin has historically been
regarded as one of the most important symbols of Chinese high culture.
Unfortunately only small number of people in China could play the instrument,
because classical musical education of this kind has never reached general public.
Fortunately, the situation has much been improved in recent decades, there have
been a growing number of guqin players both in and outside China. Since november
2003, Guqin has been
registered as one of the
master pieces of the Oral
and Intangible Heritage of
the humanity by UNESCO (more information...)

Zheng (
) or Guzheng (
)- Chinese zither with
movable bridges and 16 - 25 strings. In the same family there
are the Japanese koto, the Vietnamese dan tranh, the
Koreankayagum, and the Mongolian Yagta (more
information... )

3. The harp family

Konghou (
Kong Hou) - One of the most ancient
Chinese music instruments that appeared in written texts of
the Spring and Autumn period (around 600 BC). The structure
of the Konghou looks similar to the harp, however, with its
bridges spanning the strings in the way similar toguzheng.
There were the wo-konghou (horizontal konghou), su-konghou
(vertical konghou) and phoenix-head konghou. Unfortunately
not much of this ancient instrument has been preserved. The
reproduction of the konghou started in the mid 50's. The
structure of Today's konghou is a combination of su-konghou
and wo-konghou with the shape similar to harp. The
performing skill is diversified. Besides right-hand techniques,
the left hand can play vibratos, glissandos, etc. The tone
quality is mellow and graceful and has a typical Chinese

II. The Bowed String Instruments:

The huqin family

Erhu (

)- or Er-Hu, a two-stringed fiddle, is one of the most popular

Chinese instruments in the Hu-qin (

) family, where Hu stands for
"foreign" or "the northern folk" in Chinese, and "qin" is a general name for all
kinds of string instruments. (more information about Erhu ...).

Zhong-Hu (
): If we call the "Erhu" Chinese violin, the Zhong-Hu is
then the Chinese viola, where "Zhong" stands for "middle", thus the
abbreviated name for the mid-pitched Erhu. It was developed on the basis of
Erhu in the 1940s. Both the structure and performing skill of these two kinds
of Hu-Qin are quite the same, yet Zhong-Hu has a deeper-sounding timbre
but not as agile. Being more suitable for singing melodies (particularly some
Mongolian melodies), Zhong-Hu is thus often used as tutti or accompanying instruments,
sometimes for solo too.

Jing-Hu (
): Principally used as accompanying instrument for Beijing Opera, Jing-Hu
is another important two-stringed fiddle in the Huqin family. It was developed in Qin
dynasty ( around 1790 ), which is often called the Hu-Qin. The pitch of Jing-Hu is the
highest among all instruments of the Hu-Qin family. Due to its forceful and clarion timbre,
Jing-Hu is suitable almost exclusively for Beijing opera.

Ban-Hu (
): Ban-Hu has many other names such as Pang-Hu, Qin-Hu, Hu-Hu and
Da-Xian, etc. It is the leading accompanying instrument for Bang-Zi and other northern
tunes or ballads, particularly for the local operas in Henan Province, central China. Similar
to Jing-Hu, the timbre of Ban-Hu is clarion and bright, which makes it hard to join other
instruments for tutti. Therefore it's usually for solo, especially for presenting joyful and
passionate moods.

Gao-Hu (
), also called High-pitched Erhu or Yue-Hu, is especially designed for
playing Cantonese folk melodies and operas. Gao-Hu is often used for performing vivid
and brisk rhythms, particularly for higher-pitched tunes that Erhu cannot play. In
comparison with Erhu, Gao-Hu has louder volume yet brighter tones, and thus it servers
both as solo and leading instrument in performing Cantonese operas and folk melodies.

Yehu (

):two stringed bowed instrument similar to erhu, however, with a coconut

sound body where Ye means coconut. It is found mostly in South China and Taiwan.

Sihu (
): four stringed huqin used for accompanying local opera, most commonly
found in the North, such as Sanxi, Shanxi and Neimonggu. It is one of the three leading
instruments (together with dizi, yangqin) in "Er Ren Tai" of Neimonggu (Inner Mongolia).
"Si" stands for "four" in Chinese. The structure is similar to Erhu except it has four strings.
The horse-hair of the bow is divided into two group that go between the four strings.

), also known as Zhuiqin, is one of the most popular instruments in Henan
and Shandong Provinces, used for local opera and story-telling. The instrument was
invented toward the end of Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912) based on the pluck string
Sanxian and bowed string erhu. The striking difference from Erhu is that Zhuihu has a
fretless fingerboard similar to Sanxian. The use of the bow is similar to that of
erhu. Basically the instrument is derived from a smaller version of Sanxian performed with
a bow, producing beautiful sounds with a strong local flavour, capable of imitating a lot of
natural sounds such as birds and horse etc. The playing methods adapt the left hand
techniques for the Sanxian and the bow techniques of erhu. The Zhuihu is one of the most
beautiful instruments of the huqin family, which has become very popular soon after its
invention in Henan and Shandong.

Leiqin (
) is derived dirrectly from Zhuihu with few small modifications when the
instrument was introduced to Guangdong Province. The playing method is the same as

Morin Khur (
Ma-Tou-Qin): The Morin Khur or horse-headed violin is a typical
Mongolian bowed instrument with two strings, however, very different from Er-Hu. The
horse hair of the bow doesn't go between the two strings, instead, the instrument and the
way of playing is more similar to cello than to erhu. The instrument was originally made
from a horse head for the body, horse skin for the resonator, and horse hair for the strings
and bow. The music played upon this instrument is of great variety and virtuosity. Much of
the music typically sounds like human voice, and can imitate a horse to such an extent as
real such as galloping horse, the whinnying, etc. The modern Morin Khur has a wooden
body and soundboard, 2 horse hair strings, and has a rich warm tone and very beautiful
sound. The peghead is decorated with a detailed carving of a horse's

III. Hammered string instruments

- Yang-Qin or Chinese dulcimer

Yangqin (
) is a Chinese hammered dulcimer with a near-squared
soundboard. The instrument is very similar
to Santur, played with two bamboo

Note: In Chinese, most of the stringed instruments are called "qin"(

few exceptions that are named differently, for instance, pipa(
)however, erhu is often called Huqin


) with
) and erhu(