Traditional Chinese Instruments

In Chinese Music Culture, traditional instruments include Qin, Se, Zheng, Ruan, Pipa, Chime Bells, Drum, Flute, Xiao, Xun, Sheng, and Erhu.

pottery figurine of royal band of the Tang Dynasty (618 --907)

Pottery Figurine of Imperial Chinese Orchestra of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Qin or Gu Qin

 

Origin and Elegancy 

 

Gu Qin has been considered the most elegant Chinese instrument and the most popular means of self-cultivation by scholars since it was invented over 3000 years ago. 

 

Gu Qin was invented by King Fu Xi, or in other legends by King Huang Di. Originally it was played in grand worship ceremonies, later welcomed by all knowledgeable people in ancient Chinese history. 

 

Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC) was a master of Gu Qin. He could sing most ancient poems accompanying Gu Qin, and considered the sound of Gu Qin as the most elegant, appealing music in the world. 

 

External Look

 

Gu Qin originally had five strings that correspond to the Five Elements and Five Stars Wood (Jupiter), Fire (Mars), Earth (Saturn), Metal (Venus), and Water (Mercury). Later, two other strings were added, representing literature and the military. 

 

The round top of Gu Qin reflects the sky, while the flat bottom represents the earth. The bulge part (named Yue Shan) symbolizes the mountain, and the strings indicate the flowing water.

 

The 13 marks in Gu Qin, correspond to 12 months and 1 lunar leap month in the Traditional Chinese Calendar

 

As a perfect reflection of nature, Gu Qin also has been believed as a means to pursue the Tao. 

 

Therefore, most Gu Qin music is ancient Confucianism or Taoism songs. 

Ancient Qin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Cai Feng Ming Qi Front and Back

Ancient Qin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Cai Feng Ming Qi Front and Back

Study and Understanding

 

Unlike other types of musical instruments, Gu Qin doesn’t have very difficult playing skills, nor requires a very early age to learn.

 

Instead, it’s never too late to learn to play Gu Qin, which requires many of the players' improvise, and understanding of life and culture. 

Qin Performance in Ancient Painting of Emperor Huizong of Song Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135)

Qin Performance in Ancient Painting of Emperor Huizong of Song Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) 

Se

Se is an ancient, historical plucked instrument that originally had 50 strings, and a square shape body.

 

Around 2000 years ago, Se was reduced to 25 strings, which was still bigger and heavier than Gu Qin. 

Pottery Figurine of Playing Se of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Pottery Figurine of Playing Se of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Se had been frequently used in worship ceremonies and royal concerts. However, after the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Se gradually disappeared from history.

 

In recent decades, Se has been recovered and more songs were composed, according to some unearthed relics and historical documentation.

Chinese Instrument Se

Zheng the Chinese Zither

 

Around 2500 years ago, Zheng, also named the Chinese zither, had been used as a type of big, heavy weapon on the battlefield.

 

Gradually, more strings were added, and more beautiful songs were played. Since then, Zheng has become a traditional musical instrument in Chinese culture. 

 

Now it is usually 163cm long, with 21 strings.

Chinese Instrument Zheng

Ruan

 

Before Princess Xijun married the King of Wusun (a nomadic regime located in the west of the Han Dynasty, along the Silk Road), Emperor Liu Che commanded artisans to make a musical instrument that can be played while riding horses. 

 

Centuries later, in the Jin Dynasty (266 — 420), a famous scholar and musician named Ruan Xian was quite an expert playing this instrument, which later was named after him, the Ruan.

 

In the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Ruan also had been used to convey commands in the army, since it was light, and could be carried and played with while riding horses. In the meanwhile, it was also quite popular among the royals, as an exquisite musical instrument. 

 

Afterward, Ruan gradually entered the civilian world and was well inherited.

Chinese Musical Instrument Ruan of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Chinese Instrument Ruan of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Pipa the Chinese Lute

 

Pipa also named the Chinese Lute, appeared in Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), and then mixed with another plucked stringed instrument that was imported from western regimes along the Silk Road centuries later. 

Chinese Musical Instrument Pipa or Lute

Since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Pipa has become one of the most popular Chinese instruments, from the royal band to civilians’ families.

 

Emperor Li Longji and his favorite imperial concubine Yang Yuhuan were both excellent Pipa players. 

Chinese Musical Instrument Pipa or Chinese Lute of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Chinese Musical Instrument Pipa of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Chime Bells

 

Around 3500 years ago, Chime Bells, the representative of authority and nobility, had been applied in important worship ceremonies or big banquets. 

 

Chime Bells were usually made of bronze, with exquisite patterns and inscriptions. 

The Unearthed Bronze Chime Bells of Lord Zeng Hou Yi (about 475 BC — 433 BC)

The Unearthed Bronze Chime Bells of Lord Zeng Hou Yi (about 475 BC — 433 BC)

Drum

 

Around 5000 years ago, King Huang Di made a drum out of a strong animal’s skin and used its sound to boost his soldier’s morale.

 

Later, the drum had been applied in war, sacrifice and worship ceremonies, hunting, telling time, sending messages, and as a musical instrument. 

Phoenix-Tiger Drum of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Phoenix-Tiger Drum of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Based on different utilization occasions and original geologies, there are many types of drums till now, though many of them have disappeared in history or serve another function (like a toy for a baby). 

Toy Drum for Baby Bolang Gu

Flute

 

There have been a series of flutes that are made of different types of materials and have varying numbers of holes (usually 6 to 11).

 

The earliest flute was Bone Flute around 9000 to 8000 years ago, while the most common one is Bamboo Flute. 

Bone Flute of Peiligang Culture in around 8500  to 7000 Years Ago in the Neolithic

Bone Flute of Peiligang Culture in around 8500  to 7000 Years Ago in the Neolithic — Photo by Dongmaiying

in ancient times, flutes were played vertically but changed to the transverse way in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

 

Today, all of those traditional edge-blown aerophones that are played transversely are concluded as Flute. 

Women Playing Flute

Xiao 

 

Xiao is a vertical flute, with about 7000 years of history.

 

Originally, Xiao was a series of pipes stuck together and gradually evolved into a single pipe vertical End-Blown flute with 6 or 8 holes. 

Panpipe of 3000 Years Ago

Panpipe of 3000 Years Ago

It can be made of bamboo, jade, bone, metal, pottery, or paper, while bamboo is the most frequently used material. 

Xiao Performing in Painting of Artist Tang Yin (1470 — 1524)

Xiao Performing in Painting of Artist Tang Yin (1470 — 1524)

Xun

 

As one of the most ancient instruments in China, Xun had been widely used in hunting around 7000 years ago.

 

People found that when throwing stones, those with holes could make special, interesting sounds in the air. Later they used Xun to imitate the sounds of certain animals in hunting to trap and capture them. 

 

Then people used stone, bone, and pottery with holes to make Xun, which was also used in sacrifice ceremonies and important royal banquets. The number of holes on Xun developed from one to ten throughout history. 

 

Pottery, china, wood, bamboo, red stoneware, resin, jade, or stone all could be used to make Xun, which also has many shapes, such as pear, egg, gourd, etc.

Chinese Musical Instrument Xun of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Chinese Instrument Xun of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Sheng 

 

Sheng is the most ancient, historical reed instrument and the earliest that used the free reed.

 

The most historical existing Sheng was unearthed from the grave of Lord Zeng Hou Yi (about 2400 years ago).  

 

Looking like the wings of a phoenix, Sheng is made of bamboo, wood, or copper.

Chinese Musical Instrument Sheng of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Chinese Musical Instrument Sheng of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Erhu

 

Erhu, also called the Chinese violin, originated from a minority group in ancient China and became popular around 1000 years ago.

 

It developed and harmonized well in the following history, and was widely used as an accompaniment to Chinese traditional operas. 

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