Traditional Chinese Instruments
In Chinese Music Culture, traditional instruments include Qin, Se, Zheng, Ruan, Pipa, Chime Bells, Drum, Flute, Xiao, Xun, Sheng, and Erhu.
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.
Gu Qin originally had five strings that corresponded 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 one 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
Study and Understanding
Unlike other musical instruments, Gu Qin doesn't have complicated playing skills, nor does it requires a very early age to learn.
Instead, it's never too late to learn to play Gu Qin, which requires many players' improvisation and understanding of life and culture.
Se is an ancient, historical plucked instrument that initially 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.
Se had been frequently used in worship ceremonies and royal concerts. However, Se gradually disappeared from history after the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).
Se has been recovered in recent decades, and more songs were composed, according to some unearthed relics and historical documentation.
Zheng the Chinese Zither
Around 2500 years ago, Zheng, also named the Chinese zither, was used as a 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.
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 could 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 was also used to convey commands in the army since it was light and could be carried and played with while riding horses. 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 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 was mixed with another plucked stringed instrument imported from western regimes along the Silk Road centuries later.
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 excellent Pipa players.
Chinese Musical Instrument Pipa of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)
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)
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 was applied in war, sacrifice and worship ceremonies, hunting, telling time, sending messages, and as a musical instrument.
Based on different utilization occasions and original geologies, there are many types of drums now. However, many have disappeared in history or serve another function (like a toy for a baby).
There have been a series of flutes made of different materials and 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 — Photo by Dongmaiying
In ancient times, flutes were played vertically but changed to transverse in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).
Today, all of those traditional edge-blown aerophones that are played transversely are concluded as Flute.
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
It can be made of bamboo, jade, bone, metal, pottery, or paper, while bamboo is the most frequently used material.
As one of China's most ancient instruments, Xun was widely used in hunting around 7000 years ago.
People found that when throwing stones, those with holes could make unique, 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, 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 could be used to make Xun, which has many shapes, such as pear, egg, gourd, etc.
Sheng is the most ancient, historical reed instrument and the earliest used 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)
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 traditional Chinese operas.
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