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Traditional Chinese Instruments

In Chinese Music Culture, traditional instruments include the elegant Qin, the delicate Se, the resonant Zheng, the melodious Ruan, the majestic Pipa, the enchanting Chime Bells, the rhythmic Drum, the lyrical Flute, the soulful Xiao, the ancient Xun, the harmonious Sheng, and the evocative Erhu.


Each type of instrument is a vessel of centuries-old musical tradition, carrying the echoes of ancient melodies and the essence of Chinese artistic expression.

Chinese Instruments in the painting "Musical Performance"

Chinese Instruments in the painting "Musical Performance", by artist Zhou Wenju (about 907 — 975).

Qin or Guqin


Origin and Elegancy 


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


Guqin was invented by King Fu Xi, or in other legends, by the Yellow Emperor.


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 Guqin. He could sing most ancient poems accompanying Guqin and considered the sound of Guqin as the most elegant, appealing music in the world. 


External Look


Guqin 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 Guqin 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 Guqin correspond to 12 months and one lunar leap month in the Traditional Chinese Calendar


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


Therefore, most Guqin 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 musical instruments, Guqin doesn't have complicated playing skills, nor does it require a very early age to learn.


Instead, it's never too late to learn to play Guqin, which requires many players' improvisation 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 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 Guqin. 

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, 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.

Chinese Instrument Se

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.

Chinese Instrument Zheng



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 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 the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) and was mixed with another plucked stringed instrument 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 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)



Around 5000 years ago, Yellow Emperor 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. 

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 now.


However, many have disappeared in history or serve another function (like a toy for babies). 

Toy Drum for Baby Bolang Gu



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

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. 

Women Playing 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

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)



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.

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

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



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)

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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