Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

The Chinese national musical instrument is the key part in Chinese music. With a long history standing, there are a series of national instruments developed in China. In terms of material, there are Ba Yin (Chinese:八音), that is, the eight categories of musical instrument in ancient orchestra, namely, metal, stone, string, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather and wood. In terms of playing skills, there are generally four kinds, percussion instruments (bells, drums, and gongs), wind instruments (flutes, Suona and Xiao), bowed string instruments (Banhu and Erhu) and plucked string instruments (Guzheng, Pipa and Sanxuan).

a. Guzheng
Guzheng (Chinese:古筝), or Zheng, is a traditional Chinese plucked instrument similar to zither; It is in flat rectangle with strings and movable bridges. Generally, Zheng are in 13-string, 16-string, 18-string or 21-string, of which the 21-string is the most common. According to records, Guzheng was popular in the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC). In traditional way, the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of the right hand are used to play the Zheng, while the left hand to control the tones by pressing the strings; in the modern ways, both of the hands can be used for playing. The most classical pieces of Guzheng are Lofting Mountains and Flowing Water (Chinese:高山流水), the Homebound Fishmen (Chinese:渔舟唱晚) and Autumn Moon over the Han Palace (Chinese:汉宫秋月).

Lofting Mountains and Flowing Water, or Gaoshan Liushui in Chinese, is famous with a story about bosom friends. It is said that a musician named Boya was once played Guzheng in wild areas, and a passerby, a woodman named Zhong Ziqi was attracted and understand his music well, which is describing the lofting mountains and flowing waters; Boya was happy that Zhong was his bosom friend that know his music. After the death of Zhong, Boya destroyed his Guzheng and never played again as there is no bosom friend again in the world that really knew his music.

b. Yangqin
Yangqin (Chinese:扬琴), or Chinese hammered dulcimer, also titled as Chinese piano, is a instrument combined percussion instrument with stringed instrument. It is remade from Saltepry. Saltepry was popular in the ancient Middle East countries before the Middle Ages and introduced into China in Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) from Persia (present-dayIran), and then was remade later to be Yangqin by Chinese folk musicians.

The sound of Yangqin is of distinctive features, which is bright in tone, grand in volume, and a great combination of hardness and softness with rich expressive force either for tinkling spring or for rippling stream; it was originally played as an indispensable accompanied instrument in orchestras, and gradually developed to be a solo instrument. Two hammers are used to play Yangqin; hammers are made of bamboo with half-covered rubber in one end and it is just the rubber end for a soft sound and the other end for a crisp and percussive sound.

c. Pipa
Pipa (Chinese:琵琶), or Chinese lute, a traditional eastern Asia plucked instrument, is known as the king of plucked instrument as well as the king of Chinese traditional music. It is made of wood in pear shape with a varying number of frets from 12-26. With a history of over 2000 years in China since Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC), Pipa was one of the main instruments in Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) that played a vital role in Tang music. Today, we can still learn the popularity of Pipa in Tang Dynasty in grotto murals in Dunhuang and stone inscriptions in Yungang.

The sound of Pipa is strong in penetrating power, with clear and powerful high pitch, gentle and graceful mediate pitch and mellow low pitch. To play a Pipa, the fingers of right hand are used while the fingers of left hand to press the strings to control the tones. Today, as the strong steel strings has replaced the previous soft silk strings, false nails made of plastic or tortoise-shell are chosen by players to play Pipa. The famous pieces of Pipa are Shi Mian Mai Fu (Chinese:十面埋伏, Ambush on All Sides), Sai Shang Qu (Chinese:塞上曲, Frontier Song), and Zhaojun Chu Sai (Chinese:昭君出塞, The Beauty Zhaojun Bidding Farewell to Her Homeland)

d. Flute
Flute (Chinese:笛子), is a Chinese traditional wind instrument with a history about 7000 years and the bone-flutes founded in Henan Province were the earliest Chinese flutes. Flutes are played not only in Chinese folk music, opera and national orchestra, and also in western symphony orchestra and modern music. Flute is one of the key representative instruments ofChinathat generally made of bamboo, stone or jade, of which bamboo flute is the most common for its best sound effect.

It is interesting that a Chinese flute often inscribed a poem of Tang Dynasty as well as the name of the maker. With great expressions and playing skills, a flute can play music in all kinds of styles, express rich emotions and most distinctively, it can imitate various sounds from the nature, such as the bird’s twitter and the sound of water.

e. Erhu
Erhu (Chinese:二胡), is a traditional Chinese bowed instrument which was started in Tang Dynasty. It was known as Chinese Violin or Chinese two-stringed fiddle. Erhu has only two strings, a thick one and a thin one. The tones of Erhu in middle and high range are close to people’s voice that can express almost every human emotion that makes it popular with the masses.

Erhu was played only as an accompanied instrument in folk performances and operas in the past long period. It is in 1920s that Erhu became a solo instrument in stages by player Liu Tianhua. During the same period, there was a famous blind Erhu player named Abing; he is the image of Erhu even today and his masterpiece The Moon over a Fountain (Chinese:二泉映月) is enduring that every Erhu player still practice today.

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