Trip Review for China

Traditional Chinese Musical Instrument

Ancient Chinese believed that the music could purify people’s minds. More than 3,000 years ago, ancient China had some 70 types of musical instruments. The royal family and aristocrats had their own orchestra. For them, music was also a way to display their power, position and taste distinguished from common people. However, as music was never limited to the upper social class, the musical trend gradually turned from solemnity to entertaining. Huge and complex instruments like the bronze chimes gave way to more lively and easy-play wind and reed instruments. The Tang Dynasty, one of the strongest and most prosperous empires in Chinese history, was a golden age for musical development. Many of the Tang emperors were musicians or composers themselves. With frequent cultural exchanges with other cultures, a large number of exotic instruments were introduced, altered and finally adopted into the family of Chinese traditional instruments. Chinese traditional musical instruments can be mainly classified into three categories, string, wind and percussion. Here is a brief introduce to typical Chinese musical instruments.



Xun is one of the oldest musical instruments found so far in China with a history of more than 7,000 years. The instrument has been found along the Yangtze River and the Yellow River as Neolithic relics, and is believed very popular in ancient China. The ancestors used a kind of oval stone with naturally formed holes on it to hunt the preys. When thrown it at the animals, the stone produced a whistling sound as the air flowed through the holes, which could have provided inspiration for early wind instruments.

Xun is easily made of clay with an egg shape and there are no more than ten holes on the surface. It can produce sound with a tamber similar to that of human voice, and is suitable for performing some lamenting aria. It is often accompanied by the Chi, a bamboo pipe with eight holes.



The melody of vertically-played bamboo flute or Xiao in Chinese, reminds people of a lonely moon highly hanging in the sky of a frosty autumn night. The sound made of it is the sound of nature.

The earliest Xiao appeared during the Han Dynasty (206B.C. -220A .D.), and it was then called Qiangdi, which was popular among the Qiang people in Sichuan and Gansu Provinces. In the 1st century BC, it became popular in the Yellow River region. Later, it was developed into an instrument with six holes, which was extremely similar to today’s Xiao.

Its structure is quite simple, very much like the flute, but only longer. It is usually made of bamboo. The top is sealed by bamboo. There is a mouth on the top and five sound holes on the frontal side and one hole at the back. Beside, there are other holes that are designed to adjust the tunes, smooth the tones, and raise the volume. Xiao sounds soft and graceful.

The performance levels are basically the same as that of the flute, but less flexible. For that reason, it is only suitable to play slow and peaceful lyrics, which conveys in this situation people’s feelings and draws a beautiful picture of nature. People may play the Xiao solo, in ensemble, and in concert, as well as folk music and accompaniment in local dramas

Sheng Sheng

Sheng is a kind of wind instrument in China. It has played an active role in promoting the development of Western musical instruments. In 1978, Paosheng, the earliest form of Sheng, were unearthed in Hubei Province in a royal tomb with a history more than 2,400 years ago. The development of the Sheng can be traced back to 3,000 years ago. The instrument is quite similar in form to another kind of instrument called the Paixiao.

Sheng originally consists of several bamboo pipes bound together with ropes or wooden frames. To make Sheng distinguishable from Paixiao, designers added bamboo reeds and a cup-shaped Dou to it. The cup-shaped Dou is made of calabash, and the blowtorch is made of wood. A dozen bamboo pipes are arranged on top of the Dou. After the Tang Dynasty, performers began to make wooden Dou. Later, Dou and the reed were made of copper.

Sheng sounds bright and sweet, the alt of which is clear, the mediant (middle tone) soft, and the bourdon (low note) deep and loud. Among the traditional piped instruments, Sheng is most capable of performing harmonies. Sometimes in grand ethnic orchestras, alto, mediant, and bourdon tones are played together.

Pipa Pipa

Pipa has four-stringed lute with 30 frets and pear-shaped body. The musician holds the instrument upright and play with five small plectrums attached to each finger of the right hand. The history of Pipa dates back at least 2,000 years. This instrument has extremely wide dynamic range and is remarkably rich and expressive.
The original pipa comes to us from the second century BC. Poetry and drawings depict an instrument held horizontally and named for the forward (pi) and backwards (pa) plucking of the strands.

The pipa has a long history with the Chinese people. Compositions were passed from master to student over hundreds of years. While many of these compositions have been lost over time, several still exist to delight listeners today. As the Chinese people rediscover their history, so too has there been a reemergence in interest in classical instruments such as the pipa. Some contemporary performers have even started to also integrate the music with western sounds to create a new generation of pipa music.

Guzheng Guzheng

Guzheng originated during the Warring Period more than 2,500 years ago in China. The earliest known versions were constructed with a bamboo frame and used silk strings. Its scale was pentatonic, using the notes DO, RE, MI, SO, and LA with a major note for each of its five strings. Because Guzheng was developed in a region called ‘Qin Guo’, its name became known as the ‘Qin zheng’.

Guzheng became very popular in the imperial court and among the common people. Historical records from ancient books and scholarly writings give vivid accounts of the instrument and its music. Hou Jin, a scholar of the Eastern Han Period (25 A.D. – 220 A.D.) wrote that Guzheng’s sound touches the Heavens above and the Gods and spirits below.
By the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.), the number of strings had increased from five to thirteen, and the bamboo had been replaced with wu-tong or paulownia wood for the frame of the instrument. In addition, many new forms of Guzheng appeared through cultural exchanges with Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and many other Asian countries.

Guzheng remained popular through the late Qing Dynasty ( 1644 A .D. – 1911 A .D.), where contemporary Guzheng musicians began the first attempts to formalize Guzheng music by compiling and arranging both classical and popular works such as ‘ High Mountain and Flowing Water’ and ‘Evening Song of the Fisherman.’ In 1948, the renowned musician Cao Zheng established the first university level Guzheng program in China. The old silk strings were replaced with nylon strings, which are still being used today.

Guqin Guqin

Guqin is also known as the Seven-stringed Qin. The body is a long and narrow wooden sound box. Usually, it is 130 centimeters long, 20 centimeters wide and 5 centimeters high. The surface is generally made of paulownia wood or China fir, and has seven strings stretched along it. On the edges are 13 inlaid jade markers. Catalpa wood is used for the base, and there are two holes, one big and one small, which are named the ‘phoenix pool’ and ‘dragon pond’, to emit the sound.
The fingering skills are known as recital, rubbing, plucking, concentration, floating notes and harmonious notes. The instrument is rich in tone color with airy and floating notes, which can be called the sound of harmony. The most unique part of the Guqin probably lies in its performance etiquette. Before giving a performance, players should take a shower and burn incense in the room. They are to keep their minds peaceful and concentrated to ward off evil spirits.
Erhu Erhu

Erhu is one of the most popular Chinese string instruments. This two-stringed vertical fiddle has a long history of more than 1,000 years. Capable of making expressive and haunting sound, Erhu is extremely popular in China today as a medium for both traditional and contemporary music as well as plays an important role in both solo and orchestral performances.

The tone of Erhu resembles a human voice. Besides, it can imitate many natural sounds, such as bird and horse. As a very expressive instrument, Erhu can play not only melancholy tunes, but also joyful melodies. Erhu is usually employed in national orchestras. In smaller orchestras, there are usually two to six erhus; in larger ones there are ten to twelve.

Dizi Dizi

For many Chinese people, the melody of the transversely-played bamboo flute or Dizi in Chinese, calls to mind a picture of a country cowherd riding a bull in the spring breeze. The gnarls in the long bamboo pipe have been eliminated. There are one blowing hole, one affiliated hole and six sound holes. The blowing hole is the first hole of the flute, where the air is blown in to make sounds. Next one is the affiliated hole, which is covered by the membrane of the bamboo or bulrush.
The air makes the membrane vibrate, which can produce clear and smooth tones. Although the structure of the flute is simple, it has a history of more than 7,000 years.
About 4,500 years ago, designers began to make flutes with bamboo instead of bone. During the reign of the second emperor of the Han Dynasty in the 1st century BC, the flute was also called Hengchui, or literally ‘blowing horizontally.’ From the seventh century on, the hole covered by membrane has been used. With the development of free verse of the Song Dynasty and the music of the Yuan Dynasty, the flute became the main part of the accompaniment, and was also indispensable in folk and ethnic dramas.

The flute has a rich performance spectrum. Not only can it play loud and sonorous tunes, but also cheerful dancing music and peaceful ditties. In addition, it can imitate various sounds in nature such as the twittering of birds.

Chinese Chimes

Chinese Chimes

Chinese Chimes are made flat with sharp corners like two tiles pieced together. So, the sound wanes faster, making it possible to organize the bells into groups and play them as a rhythm instrument. Zeng Houyi’s bronze chimes are perhaps the greatest find among all the chimes unearthed so far in terms of the size and significance.


The bells fill a 60-square-meter area and a total weight of five tons. The heaviest one is 203.6 kilogram and is 1.5 meters tall, while the smallest one is 2.4 kilogram and 20.4 centimeters high. Tests have shown that each bell can produce two different high-pitched notes (a major third and a minor third) depending on where they are struck.
The instrument has a range of five octaves and is one of the earliest instruments with 12 semitones. After 2,500 years in the tomb, the instrument can still play ancient music. The beautiful pitch produced can be modulated, giving some idea of the musical complexity available even in the early times. Acoustic tests have found that the mixture of tin and lead in the bronze instrument fits with modern metallurgy. Even today, making such bells is by no means an easy job, especially the big bells.
The 1.5-meter-high bell would require 136 pottery molds to make a bigger mold, which would be filled with melted bronze water at some 1,000 ℃. The smaller the bell the higher the pitch and volume. Therefore, the chime’s effect depends greatly on its size and shape. The bell’s shape explains how the chimes can generate two different tones. When the front side is struck, the lateral amplitude is zero, and vice versa. In this way, two tones coexist without interfering with each other.


The unearthed instruments not only have accurate tonality, but also are inscribed with elaborate patterns such as humans, beasts, dragons and words marking the tones of each bell, indicating the ancient Chinese had already mastered an advanced bronze making techniques at the time. It is presumed that the complexity of manufacture prevented the chimes from getting popular and the technique disappeared after the Han Dynasty (206 B. C. – 220 A. D.)


Comments are closed.