FolkWorld #70 11/2019
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Silk Road

The Sound of Silk

At the end of the Silk Road, which guides travellers across the Asiatic continent, is the natural habitat of traditional string instruments such as the guqin zither and the pipa lute, as presented by Chinese musicians Cheng Yu and Li Xiangting: The Sound of Silk.


The Sound of Silk
Guqin and pipa are the two most ancient stringed instruments of China, closely linked to the savoir vivre of the Chinese gentleman. The guqin is an unfretted zither with seven strings, made of silk and plucked with the fingers. The pipa is a close relative to European and Middle Eastern lutes and possibly came to China through the Silk Road in the fifth century. During the London International Guqin Festival in the summer of 2018, Li Xiangting (guqin, xiao flute) and his former pupil Cheng Yu (pipa, guqin) got together to perform traditional Chinese pieces and spontaneous improvisations. Li and Cheng go back a long time; Li and Cheng's father were classmates at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing during the 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s they were both forbidden to play these feudal instruments. Since then plenty of water has flown down the Yangtse River; guqin and pipa have eventually found their place in contemporary society. [wt]

Cheng Yu & Li Xiangting "The Sound of Silk - Chinese Strings", ARC Music, 2019

The guqin ([kùtɕʰǐn] (About this soundlisten); Chinese: 古琴) is a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family. It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favoured by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement, as highlighted by the quote "a gentle man does not part with his qin or se without good reason," as well as being associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as "the father of Chinese music" or "the instrument of the sages". The guqin is not to be confused with the guzheng, another Chinese long zither also without frets, but with moveable bridges under each string.

Traditionally, the instrument was simply referred to as the "qin" (琴) but by the twentieth century the term had come to be applied to many other musical instruments as well: the yangqin hammered dulcimer, the huqin family of bowed string instruments, and the Western piano are examples of this usage. The prefix "gu-" (古; meaning "ancient") was later added for clarification. Thus, the instrument is called "guqin" today. It can also be called qixian-qin (七絃琴; lit. "seven-stringed zither"). Because Robert Hans van Gulik's book about the qin is called The Lore of the Chinese Lute, the guqin is sometimes inaccurately called a lute. Other incorrect classifications, mainly from music compact discs, include "harp" or "table-harp".

The guqin is a very quiet instrument, with a range of about four octaves, and its open strings are tuned in the bass register. Its lowest pitch is about two octaves below middle C, or the lowest note on the cello. Sounds are produced by plucking open strings, stopped strings, and harmonics. The use of glissando—sliding tones—gives it a sound reminiscent of a pizzicato cello, fretless double bass or a slide guitar. The qin is also capable of many harmonics, of which 91 are most commonly used and indicated by the dotted positions. By tradition the qin originally had five strings, but ancient qin-like instruments with 10 or more strings have been found. The modern form has been standardized for about two millennia.

There are more than 3,360 known pieces of Guqin music. On 7 November 2003, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee announced that the Chinese Guqin was selected as the World Cultural Heritage Centre. In 2006, Guqin was listed in the List of National Non-material Cultural Heritage in China.


Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years, and that the legendary figures of China's pre-historyFuxi, Shennong and Huang Di, the "Yellow Emperor" — were involved in its creation. Nearly all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the actual origins of the qin, although this is now viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and examples have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. The exact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades.

Li Xiangting

Artist Video

In 1977, a recording of "Flowing Water" (Liu Shui, as performed by Guan Pinghu, one of the best qin players of the 20th century) was chosen to be included in the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated LP recording containing music from around the world, which was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. It is the longest excerpt included on the disc. The reason to select a work played on this specific instrument is because the tonal structure of the instrument, its musical scale, is derived from fundamental physical laws related to vibration and overtones, representing the intellectual capacity of human beings on this subject. In 2003, guqin music was proclaimed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Guqin literature

There are a number of ancient sources that discuss qin lore, qin theory and general qin literature. Some of these books are available inserted into certain qinpu (qin tablature collections). The basic contents of qin literature is mainly essays discussing and describing the nature of qin music, the theory behind the notes and tones, the method of correct play, the history of qin music, lists of mentions in literature, etc. The detail can be very concise to extremely detailed and thorough. Some are mostly philosophical or artistic musings, others are scientific and technical.

Schools, societies and players

As with any other musical tradition, there are differences in ideals and interaction between different people. Therefore, there exist different schools and societies which transmit these different ideas and artistic traditions.

Historical schools

Many qin schools known as qin pai developed over the centuries. Such schools generally formed around areas where qin activity was greatest.

Some schools have come and gone, and some have offshoots (such as the Mei'an school, a Zhucheng school offshoot). Often, the school is originated from a single person, such as the Wu school which is named after the late Wu Zhaoji. The style can vary considerably between schools; some are very similar, yet others are very distinct. The differences are often in interpretation of the music. Northern schools tend to be more vigorous in technique than Southern schools. But in modern terms, the distinction between schools and styles is often blurred because a single player may learn from many different players from different schools and absorb each of their styles. This is especially so for conservatory trained players. People from the same school trained under the same master may have different individual styles (such as Zhang Ziqian and Liu Shaochun of the Guangling school).

Guqin societies

There is a difference between qin schools and qin societies. The former concerns itself with transmission of a style, the latter concerns itself with performance. The qin society will encourage meetings with fellow qin players in order to play music and maybe discuss the nature of the qin. Gatherings like this are called yajis, or "elegant gatherings", which take place once every month or two. Sometimes, societies may go on excursions to places of natural beauty to play qin, or attend conferences. They may also participate in competitions or research. Of course, societies do not have to have a strict structure to adhere to; it could mostly be on a leisurely basis. The main purpose of qin societies is to promote and play qin music. It is often a good opportunity to network and learn to play the instrument, to ask questions and to receive answers.


Many artists down through the ages have played the instrument, and the instrument was a favourite of scholars. Certain melodies are also associated with famous figures, such as Confucius and Qu Yuan. Some emperors of China also had a liking to the qin, including the Song dynasty emperor, Huizong, as clearly seen in his own painting of himself playing the qin in "Ting Qin Tu".


The classical collections such as Qin Shi, Qinshi Bu and Qinshi Xu include biographies of hundreds more players.


Contemporary qin players extend from the early twentieth century to the present. More so than in the past, such players tend to have many different pursuits and occupations other than qin playing. There are only a few players who are paid to exclusively play and research the guqin professionally and nothing else. Qin players can also be well-versed in other cultural pursuits, such as the arts. Or they can do independent research on music subjects. Often, players may play other instruments (not necessary Chinese) and give recitals or talks.


During the performance of qin, musicians may use a variety of techniques to reach the full expressing potential of the instrument. There are lots of special tablatures that had developed over the centuries specifically dedicated to qin for their reference and a repertoire of popular and ancient tunes for their choice.

Playing technique

The tones of qin can be categorized as three characteristic "sounds." The first type is san yin (音), which literally means "scattered sound". It's the ground frequency produced by plucking a free string with right hand fingers.About this soundListen . Plucking a string with right hand and gently tapping specific note positions on the string with left hand will create a crisp and mellifluous soundAbout this soundListen named "fan yin" (音), or overtune harmonics. The important note scale, called "hui" and marked by 13 glossy white dots made of mica or seashell in the front side of qin, are places of positive integer dividends of the string length. Crystal concordant overtune can't be evoked unless strings are precisely tapped to these "hui"s. The third is an yin (音 / 音 / 音 / 音), or "changing sounds."It consists major cadences of most qin pieces. To play, the musician presses a string to a specific pitch on surface board with a thumb, middle or ring finger of his left hand(depending on the distance from him), then strikes it with his right hand, sliding the left hand up and down to vary the note. This technique is similar to playing a slide guitar across the player's lap, however, the manipulation of qin is much more multifarious than that of a guitar, which has only around 3 or 4 main techniques. About this soundListen to Pei Lan . According to the book Cunjian Guqin Zhifa Puzi Jilan, there are around 1,070 different finger techniques used for the qin, with or without tablature. Therefore, the qin is probably the instrument with the most playing techniques in both the Chinese and Western instrument families. Most of the qin's techniques are obsolete, but around 50 of them still exist in modern performance.

Tablature and notation

Song Huizong, Listening to the Qin

Written qin music did not directly tell what notes were played; instead, it was written in a tablature detailing tuning, finger positions, and stroke technique, thus comprising a step by step method and description of how to play a piece. Some tablatures do indicate notes using the gongche system, or indicate rhythm using dots. The earliest example of the modern shorthand tablature survives from around the twelfth century CE. An earlier form of music notation from the Tang era survives in just one manuscript, dated to the seventh century CE, called Jieshi Diao Youlan (Solitary Orchid in Stone Tablet Mode). It is written in a longhand form called wenzi pu (譜) (literally "written notation"), said to have been created by Yong Menzhou during the Warring States period, which gives all the details using ordinary written Chinese characters. Later in the Tang dynasty, Cao Rou and others simplified the notation, using only the important elements of the characters (like string number, plucking technique, hui number and which finger to stop the string) and combined them into one character notation. This meant that instead of having two lines of written text to describe a few notes, a single character could represent one note, or sometimes as many as nine. This notation form was called jianzi pu (字譜) (literally "reduced notation") and it was a major advance in qin notation. It was so successful that from the Ming dynasty onwards, a great many qinpu (琴) (qin tablature collections) appeared, the most famous and useful being "Shenqi Mipu" (The Mysterious and Marvellous Tablature) compiled by Zhu Quan, the 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. In the 1960s, Zha Fuxi discovered more than 130 qinpu that contain well over 3360 pieces of written music. Sadly, many qinpu compiled before the Ming dynasty are now lost, and many pieces have remained unplayed for hundreds of years.


Qin pieces are usually around three to eight minutes in length, with the longest being "Guangling San", which is 22 minutes long. Other famous pieces include "Liu Shui" (Flowing Water), "Yangguan San Die" (Three Refrains on the Yang Pass Theme), "Meihua San Nong" (Three Variations on the Plum Blossom Theme), "Xiao Xiang Shui Yun" (Mist and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers), and "Pingsha Luo Yan" (Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank). The average player will generally have a repertoire of around ten pieces which they will aim to play very well, learning new pieces as and when they feel like it or if the opportunity arises. Players mainly learn popular well transcribed versions, often using a recording as a reference. In addition to learning to play established or ancient pieces very well, highly skilled qin players may also compose or improvise, although the player must be very good and extremely familiar with the instrument to do this successfully. A number of qin melodies are program music depicting the natural world.


Dapu (打譜) is the transcribing of old tablature into a playable form. Since qin tablature does not indicate note value, tempo or rhythm, the player must work it out for him/herself. Normally, qin players will learn the rhythm of a piece through a teacher or master. They sit facing one another, with the student copying the master. The tablature will only be consulted if the teacher is not sure of how to play a certain part. Because of this, traditional qinpu do not indicate them (though near the end of the Qing dynasty, a handful of qinpu had started to employ various rhythm indicating devices, such as dots). If one did not have a teacher, then one had to work out the rhythm by themselves. But it would be a mistake to assume that qin music is devoid of rhythm and melody. By the 20th century, there had been attempts to try to replace the "jianzi pu" notation, but so far, it has been unsuccessful; since the 20th century, qin music is generally printed with staff notation above the qin tablature. Because qin tablature is so useful, logical, easy, and the fastest way (once the performer knows how to read the notation) of learning a piece, it is invaluable to the qin player and cannot totally be replaced (just as staff notation cannot be replaced for Western instruments, because they developed a notation system that suited the instruments well).

There is a saying that goes "a short piece requires three months [of dapu to complete], and a long piece requires three years". In actual practice, it needn't be that long to dapu a piece, but suggests that the player will have not only memorised the piece off by heart, but also have their fingering, rhythm and timing corrected. And afterwards, the emotion must be put into the piece. Therefore, it could be said that it really does require three months or years to finish dapu of a piece in order for them to play it to a very high standard.

Rhythm in qin music

It has already been discussed that qin music has a rhythm, and that it is only vaguely indicated in the tablature. Though there is an amount of guesswork involved, the tablature has clues to indicate rhythm, such as repeating motifs, indication of phrases or how the notation is arranged. Throughout the history of the qinpu, we see many attempts to indicate this rhythm more explicitly, involving devices like dots to make beats. Probably, one of the major projects to regulate the rhythm to a large scale was the compilers of the Qinxue Congshu tablature collection of the 1910s to 1930s. The construction of the written tablature was divided into two columns. The first was further divided into about three lines of a grid, each line indicating a varied combination of lyrics, gongche tablature, se tablature, pitch, and/or beats depending on the score used. The second column was devoted to qin tablature.

Western composers have noticed that the rhythm in a piece of qin music can change; once they seem to have got a beat, the beats change. This is due to the fact that qin players may use some free rhythm in their playing. Whatever beat they use will depend on the emotion or the feeling of the player, and how he interprets the piece. However, some melodies have sections of fixed rhythm which is played the same way generally. The main theme of Meihua Sannong, for example, uses this. Some sections of certain melodies require the player to play faster with force to express the emotion of the piece. Examples include the middle sections of Guangling San and Xiaoxiang Shuiyun. Other pieces, such as Jiu Kuang has a fixed rhythm throughout the entire piece.


While acoustics dictated the general form and construction of the guqin, its external form could and did take on a huge amount of variation, whether it be from the embellishments or even the basic structure of the instrument. Qin tablatures from the Song era onwards have catalogued a plethora of qin forms. All, however, obey very basic rules of acoustics and symbolism of form. The qin uses strings of silk or metal-nylon and is tuned in accordance to traditional principles.

Ancient guqins were made of little more than wood and strings of twisted silk. Ornaments included inlaid dots of mother-of-pearl or other similar materials. Traditionally, the sound board was made of Chinese parasol wood firmiana simplex, its rounded shape symbolising the heavens. The bottom was made of Chinese Catalpa, catalpa ovata, its flat shape symbolising earth. Modern instruments are most frequently made of Cunninghamia or other similar timbers. The traditional finish is of raw lacquer mixed with powdered deer horn, and the finishing process could take months of curing to complete. The finish develops cracks over time, and these cracks are believed to improve the instrument's sound as the wood and lacquer release tension. An antique guqin’s age can be determined by this snake like crack pattern called "duanwen" (斷紋).


According to tradition, the qin originally had five strings, representing the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Later, in the Zhou dynasty, Zhou Wen Wang added a sixth string to mourn his son, Boyikao. His successor, Zhou Wu Wang, added a seventh string to motivate his troops into battle with the Shang. The thirteen hui on the surface represent the 13 months of the year (the extra 13th is the 'leap month' in the lunar calendar). The surface board is round to represent Heaven and the bottom board flat to represent earth. The entire length of the qin (in Chinese measurements) is 3 chi, 6 cun and 5 fen; representing the 365 days of the year (though this is just a standard since qins can be shorter or longer depending on the period's measurement standard or the maker's preference). Each part of the qin has meaning, some more obvious, like "dragon pool" and "phoenix pond".


Until recently, the guqin's strings were always made of various thicknesses of twisted silk, but since then most players use modern nylon-flatwound steel strings. This was partly due to the scarcity of high quality silk strings and partly due to the newer strings' greater durability and louder tone.

Silk strings are made by gathering a prescribed number of strands of silk thread, then twisting them tightly together. The twisted cord of strings is then wrapped around a frame and immersed in a vat of liquid composed of a special mixture of natural glue that binds the strands together. The strings is taken out and left to dry, before being cut into the appropriate length. The top thicker strings (i.e. strings one to four) are further wrapped in a thin silk thread, coiled around the core to make it smoother. According to ancient manuals, there are three distinctive gauges of thickness that one can make the strings. The first is taigu [Great Antiquity] which is the standard gauge, the zhongqing [Middle Clarity] is thinner, whilst the jiazhong [Added Thickness] is thicker. According to the Yugu Zhai Qinpu, zhongqing is the best. The currently used silk string gauge standard was defined by Suzhou silk string maker Pan Guohui (潘國輝).

Although most contemporary players use nylon-wrapped metal strings, some argue that nylon-wrapped metal strings cannot replace silk strings for their refinement of tone. Additionally, nylon-wrapped metal strings can cause damage to the wood of old qins. Many traditionalists feel that the sound of the fingers of the left hand sliding on the strings to be a distinctive feature of qin music. The modern nylon-wrapped metal strings were very smooth in the past, but are now slightly modified in order to capture these sliding sounds.

Around 2007, a new type of strings were produced made of mostly a nylon core coiled with nylon like the metal-nylon strings, possibly in imitation of Western catgut strings. The sound is similar to the metal-nylon strings but without the metallic tone to them (one of the main reasons why traditionalists do not like the metal-nylon strings). The nylon strings are able to be turned to standard pitch without breaking and can sustain their tuning whatever the climate unlike silk. The strings have various names in China but they are advertised as sounding like silk strings prior to the 1950s when silk string production stopped.

Traditionally, the strings were wrapped around the goose feet, but there has been a device that has been invented, which is a block of wood attached to the goose feet, with pins similar to those used to tune the guzheng protruding out at the sides, so one can string and tune the qin using a tuning wrench. This is good for those who lack the physical strength to pull and add tension to the strings when wrapping the ends to the goose feet. However, the tuning device looks rather unsightly and thus many qin players prefer the traditional manner of tuning; many also feel that the strings should be firmly wrapped to the goose feet in order that the sound may be "grounded" into the qin and some feel that the device which covers the phoenix pond sound hole has a negative effect on the sound volume and quality.


To string a qin, one traditionally had to tie a fly's head knot (yingtou jie) at one end of the string, and slip the string through the twisted cord (rongkou) which goes into holes at the head of the qin and then out the bottom through the tuning pegs (zhen). The string is dragged over the bridge (yueshan 『岳山』), across the surface board, over the nut (longyin dragon gums) to the back of the qin, where the end is wrapped around one of two legs (fengzu "phoenix feet" or yanzu "geese feet"). Afterwards, the strings are fine tuned using the tuning pegs (sometimes, rosin is used on the part of the tuning peg that touches the qin body to stop it from slipping, especially if the qin is tuned to higher pitches). The most common tuning, "zheng diao" 〈正調〉, is pentatonic: 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 (which can be also played as 1 2 4 5 6 1 2) in the traditional Chinese number system or jianpu (i.e. 1=do, 2=re, etc.). Today this is generally interpreted to mean C D F G A c d, but this should be considered sol la do re mi sol la, since historically the qin was not tuned to absolute pitch. Other tunings are achieved by adjusting the tension of the strings using the tuning pegs at the head end. Thus manjiao diao ("slackened third string") gives 1 2 3 5 6 1 2 and ruibin diao ("raised fifth string") gives 1 2 4 5 7 1 2, which is transposed to 2 3 5 6 1 2 3.

Playing context

The guqin is nearly always used a solo instrument, as its quietness of tone means that it cannot compete with the sounds of most other instruments or an ensemble. It can, however, be played together with a xiao (end-blown bamboo flute), with other qin, or played while singing. In old times, the se (a long zither with movable bridges and 25 strings) was frequently used in duets with the qin. Sadly, the se has not survived, though duet tablature scores for the instruments are preserved in a few qinpu, and the master qin player Wu Jinglüe was one of only a few in the twentieth century who knew how to play it together with qin in duet. Lately there has been a trend to use other instruments to accompany the qin, such as the xun (ceramic ocarina), pipa (four-stringed pear-shaped lute), dizi (transverse bamboo flute), and others for more experimental purposes.

In order for an instrument to accompany the qin, its sound must be mellow and not overwhelm the qin. Thus, the xiao generally used for this purpose is one pitched in the key of F, known as qin xiao 「琴簫」, which is narrower than an ordinary xiao. If one sings to qin songs (which is rare nowadays) then one should not sing in an operatic or folk style as is common in China, but rather in a very low pitched and deep way; and the range in which one should sing should not exceed one and a half octaves. The style of singing is similar to that used to recite Tang poetry. To enjoy qin songs, one must learn to become accustomed to the eccentric style some players may sing their songs to, like in the case of Zha Fuxi.

Traditionally, the qin was played in a quiet studio or room by oneself, or with a few friends; or played outdoors in places of outstanding natural beauty. Nowadays, many qin players perform at concerts in large concert halls, almost always, out of necessity, using electronic pickups or microphones to amplify the sound. Many qin players attend yajis, at which a number of qin players, music lovers, or anyone with an interest in Chinese culture can come along to discuss and play the qin. In fact, the yaji originated as a multi-media gathering involving the four arts: qin, Go, calligraphy, and painting.

Ritual use of the qin

Being an instrument associated with scholars, the guqin was also played in a ritual context, especially in yayue in China, and aak in Korea.

The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts continues to perform Munmyo jeryeak (Confucian ritual music), using the last two surviving aak melodies from the importation of yayue from the Song Dynasty emperor Huizong in 1116, including in the ensemble the seul (se) and geum (금; qin). The Korean geum used in this context has evolved to be slightly different when compared to the normal qin in that there are 14 instead of 13 hui and that they are not placed correctly according to the harmonic positions besides other different construction features. The finger techniques are more closer to gayageum technique than it is to the complex ones of the qin. As the qin never gained a following in Korean society, the ritual geum became the fossilised form of it and to all intents and purposes unplayable for a qin player. The Korean scholars never adopted the qin but instead created their own instrument, the geomungo (玄琴), which adopted much of the qin's lore and aesthetics and essentially taking the qin's place as the scholars' instrument.

In China, the qin was still in use in ritual ceremonies of the imperial court, such can be seen in the court paintings of imperial sacrifices of the Qing court (e.g. The Yongzheng Emperor Offering Sacrifices at the Altar of the God of Agriculture, 1723–35). The qin also have many variations with different number of strings, such as during Song Taizong's reign, but these variations never survived the changes of dynasty and so today the normal qin is used.

In Japan, the qin was never adopted into ritual music, but for a time in the late Edo period the qin was adopted by some scholars and Buddhist monks.

The guqin was also used in the ritual music of Vietnam, where it was called cầm.

Qin aesthetics

When the qin is played, a number of aesthetic elements are involved. The first is musicality. In the second section of "Pingsha Luoyan", for example, the initial few bars contain a nao vibrato followed by a phase of sliding up and down the string, even when the sound has already become inaudible About this soundListen carefully to the sliding sounds of Pingsha Luoyan . The average person trained in music may question whether this is really "music". Normally, some players would pluck the string very lightly to create a very quiet sound. For some players, this plucking isn't necessary. Instead of trying to force a sound out of the string one should allow the natural sounds emit from the strings. Some players say that the sliding on the string even when the sound has disappeared is a distinctive feature in qin music. It creates a "space" or "void" in a piece, playing without playing, sound without sound. In fact, when the viewer looks at the player sliding on the string without sounds, the viewer automatically "fills in the notes" with their minds. This creates a connection between player, instrument and listener. This, of course, cannot happen when listening to a recording, as one cannot see the performer. It can also be seen as impractical in recording, as the player would want to convey sound as much as possible towards a third audience. But in fact, there is sound, the sound coming from the fingers sliding on the string. With a really good qin, silk strings, and a perfectly quiet environment, all the tones can be sounded. Since the music is more player oriented than listener oriented, and the player knows the music, he/she can hear it even if the sound is not there. With silk strings, the sliding sound might be called the qi or "life force" of the music. The really empty sounds are the pauses between notes. However, if one cannot create a sound that can be heard when sliding on a string, it is generally acceptable to lightly pluck the string to create a very quiet sound.

In popular culture

As a symbol of high culture, the qin has been used as a prop in much of Chinese popular culture to varying degrees of accuracy. References are made to the qin in a variety of media including TV episodes and films. Actors often possess limited knowledge on how to play the instrument and instead they mime it to a pre-recorded piece by a qin player. Sometimes the music is erroneously mimed to guzheng music, rather than qin music. A more faithful representation of the qin is in the Zhang Yimou film Hero, in which Xu Kuanghua plays an ancient version of the qin in the courtyard scene while Nameless and Long Sky fight at a weiqi parlor. In fact it is mimed to the music played by Liu Li, formerly a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. It is suggested that Xu made the qin himself.

The qin was also featured in the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, played by Chen Leiji (陳雷激).

The qin is also used in many classical Chinese novels, such as Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber and various others.

Related instruments

The Japanese ichigenkin, a monochord zither, is believed to be derived from the qin. The qin handbook Lixing Yuanya (1618) includes some melodies for a one-string qin, and the Wuzhi Zhai Qinpu contains a picture and description of such an instrument. The modern ichigenkin apparently first appeared in Japan just after that time. However, the honkyoku (standard repertoire) of the ichigenkin today most closely resembles that of the shamisen.

The Korean geomungo may also be related, albeit distantly. Korean literati wanted to play an instrument the way their Chinese counterparts played the qin. The repertoire was largely the geomungo parts for melodies played by the court orchestra.


The pipa (Chinese: 琵琶) is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. Another Chinese four-string plucked lute is the liuqin, which looks like a smaller version of the pipa. The pear-shaped instrument may have existed in China as early as the Han dynasty, and although historically the term pipa was once used to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones, its usage since the Song dynasty refers exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument.

The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa; these include the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa. The Korean instrument is the only one of the three that is no longer widely used; examples survive in museums, as attempts to revive the Korean instrument have been partially successful in recent years.


There are considerable confusion and disagreements about the origin of pipa. This may be due to the fact that the word pipa was used in ancient texts to describe a variety of plucked chordophones from the Qin to the Tang dynasty, including the long-necked spiked lute and the short-necked lute, as well as the differing accounts given in these ancient texts. Traditional Chinese narrative prefers the story of the Han Chinese princess Liu Xijun (劉細君) sent to marry a barbarian Wusun king during the Han dynasty, with the pipa being invented so she could play music on horseback to soothe her longings. Modern researchers such as Laurence Picken, Shigeo Kishibe, and John Myers suggested a non-Chinese origin.

Cheng Yu

Artist Video www.ukchinese

The earliest mention of pipa in Chinese texts appeared late in the Han Dynasty around the 2nd century AD. According to Liu Xi's Eastern Han Dynasty Dictionary of Names, the word pipa may have an onomatopoeic origin (the word being similar to the sounds the instrument makes), although modern scholarship suggests a possible derivation from the Persian word "barbat", the two theories however are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Liu Xi also stated that the instrument called pipa, though written differently (枇杷; pípá or 批把; pībǎ) in the earliest texts, originated from amongst the Hu people (a general term for non-Han people living to the north and west of ancient China). Another Han Dynasty text also indicates that, at that time, pipa was a recent arrival, although later 3rd-century texts from the Jin dynasty suggest that pipa existed in China as early as the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). An instrument called xiantao (弦鼗), made by stretching strings over a small drum with handle, was said to have been played by labourers who constructed the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty. This may have given rise to the Qin pipa, an instrument with a straight neck and a round sound box, and evolved into ruan, an instrument named after Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and known for playing similar instrument. Yet another term used in ancient text was Qinhanzi (秦漢子), perhaps similar to Qin pipa, but modern opinions differ on its precise form.

The pear-shaped pipa is likely to have been introduced to China from Central Asia, Gandhara, and/or India. Pear-shaped lutes have been depicted in Kusana sculptures from the 1st century AD. The pear-shaped pipa may have been introduced during the Han dynasty and was referred to as Han pipa. However, depictions of the pear-shaped pipas in China only appeared after the Han dynasty during the Jin dynasty in the late 4th to early 5th century. Pipa acquired a number of Chinese symbolisms during the Han dynasty - the instrument length of three feet five inches represents the three realms (heaven, earth, and man) and the five elements, while the four strings represent the four seasons.

Depictions of the pear-shaped pipas appeared in abundance from the Southern and Northern Dynasties onwards, and pipas from this time to the Tang Dynasty were given various names, such as Hu pipa (胡琵琶), bent-neck pipa (曲項琵琶, quxiang pipa), some of these terms however may refer to the same pipa. Apart from the four-stringed pipa, other pear-shaped instruments introduced include the five-stringed, straight-necked, wuxian pipa (五弦琵琶, also known as Kuchean pipa (龜茲琵琶)), a six-stringed version, as well as the two-stringed hulei (忽雷). From the 3rd century onwards, through the Sui and Tang Dynasty, the pear-shaped pipas became increasingly popular in China. By the Song dynasty the word pipa was used to refer exclusively to the four-stringed pear-shaped instrument.

The pipa reached a height of popularity during the Tang Dynasty, and was a principal musical instrument in the imperial court. It may be played as a solo instrument or as part of the imperial orchestra for use in productions such as daqu (大曲, grand suites), an elaborate music and dance performance. During this time Persian and Kuchan performers and teachers were in demand in the capital, Chang'an (which had a large Persian community). Some delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period, with particularly fine examples preserved in the Shosoin Museum in Japan. It had close association with Buddhism and often appeared in mural and sculptural representations of musicians in Buddhist contexts. For example, masses of pipa-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. The four and five-stringed pipas were especially popular during the Tang Dynasty, and these instruments were introduced into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam. The five-stringed pipa however had fallen from use by the Song Dynasty, although attempts have been made to revive this instrument in the early 21st century with a modernized five-string pipa modeled on the Tang Dynasty instrument.

During the Song Dynasty,'pipa fell from favour in the imperial court, perhaps a result of the influence of neo-Confucian nativism as pipa had foreign associations. However, it continued to be played as a folk instrument that also gained the interest of the literati. The pipa underwent a number of changes over the centuries. By the Ming dynasty, fingers replaced plectrum as the popular technique for playing pipa, although finger-playing techniques existed as early as Tang. Extra frets were added; the early instrument had 4 frets (相, xiāng) on the neck, but during the early Ming Dynasty extra bamboo frets (品, pǐn) were affixed onto the soundboard, increasing the number of frets to around 10 and therefore the range of the instrument. The short neck of the Tang pipa also became more elongated.

In the subsequent periods, the number of frets gradually increased, from around 10 to 14 or 16 during the Qing Dynasty, then to 19, 24, 29, and 30 in the 20th century. The 4 wedge-shaped frets on the neck became 6 during the 20th century. The 14- or 16-fret pipa had frets arranged in approximately equivalent to the western tone and semitone, starting at the nut, the intervals were T-S-S-S-T-S-S-S-T-T-3/4-3/4-T-T-3/4-3/4, (some frets produced a 3/4 tone or "neutral tone"). In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of frets was increased to 24, based on the 12 tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones. The traditional 16-fret pipa became less common, although it is still used in some regional styles such as the pipa in the southern genre of nanguan/nanyin. The horizontal playing position became the vertical (or near-vertical) position by the Qing Dynasty, although in some regional genres such as nanguan the pipa is still held guitar fashion. During the 1950s, the use of metal strings in place of the traditional silk ones also resulted in a change in the sound of the pipa which became brighter and stronger.

In Chinese literature

Early literary tradition in China, for example in a 3rd-century description by Fu Xuan, Ode to Pipa, associates the Han pipa with the northern frontier, Princess Liu Xijun and Wang Zhaojun, who were married to nomad rulers of the Wusun and Xiongnu peoples in what is now Mongolia and northern Xinjiang respectively. Wang Zhaojun in particular is frequently referenced in later literary works and lyrics (although her story is often conflated with other women including Liu Xijun), as well as in music pieces such as Zhaojun's Lament (昭君怨, also the title of a poem), and in paintings where she is often depicted holding a pipa.

There are many references to pipa in Tang literary works, for example, in A Music Conservatory Miscellany Duan Anjie related many anecdotes associated with pipa. The pipa is mentioned frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry, where it is often praised for its expressiveness, refinement and delicacy of tone, with poems dedicated to well-known players describing their performances. A famous poem by Bai Juyi's Pipa xing (琵琶行), contains a description of a pipa performance during a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River:


The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

The encounter also inspired a poem by Yuan Zhen, Song of Pipa (琵琶歌). Another excerpt of figurative descriptions of a pipa music may be found in a eulogy for a pipa player, Lament for Shancai by Li Shen:


On the plectrum, figure of a golden phoenix with flowers in its beak,
With turned wrist, he gathered the strings to pluck and strum faster.
The flowers fluttered, and from Heaven the phoenix trilled,
Lingering, filling the palace hall, spring snow flew.

During the Song dynasty, many of the literati and poets wrote ci verses, a form of poetry meant to be sung and accompanied by instruments such as pipa. They included Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi, and Su Shi. During the Yuan dynasty, the playwright Gao Ming wrote a play for nanxi opera called Pipa ji (琵琶記, or "Story of the Pipa"), a tale about an abandoned wife who set out to find her husband, surviving by playing the pipa. It is one of the most enduring work in Chinese theatre, and one that became a model for Ming dynasty drama as it was the favorite opera of the first Ming emperor. The Ming collection of supernatural tales Fengshen Yanyi tells the story of Pipa Jing, a pipa spirit, but ghost stories involving pipa existed as early as the Jin dynasty, for example in the 4th century collection of tales Soushen Ji. Novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties such as Jin Ping Mei showed pipa performance to be a normal aspect of life in these periods at home (where the characters in the novels may be proficient in the instrument) as well as outside on the street or in pleasure houses.

Playing and performance

Bei Bei, Pipa

The name "pipa" is made up of two Chinese syllables, "pí" (琵) and "pá" (琶). These, according to the Han dynasty text by Liu Xi, refer to the way the instrument is played - "pí" is to strike outward with the right hand, and "pá" is to pluck inward towards the palm of the hand. The strings were played using a large plectrum in the Tang dynasty, a technique still used now for the Japanese biwa. It has however been suggested that the long plectrum depicted in ancient paintings may have been used as a friction stick like a bow. The plectrum has now been largely replaced by the fingernails of the right hand. The most basic technique, tantiao (彈挑), involves just the index finger and thumb (tan is striking with the index finger, tiao with the thumb). The fingers normally strike the strings of pipa in the opposite direction to the way a guitar is usually played, i.e. the fingers and thumb flick outward, unlike the guitar where the fingers and thumb normally pluck inward towards the palm of the hand. Plucking in the opposite direction to tan and tiao are called mo (抹) and gou (勾) respectively. When two strings are plucked at the same time with the index finger and thumb (i.e. the finger and thumb separate in one action), it is called fen (分), the reverse motion is called zhi (摭). A rapid strum is called sao (掃), and strumming in the reverse direction is called fu (拂). A distinctive sound of pipa is the tremolo produced by the lunzhi (輪指) technique which involves all the fingers and thumb of the right hand. It is however possible to produce the tremolo with just one or more fingers.

The left hand techniques are important for the expressiveness of pipa music. Techniques that produce vibrato, portamento, glissando, pizzicato, harmonics or artificial harmonics found in violin or guitar are also found in pipa. String-bending for example may be used to produce a glissando or portamento. Note however that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers and strings never touch the fingerboard in between the frets, this is different from many Western fretted instruments and allows for dramatic vibrato and other pitch changing effects.

In addition, there are a number of techniques that produce sound effects rather than musical notes, for example, striking the board of the pipa for a percussive sound, or strings-twisting while playing that produces a cymbal-like effect.

The strings are usually tuned to A-D-E-A, although there are various other ways of tuning. Since the revolutions in Chinese instrument-making during the 20th century, the softer twisted silk strings of earlier times have been exchanged for nylon-wound steel strings, which are far too strong for human fingernails, so false nails are now used, constructed of plastic or tortoise-shell, and affixed to the fingertips with the player's choice of elastic tape. However, false nails made of horn existed as early as the Ming period when fingerpicking became the popular technique for playing pipa.

The pipa is held in a vertical or near-vertical position during performance, although in the early periods the instrument was held in the horizontal position or near-horizontal with the neck pointing slightly downwards, or upside down. Through time, the neck was raised and by the Qing Dynasty the instrument was mostly played upright.


Pipa has been played solo, or as part of a large ensemble or small group since the early times. Few pieces for pipa survived from the early periods, some however are preserved in Japan as part of togaku (Tang music) tradition. In the early 20th century, twenty-five pieces were found amongst 10th-century manuscripts in the Mogao caves near Dunhuang, most of these pieces however may have originated from the Tang dynasty. The scores were written in tablature form with no information on tuning given, there are therefore uncertainties in the reconstruction of the music as well as deciphering other symbols in the score. Three Ming dynasty pieces were discovered in the High River Flows East (高河江東, Gaohe Jiangdong) collection dating from 1528 which are very similar to those performed today, such as "The Moon on High" (月兒高, Yue-er Gao). During the Qing dynasty, scores for pipa were collected in Thirteen Pieces for Strings. During the Qing dynasty there originally two major schools of pipa — the Northern and Southern schools, and music scores for these two traditions were collected and published in the first mass-produced edition of solo pieces for pipa, now commonly known as the Hua Collection (華氏譜). The collection was edited by Hua Qiuping (華秋萍, 1784–1859) and published in 1819 in three volumes. The first volume contains 13 pieces from the Northern school, the second and third volumes contain 54 pieces from the Southern school. Famous pieces such as "Ambushed from Ten Sides", "The Warlord Takes Off His Armour", and "Flute and Drum at Sunset" were first described in this collection. The earliest-known piece in the collection may be "Eagle Seizing a Crane" (海青挐鶴) which was mentioned in a Yuan dynasty text. Other collections from the Qing Dynasty were compiled by Li Fangyuan (李芳園) and Ju Shilin (鞠士林), each representing different schools, and many of the pieces currently popular were described in these Qing collections. Further important collections were published in the 20th century.

The pipa pieces in the common repertoire can be categorized as wen (文, civil) or wu (武, martial), and da (大, large or suite) or xiao (小, small). The wen style is more lyrical and slower in tempo, with softer dynamic and subtler colour, and such pieces typically describe love, sorrow, and scenes of nature. Pieces in the Wu style are generally more rhythmic and faster, and often depict scenes of battles and are played in a vigorous fashion employing a variety of techniques and sound effects. The wu style was associated more with the Northern school while the wen style was more the Southern school. The da and xiao categories refer to the size of the piece - xiao pieces are small pieces normally containing only one section, while da pieces are large and usually contain multiple sections. The traditional pieces however often have a standard metrical length of 68 measures or beat, and these may be joined together to form the larger pieces dagu.

Famous solo pieces now performed include:

Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Pinyin English (translation)
十面埋伏 十面埋伏 Shí Mìan Maífú Ambushed from Ten Sides
夕陽簫鼓/春江花月夜 夕阳箫鼓/春江花月夜 Xīyáng Xīao Gǔ/Chūnjiāng Huā Yuèyè Flute and Drum at Sunset/Flowery Moonlit River in Spring
陽春白雪 阳春白雪 Yángchūn Baíxuě White Snow in Spring Sunlight
龍船 龙船 Lóngchuán Dragon Boat
彝族舞曲 彝族舞曲 Yìzú Wúqǔ Dance of the Yi People / Dance of the Yi Tribe
大浪淘沙 大浪淘沙 Dàlàng Táo Shā Big Waves Crashing on Sand
昭君出塞 昭君出塞 Zhàojūn Chū Saì Zhaojun Outside the Frontier
霸王卸甲 霸王卸甲 Bàwáng Xiè Jiǎ The Warlord Takes Off His Armour
高山流水 高山流水 Gaoshan Lishui High Mountains Flowing Water
月兒高 月儿高 Yue'er Gao Lofty Moon

Most of the above are traditional compositions dating to the Qing Dynasty or early 20th century, new pieces however are constantly being composed, and most of them follow a more Western structure. Examples of popular modern works composed after the 1950s are "Dance of the Yi People" and "Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland" (草原英雄小姐妹). Non-traditional themes may be used in these new compositions and some may reflect the political landscape and demands at the time of composition, for example "Dance of the Yi People" which is based on traditional melodies of the Yi people, may be seen as part of the drive for national unity, while "Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland" extols the virtue of those who served as model of exemplary behaviour in the People's commune.


There are a number of different traditions with different styles of playing pipa in various regions of China, some of which then developed into schools. In the narrative traditions where the pipa is used as an accompaniment to narrative singing, there are the Suzhou tanci (蘇州彈詞), Sichuan qingyin (四川清音), and Northern quyi (北方曲藝) genres. Pipa is also an important component of regional chamber ensemble traditions such as Jiangnan sizhu, Teochew string music and Nanguan ensemble. In Nanguan music, the pipa is still held in the near-horizontal position or guitar-fashion in the ancient manner instead of the vertical position normally used for solo playing in the present day.

There were originally two major schools of pipa during the Qing Dynasty — the Northern (Zhili, 直隸派) and Southern (Zhejiang, 浙江派) schools, and from these emerged the five main schools associated with the solo tradition. Each school is associated with one or more collections of pipa music and named after its place of origin -

Heart of the Dragon Ensemble

Heart of the Dragon Ensemble: Chinese Festivals
Traditional festivals are an important part of Chinese culture, such as the popular Chinese New Year lasting full 16 days altogether. This collection celebrates the music of these festivals: the drum beats for the dragon boat race and the autumnal Moon festival; the soulful exchanges between erhu (a two-stringed bowed spike fiddle) and xiao (a vertical end-blown flute made of bamboo) on Chinese Valentine's Day; and the flowing sounds of the guzheng (a zither-like plucked string instrument with 21 strings) visualising ancient tales (aptly titled "Four Pieces of Silk"). The Heart of the Dragon Ensemble has been founded in the UK by percussionist Jiang Li and holds not only concerts but also educational programmes. Therefore, this musical collection is completed with a comprehensive booklet with loads of information. [wt]

Artist Video
Heart of the Dragon Ensemble "Chinese Festivals", ARC Music, 2019

These schools of the solo tradition emerged by students learning playing the pipa from a master, and each school has its own style, performance aesthetics, notation system, and may differ in their playing techniques. Different schools have different repertoire in their music collection, and even though these schools share many of the same pieces in their repertoire, a same piece of music from the different schools may differ in their content. For example, a piece like "The Warlord Takes off His Armour" is made up of many sections, some of them metered and some with free meter, and greater freedom in interpretation is possible in the free meter sections. Different schools however can have sections added or removed, and may differ in the number of sections with free meter. The music collections from the 19th century also used the gongche notation which provides only a skeletal melody and approximate rhythms sometimes with some playing instructions given (such as tremolo or string-bending), and how this basic framework can become fully fleshed out during performance may only be learnt by the students from the master. The same piece of music can therefore differ significantly when performed by students of different schools, with striking differences in interpretation, phrasing, tempo, dynamics, playing techniques, and ornamentations.

In more recent times, many pipa players, especially the younger ones, no longer identify themselves with any specific school. Modern notation systems, new compositions as well as recordings are now widely available and it is no longer crucial for a pipa players to learn from the master of any particular school to know how to play a score.



Pipa is commonly associated with Princess Liu Xijun and Wang Zhaojun of the Han dynasty, although the form of pipa they played in that period is unlikely to be pear-shaped as they are now usually depicted. Other early known players of pipa include General Xie Shang (謝尚) from the Jin Dynasty who was described to have performed it with his leg raised. The introduction of pipa from Central Asia also brought with it virtuoso performers from that region, for example Sujiva (蘇祇婆, Sujipo) from the Kingdom of Kucha during the Northern Zhou dynasty, Kang Kunlun (康崑崙) from Kangju, and Pei Luoer (裴洛兒) from Shule. Pei Luoer was known for pioneering finger-playing techniques, while Sujiva was noted for the "Seven modes and seven tones", a musical modal theory from India. (The heptatonic scale was used for a time afterwards in the imperial court due to Sujiva's influence until it was later abandoned). These players had considerable influence on the development of pipa playing in China. Of particular fame were the family of pipa players founded by Cao Poluomen (曹婆羅門) and who were active for many generations from the Northern Wei to Tang dynasty.

Texts from Tang dynasty mentioned many renowned pipa players such as He Huaizhi (賀懷智), Lei Haiqing (雷海清), Li Guaner (李管兒), and Pei Xingnu (裴興奴). Duan Anjie described the duel between the famous pipa player Kang Kunlun and the monk Duan Shanben (段善本) who was disguised as a girl, and told the story of Yang Zhi (楊志) who learned how to play the pipa secretly by listening to his aunt playing at night. Celebrated performers of the Tang Dynasty included three generations of the Cao family — Cao Bao (曹保), Cao Shancai (曹善才) and Cao Gang (曹剛), whose performances were noted in literary works.

During the Song Dynasty, players mentioned in literary texts include Du Bin (杜彬). From the Ming dynasty, famous pipa players include Zhong Xiuzhi (鍾秀之), Zhang Xiong (張雄, known for his playing of "Eagle Seizing Swan"), the blind Li Jinlou (李近樓), and Tang Yingzeng (湯應曾) who was known to have played a piece that may be an early version of "Ambushed from Ten Sides".

In Qing dynasty, apart from those of the various schools previously mentioned, there was Chen Zijing (陳子敬), a student of Ju Shilin and known as a noted player during late Qing dynasty.

Modern era

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In the 20th century, two of the most prominent pipa players were Sun Yude (孙裕德; 1904–1981) and Li Tingsong (李廷松; 1906–1976). Both were pupils of Wang Yuting (1872–1951), and both were active in establishing and promoting Guoyue ("national music"), which is a combination of traditional regional music and Western musical practices. Sun performed in the United States, Asia, and Europe, and in 1956 became deputy director of the Shanghai minzu yuetuan (Shanghai Folk Orchestra). As well as being one of the leading pipa players of his generation, Li held many academic positions and also carried out research on pipa scales and temperament. Wei Zhongle (卫仲乐; 1903-1997) played many instruments, including the guqin. In the early 1950s, he founded the traditional instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Players from the Wang and Pudong schools were the most active in performance and recording during the 20th century, less active was the Pinghu school whose players include Fan Boyan (樊伯炎). Other noted players of the early 20th century include Liu Tianhua, a student of Shen Zhaozhou of the Chongming school and who increased the number of frets on the pipa and changed to an equal-tempered tuning, and the blind player Abing from Wuxi.

Lin Shicheng (林石城; 1922–2006), born in Shanghai, began learning music under his father and was taught by Shen Haochu (沈浩初; 1899–1953), a leading player in the Pudong school style of pipa playing. He also qualified as a doctor of Chinese medicine. In 1956, after working for some years in Shanghai, Lin accepted a position at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu Dehai also born in Shanghai, was a student of Lin Shicheng and in 1961 graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu also studied with other musicians and has developed a style that combines elements from several different schools. Ye Xuran (叶绪然), a student of Lin Shicheng and Wei Zhongle, was the Pipa Professor at the first Musical Conservatory of China, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He premiered the oldest Dunhuang Pipa Manuscript (the first interpretation made by Ye Dong) in Shanghai in the early 1980s.

Other prominent students of Lin Shicheng at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing include Liu Guilian (刘桂莲, born 1961), Gao Hong and Wu Man who is probably the best known pipa player internationally, received the first-ever master's degree in pipa and won China's first National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments. She lives in San Diego, California and works extensively with Chinese, cross-cultural, new music, and jazz groups. Shanghai-born Liu Guilian graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and became the director of the Shanghai Pipa Society, and a member of the Chinese Musicians Association and Chinese National Orchestral Society, before immigrating to Canada. She now performs with Red Chamber and the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. Gao Hong graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and was the first to do a joint tour with Lin Shicheng in North America. They recorded the critically acclaimed CD "Eagle Seizing Swan" together.

Noted contemporary pipa players who work internationally include Min Xiao-Fen, Zhou Yi, Qiu Xia He, Liu Fang, Cheng Yu, Jie Ma, Yang Jing, Yang Wei (杨惟), Guan Yadong (管亚东), Jiang Ting (蔣婷), Tang Liangxing (湯良興), and Lui Pui-Yuen (呂培原). Some other notable pipa players in China include Yu Jia (俞嘉), Wu Yu Xia (吳玉霞), Fang Jinlung (方錦龍) and Zhao Cong (赵聪).

Use in contemporary classical music

In the late 20th century, largely through the efforts of Wu Man (in USA), Min Xiao-Fen (in USA), composer Yang Jing (in Europe) and other performers, Chinese and Western contemporary composers began to create new works for the pipa (both solo and in combination with chamber ensembles and orchestra). Most prominent among these are Minoru Miki, Thüring Bräm, YANG Jing, Terry Riley, Donald Reid Womack, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam, and Carl Stone.

Use in other genres

The pipa has also been used in rock music; the California-based band Incubus featured one, borrowed from legendary guitarist Steve Vai, in their 2001 song "Aqueous Transmission," as played by the group's guitarist, Mike Einziger. The Shanghai progressive/folk-rock band Cold Fairyland, which was formed in 2001, also use pipa (played by Lin Di), sometimes multi-tracking it in their recordings. Australian dark rock band The Eternal use the pipa in their song "Blood" as played by singer/guitarist Mark Kelson on their album Kartika. Other musicians who released albums featuring Yang Jing on pipa include Swiss jazz group 4tett, Pierre Favre, Wolfgang Sieber, and Miki Minoru. The instrument is also played by musician Min Xiaofen in "I See Who You Are", a song from Björk's album Volta. Western performers of pipa include French musician Djang San, who integrated jazz and rock concepts to the instrument such as power chords and walking bass.

Electric pipa

The electric pipa was first developed in the late 20th century by adding electric guitar–style magnetic pickups to a regular acoustic pipa, allowing the instrument to be amplified through an instrument amplifier or PA system.

In 2014, French zhongruan player and composer Djang San, created his own electric pipa and recorded an experimental album that puts the electric pipa at the center of music. He was also the first musician to add a strap to the instrument, as he did for the zhongruan, allowing him to play the pipa and the zhongruan like a guitar.

In 2014, a little bit after Djang San did it, an industrial designer residing in the United States Xi Zheng (郑玺) designed and crafted an electric pipa - "E-pa" in New York. In 2015, pipa player Jiaju Shen (沈嘉琚) released a mini album composed and produced by Li Zong (宗立), with E-pa music that has a strong Chinese flavor within a modern Western pop music mould.

Five-stringed pipa

Cheng Yu researched the old Tang Dynasty five-stringed pipa in the early 2000s and developed a modern version of it for contemporary use. It is very much the same as the modern pipa in construction save for being a bit wider to allow for the extra string and the reintroduction of the soundholes at the front. It has not caught on in China but in Korea (where she also did some of her research at) the bipa was revived since then and the current versions are based on Chinese pipa, including one with five-strings.

Re-enactment of a traditional music performance at Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [,]. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

Date: October 2019.

Photo Credits: (1) Silk Road, (2) The Sound of Silk, (3) Li Xiangting, (4) Song Huizong, (5) Cheng Yu, (6) Bei Bei (The Xi'An Sí), (7)-(8) Heart of the Dragon Ensemble, (9) China, (10) Traditional Music Performance at Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan (unknown/website).

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