Top 10 Chinese Musical Instruments

A private evening concert at a Tang minister’s home, by Gu Hongzhong (顾闳中 910 – 980)

In December 1987, a unique solo flute concert was taken place at a news conference hosted by the Culture Department of Henan Province. There was only one performer: the director of Music Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Arts; and there was only one piece of music performed: Little Cabbage. But this mini-concert has changed the written history of Chinese music, and may also alter the history of the world music.

LIttle Cabbage (小白菜): a folk song from Hebei province about a little girl who misses her birth mother died young and laments her miserable life under the care of her stepmother who makes her a second class member in the family.

 Singer: Chai Qin (蔡琴)

Why this concert has such a cultural significance?

8,000-year old Chinese bone flute

8,000-year old Chinese bone flute

It is not because the director’s performance was so outstanding – he’s an art researcher not a professional musician; nor is it because the piece of music is so enchanting – it’s a simple folk ditty supposedly to be sung by a 6 or 7-year old girl.

It is all because of the flute. The last time when this very flute was used to play a folk music was more than 8,000 years ago.

Yes, it’s one of the 30 flutes unearthed from an ancient burial site at Jiahu (贾湖) in Wuyang county (舞阳县), Henan province, all of which are made of bones of red-crowned crane.

When China entered the era of the Shang Dynasty (1760 BC – 1520 BC), more than 70 different kind of musical instruments were invented, and the instruments were divided into eight categories according to the material used (metal, stone, silk string, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather and wood). Later, they were further grouped into four classes based on how they are played (blow, beat, pluck or pull).

The following is a brief introduction to China’s top 10 unique musical instruments.

Guqin (琴)

Qin Music: Riverside Mooring in Autumn Night (秋江夜泊): a Ming Dynasty music based on a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji. 

Poet Zhang Ji of the Tang Dynasty once travelled by boat and passed Suzhou. When night fell, the boat was moored next to the ancient Buddhist monastery Cold Hill Temple. Observing the lights on boats all over the river, the poet felt homesick and became sleepless. Then in the middle night he heard the sound of bell from the temple announcing the arrival of an incense bearer’s boat.

 Performer: Ming Dynasty (刘正春), one of China’s best qin players
Ancient Chinese painting: a Daoist paying qin

Ancient Chinese painting: a Daoist paying qin, a seven-stringed plucked musical instrument

In the ancient China, there were four traditional artistic skills that were considered to be essential for any scholar worth his salt, that include being able to perform qin, play chess, compose poem and execute ink painting. Among the four, the qin skill ranks the top.

Why qin was so important to Chinese scholarhood? The answer may have to be found in Daoism (Taoism), the root of Chinese culture.

From Daoist point of view, I Ching is the theoretical principle that governs a person’s position in the universe and his relationship with the world around, while four skills can equip him to apply this principle to daily lives.

Painting helps him express his understanding of the physical existence, poem allows him to articulate his comprehension of the life, chess play is a way to study how to interact with others, while qin performance is an exercise to communicate with his own emotions.

As a well-controlled and refined emotion is a precondition for deep intellectual development and spiritual cultivation, qin play thus was regarded as the top important skill for a Daoist or a scholar to master.

The great qin masters in Chinese history include Lao Tze who established Daoism, Confucius who established Confuciusm and Li Bai (Li Bo) the greatest Chinese poet.

Beijing Opera: High Mountains and Flowing Water (高山流水), when Yu Boya met woodcutter Zhong Ziqi

This opera drama is based on an ancient Chinese legend about music and friendship.

During the Spring and Autumn Era (770 BC-403 BC), scholar-official Yu Boya moored his boat at a hillfoot and played qin under the moonlight. The music attracted the attention of a woodcutter who listened the recital on foot for hours.

When asked for a feedback, the woodcutter responded that the first piece praised the loftiness of the mountain and the second applauded unceasing flow of the river water.  

Yu Boyao took the woodcutter as his soulmate and promised to meet him again next year. But woodcutter died before the date and was buried at the spot where they were going to meet. When the musician arrived, he held an audience-less recital in front of the lone grave then smashed the qin against a stone. He never played music again.

Since then, “he who knows your music (知音)” became a common expression to describe soulmate. And High Mountains and Flowing Water, a music allegedly composed and played by Yu Boya, and listened and reviewed by the woodcutter, is still one of those most frequently performed on today’s stage in China.     

The musician was played by Yu Kuizhi (于魁智), the top mature-male-role actor in today’s Beijing Opera stage, and the woodcutter was played by Meng Guanlu (孟广禄), today’s best Painted-face actor

Zheng (筝)

Zheng music: High Mountains and Flowing Water (高山流水)

This is the piece of music allegedly played by Yu Boya and reviewed by a woodcutter

 Performer: Xiang Sihua (项斯华), one of China’s best zheng players

Zheng is a plucked musical instrument, quite similar to qin, but much bigger with 21 or 25 strings and not easy to be carried around, so is more commonly used for indoor performance.

The oldest zhengs found in China are the ones unearthed from the tombs dating back to Confucius time about 2,500 years ago, with the structure and shape similar to what are used today.

Pipa (琵琶)

Solo Pipa: Ambush from All Sides (十面埋伏)

The music vividly depicts the final showdown between two armies in 202 BC, which led to the establishment of the Han Dynasty, the first of four golden ages in Chinese history since the reunification of China by the First Emperor Qin.

Performer: Yang Wei (杨惟)

Pipa is a plucked four-stringed lute with a fretted fingerboard, and the strings were made of silks but now wires or nylons are more commonly used.

The heyday of pipa was the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906), by then in virtually all musical bands – from the professional ones serving in court to amateurish groups for self amusement – pipa was forever featured, and featured prominently.

It was also during that period when pipa production and playing techniques improved greatly. Previously pipa was held horizontally when playing, but since Tang, it has changed to a vertical position. And dozens of string pluck methods were also developed, including rolls, slaps, pizzicato and harmonics.

The Ming Dynasty is another heyday for pipa, with most pipa music still playing today on stage being produced during that era, such as “Ambush from All Sides”, “The Conqueror Unarms (霸王卸甲)”, “The Moon Is High (月儿高)”, “Memory of Spring (思春)” and “The Sorrow of Lady Wang Zhaojun (昭君怨)”.

Nowadays pipa is more often played by a woman singer, especially by a female singer of Suzhou Pingtan (苏州评弹), a storytelling audio performing art in Suzhou dialect.

Suzhou Pingtan: The Beautiful Land of Suzhou and Hangzhou.
Pipa player and singer: Huang Xiafen (黄霞芬), Rylic: Chen Yibing (陈亦兵)

Bamboo Flute (笛)

Bamboo flute music: Strolling in Suzhou (姑苏行):
Bamboo flute player: Yu Xunfa (俞逊发 1946-2006), one of China’s best flute soloists and composors; Composer: Jiang Xianwei (江宪文)

The history of Chinese flute can be traced back to at least 8,000 years ago as evidenced by the unearthing of the bone flutes from Jiahu.

About 4,000 years ago, bone flutes were replaced with bamboo flutes. By then the climate of the Central Plain in the north of China was much humid and warmer, and along the Yellow River, bamboos were thriving. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, Yellow Emperor ordered musicians to cut bamboos to make flutes, mimicking the sound of phoenix (黄帝使伶伦伐竹于昆豀、斩而作笛,吹作凤鸣). It is a huge progress in flute development: bamboo flutes not only more vibration-sensitive but easy to craft, thus helped flute become the most popular musical instrument in China.

In the family of Chinese flute, there are two major schools, one is thin and short and played horizontally, known as di (笛), another is relatively thicker and longer and played vertically, known as xiao (箫).

Among the “di”, there are two major styles, one called qudi (曲笛, bow flute) or Suzhou Flute, originated in Suzhou, the other is bangdi (梆笛, clapping flute), more popular in northern China.

While bow flute produces gentle, soothing and measured melodies, usually pitching in the key of C or D, and is commonly used to accompany Kunqu, Xiju, Yueju and other local operas of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in south of Yangtze River, bangdi’s sound is more crispy, vigorous and high-pitched, typically for northern opera bands.

Apart from Bow Flute and Clapping Flute, there are also Tone Setting Flute (定调笛), Additional Key Flute (加键笛) and Eleven Holes Flute (十一孔笛).

Vertical Bamboo Flute (箫)

Su Wu the Shepherd (苏武牧羊)

Su Wu (140 BC – 60 BC) was a Chinese diplomat of Han Dynasty and sent to Xiongnu, a powerful nomadic tribe dominated the areas north to China, on a peacemaking mission.

Xiongnus admired Su Wu’s talent and tried to make the diplomat switch his allegiance. After being rejected repeatedly, the angry chieftain punished Su Wu by sending him to remote North Sea to herd sheep.

Despite being alone at the no man’s land with no hope to return to his homeland, Su Wu’s integrity was unbreakable.>

He endured the life of loneliness and hardship for 18 years before being rescued by his own country.

Composer: Tian Cihou (田赐候)

An ancient Chinese lady playing vertical flute

The length of vertically played flute ranges from 45cm to 1.25m, with 75 – 85cm the most common. It has either six or eight finger holes, and most often pitch in the key of G, but can also pitch in the keys of C, D, F and B-flat.

Vertical bamboo is best for expressing a tranquil feeling or conveying a reflective mood. A typical image of a Chinese noble hermit would be depicted as a man playing his vertical flute alone at a desolated location (such as sitting on the top of a cliff).

While it is perfect for solo performance, vertical flute works wonderfully with qin, a seven stringed plucked musical instrument, as well as with various southern China opera bands.

Reed Pipe (笙)

Reed Pipe Music: Willows in South of Yangtze River (江南柳)

The music was created based on a poem from a Song Dynasty poet Ouyang Xiu. When he was seeing off a female friend, he composed the poem as his farewell message. 

In ancient times, Chinese had a custom to snap a tender branch of willow as souvenir when a friend leaving. 

Composor:Feng Haiyun (冯海云); Playe: Shen Yi (申怡)
More than 2,400-year old Chinese reed pipe

More than 2,400-year old Chinese reed pipe

Reed pipe is a multi-pipe wind instrument, consisted of multiple vertical pipes, normally at the number of 14 or 17, and can produce chords in four-tone, pentatonic and eight-tone scales.

Traditionally in China, reed pipe works as an accompaniment instrument for solo flute, and the two are often mentioned in one breadth to represent the entire Chinese musical band. “Sound of reed pipe and bamboo flute can be heard every night (夜夜笙箫)” is a common Chinese express describing an extravagant lifestyle with parties held on daily basis.

Reed pipe and bamboo flute are also the main instruments in kunqu, the mother of all Chinese operas originated in Suzhou, as well as majority of other gentle-tuned operas in Jiangnan, the region around Suzhou, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

The history of Chinese reed pipe can be traced to Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. In the bone oracle writing a free-reed wind instrument called yu (竽) is mentioned, and were identified in later text as a large form of reed pipe. The oldest reed pipes found so far are the ones unearthed from two Warring State tombs (250 BC – 475 BC). These ancient musical instruments have gourd wind chambers, various numbers of pipes and bamboo reeds (in the number of 14, 16 and 18 respectively), similar to today’s copper reeds.

Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) is the golden age of reed pipes as well, with a large number of great musicians specialised in this particular instrument and numerous poems tributing to reed pipe music.

Erhu (二胡)

Erhu Music: Moon Reflected in Er Spring

Abin (1893 – 1951) was a Daoist and a top erhu composer and player in Wuxi, near Suzhou, but became blind and homeless in the late stage of his life as the result of opium addiction. He created Moon Reflected on Er Spring after he completely lost his sight.  

Composer: Abin (阿炳); Erhu player: Huang Wanyuan (黃安源)

The Chinese name erhu literally means the two stringed bowed instrument, which is exactly what it is.

The earliest record about erhu appeared in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). But it is until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), a fuddle with similar structure, shape and playing techniques to today’s erhu was developed, and eventually became the leading musical instrument in various Chinese opera bands.

The sound body of the erhu is a drum-like case made of ebony or sandalwood, with the front covered with snake skin and the back left open, which amplify the vibrations of the two strings, while the horse hair bow passes between the two strings when playing. The strings were formed by twisted silks in the old days but now they were replaced with metal,

As erhu’s sound is quite close to human voice, it is often used to imitate natural sound from bird chips to horse neillings.

Banhu Fiddle (板胡)

Banhu Music: Spring Comes to Village.
Compor: Shi Lu (石露), Xue Yi (学义); player: Zhu Xueyi (朱学义)

This musical instrument is very similar to Erhu, but with a thin wooden soundboard. And its sound is even closer to human voice.

While erhu is the leading accompanying instrument in Kunqu and most southern opera bands, banhu is chiefly used in the northern operas in Hebei, Henan, Shaaxi, Shanxi and Gansu provinces.

Suona Horn (唢呐)

Suona Music: One Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix (百鸟朝凤), mimicking the sound of various birds in forest.
Souna player: Li Guangcai (李光才)

Suona horn is a woodwind instrument consisted of mouthpiece, tube and bell, with a distinctively loud, bold and high-pitched sound, popular for outdoor performance in rituals (wedding, funeral or other gathering occasions) in northern China, where the land is broader and the population density is relatively low. It’s also featured heavily in various northern operas bands.

The oldest evidence about suona use in Chinese musical band can be found in stone carvings at Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province, dating back to the period between the 4th and 6th centuries. And the earliest written reference to suona appears in Song Dynasty record, by then the form of the modern suona has been established.

Xun (埙)

Xun Music: The Song of Chu Kingdom (楚歌) – A hero in his last moment.
Xun player: Wang Jianxin (王建欣)

It is an egg-shaped musical instrument made of clay, with an opening at the top and 1 to 7 finger holes on the body.

Ancient Chinese music instrument: Sun

Left: a fish-shaped xun produced during the Xia Dynasty 3,700 years ago; right: a typical xun

The earliest xun unearthed was from the Hemudu Site, dating back to 5,000 BC, with one hole only, while the xuns found in the tombs of Xia Dynasty (2070 BC – 1600 BC) contain three finger holes on the body and can produce five sound notes.

During the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC), xun became a popular musical instrument used in the palace concert.

Entering the Tang Dynasty (618–907), xuns typically had five finger holes with the shape and sound quality fairly close to the ones used today.

Xun produces a thick and mellow sound, and is considered the best instrument to express a feeling of deep pain, heartbreaking sorrow or utter desolation.

Xun Music: Autumn Yearning at the Dressing Table (妆台秋思) – Her home is in a remote distance

Wang Zhaojun was one of the four legendary beauties in Chinese history. Initially a palace maindain, she was sent to marry the head of a foreign kingdom as a gesture of peace.

Enduring a life in an alien land with harsh natural and cultural conditions, Wang Zhaojun missed her home terribly. When autumn came, the wild goose flew southwards, while she could only linger in her bedroom around her dressing table.  

23 comments

  • King

    I find Chinese music very intricate and fascinating. There is something about Chinese music that takes you back in time and gives you a mental picture of the musician’s mood, and his state of mind. There’s always a story behind every music piece. This was a really good post. Thanks for educating the world on the musical culture of the Chinese.

    • Awen

      What a great observation. Yes, indeed (I didn’t realise this before until you mentioned here), the best feature about Chinese music is its cultural and historical contents embedded within, not just pure expression of human emotion.

  • Ian

    Wow, very interesting post.

    And very beautiful music. I’m actually listening to some of the songs while I write this. I find Chinese music is very soothing and calming.

    The Guqin instrument reminds me of the Japanese koto. I find it to be very serene and beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Awen

      Hi Ian, there is a Chinese drama “Nirvana In Fire” in which you can hear totalling 36 hours of most exquisite Classic Chinese music played with the traditional Chinese musical instruments mentioned in the post.

      The drama can be watched (or listened) at viki.com with English subtile or Youtube without English subtitle.

  • Anh Nguyen

    I used to watch a lot of chinese movies and can recognize most of these instruments. My favorite is the bamboo flute, often also used as a weapon in movies. I love it’s slender form and sound – although I am more into modern music.

    The Xun is also so cute, makes me wish I know how to play them.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Awen

      In the most popular Chinese TV drama Nirvana in Fire, you can hear lots background music from Xun.

      • Franziska

        Have a look on YouTube. There’s great videos of the Asian guitarist from Dragonforce showing how to make all sorts of sound effects on a guitar. You can learn a lot from him.

  • Brandon

    Hey there!

    I really like the content you have published here. I’ve been interested in china for as long as I can remember and the place is truly amazing. In regard to music, it’s fascinating to learn how they use their resources around them to create unique musical instruments. I particularly like the bamboo flute!

    Which instrument do you feel have contributed the most to their modern-day development of their music?

  • Katerina Markakis

    Hello there!
    This was a very educative and interesting post! I am an avid tea drinker and I especially love Chinese green tea! My passion for tea made me want to discover the Chinese civilization and learn more about it!
    It’s great to know more about Chinese music instruments! Thank you so much for sharing!
    I really enjoyed this!

  • Karl Lambert

    I love playing the flute. Its one of the best musical instrument ever invented because it needs hand and breathing coordination. It can be means of exercising your lungs making your respiratory system better. Interesting article fisher. I can’t wait to see your other posts. I’ll bookmark your page so will be updated with your posts

    • Awen

      Karl, thanks for your kind comment. There are so many posts half-written and I just never get time to finish them. I shall get them posted soon … please stay tuned 🙂 Cheers!

  • Marc Cantave

    Great post im not too familiar with Chinese culture but I liked your post. I know that the Chinese culture is very sacred and I can pick that up from your article as it was written with careful precision. I liked the article and I hope you continue to produce great posts.

  • Nigel

    An 8000 year old bone flute? Wow! I never knew of the existence of so many different types! I have been playing music all my life and I am always looking at old vintage saxophones and reading about all the different models and which famous musicians play which types of sax. I stumbled across this site and i was intrigued. Thanks!

    • Awen

      Hi Nigel, nice to meet a professional musician here. These are just top 10 most popular Chinese musical instruments that are still in use today. There are much more, such as the bronze well instrument set which is the most amazing.

  • Gino

    Wow I never knew there were so many Chinese musical instruments. I got to say though I love the Zheng, if I could listen to that every morning, I would be a different person haha — the Zheng would bring a sense of calmness to my morning. Beautiful Instrument!!!!! But not really a fan of the Banhu Fiddle, it’s a bit too squeaky for me.

    • Awen

      Hi Gino, thanks for your interesting review. Zheng and qin are among the most ancient instruments while banhu is a relatively new invention with just hundreds of years of history and mainly popular in northern China.

      I do have noticed an fascinating phenomenon: the older the Chinese arts, the easier to be accepted by the people worldwide.

  • Gary

    This is quite an educational post. I’ve learned a lot.

    My favorite piece in this group is LIttle Cabbage. The bone flute gives it a haunting sound that draws you into the story, even if you don’t understand the words. It reminds me of the Irish tune Carrickfergus when played with traditional instruments.

    My least favorite piece is Suzhou Pingtan: The Beautiful Land of Suzhou and Hangzhou. The singing is a little too nasal for my taste, but then I have no cultural background for this type of music.

    Thank you for an educational post.

    Gary
    share-a-like dot com

    • Awen

      Hi Gary, it seems most people like that Little Cabbage. Yes, Suzhou Pingtan has a strong local feature, may not be everybody’s cup of tea. And to some, this particular actress’ tune and expression might be a bit too sweet, like a coffee with too much sugar.

      Love your review, very interesting. 🙂

  • Mahmood

    Looks like the Chinese history is much bigger than I thought. They are very unique in their methods for every thing. Their language, musical instrument are unique even in their shapes.

    I liked the sound of these instruments in the videos. I actually like the Japanese music and there are some similarities -I think-

    The third video is strangely strange 🙂

    • Awen

      Yes you are right Mahmood, there are some similarities between Chinese and Japanese music, particularly when pipa is concerned.

      During the Tang dynasty, the heyday of Chinese music, painting, poem, architecture and Buddhist practice, the cultural exchange between China and Japan was extremely frequent and most of Chinese arts, literature, technology and religion was exported to Japan during that period.

      The third video is a Beijing Opera 😀

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