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  Traditional Chinese Instruments




Wind InstrumentsPlucked Instruments Bowed InstrumentsPercussion


Traditional Chinese instruments can be placed into four categories, according to their respective playing techniques.

The essential character of Chinese music consists in its close imitation of the cadences of the human voice, which is in marked contrast to the principle of western music. This imitation effect can be seen at its clearest when Chinese instruments play grace notes and glissando. Put another way, the principle of Chinese music lies in the use of natural materials to reflect the habits and structures of language. The intervention of modern composers has gradually enriched the performance form of Chinese music so that it now reflects the new musical philosophy of the modern orient.



Wind Instruments

笛子 Dizi – bamboo flute:

Made from bamboo. The exact origin of this instrument is unknown.

The dizi sound is created from the vibration of a membrane at the blowing hole made from a thin shaving of the vascular bundle of the bamboo stem.

The dizi is often used to accompany traditional Chinese opera, including the ‘bang zi’ opera form of the Shan-xi province in northern China, and the traditional ‘kun qu’ tunes originating from Kunshan in the Jiang-su province.


笙 Sheng

Sheng is a very old woodwind instrument, whose sound is produced by the vibration of its free reeds.

This instrument has a very wide register, and due to its many pipes it can generate a very wide range of harmonies.

The sheng instrument can even be used to imitate convincingly the sound of a steam train.

嗩吶 Suona

The suona is a type of oboe with a double-reed mouthpiece, and is referred to as the ‘Guchui’ in Taiwanese.

It plays a very prominent role in the life of the Han people and is widely used in important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

It is particularly suited to the expression of happiness and joy.



Plucked Instruments

These instruments have a punctiform acoustic and the sound is marked by a large amount of tone modulation, which reflects the sonorous characteristics of the Han language.

琵琶 Pipa

The pipa is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.
It has four strings, which are plucked by false nails taped to the musician’s fingers.

The name ‘pipa’ derives from the playing technique associated with the instrument. ‘Pi’ refers to pushing the right index finger from right to left, and ‘pa’ to pulling the right thumb in the opposite direction, i.e. left to right.


柳琴 Liuqin

The liuqin is a four-stringed lute played with a plectrum.

The instrument takes its name from its shape – ‘liu ye’ means ‘willow-leaf’ and in the abbreviated form of liuqin.

It is somewhat smaller than the pipa, and its sound is correspondingly louder and brighter.


阮 Ruan

This is a four-stringed instrument played with a plectrum

The instrument takes its name from 阮咸 (Ruan Xian), one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove at the time of the Jin Dynasty, circa 250 AD. Such was the proficiency of his playing that the instrument came to be named after him, in the abbreviated form of ruan.

According to the needs of the orchestra, the ruan can take the form of a large-bodied instrument, known as the large ruan, or a small-bodied instrument known as the medium ruan.

The large ruan and the medium raun play the low and the middle range tones in the orchestra, producing a rich and lively sound.


揚琴 Yangqin

The yangqin is a hammered dulcimer played with beaters made from bamboo.


It closely resembles the Hungarian cymbal.

It originated in the Middle East and spread from the Cantonese coast to the Central Plain during the Ming Dynasty (from the end of the 14th to the middle of the 15th century AD).


古箏 Guzheng,

The Guzheng is often referred to as the Chinese zither.

It has 21 strings, which are played with false nails taped to the player’s fingers.

Its name is onomatopoeic in origin, referring to the ‘zheng’ sound produced when the instrument is plucked.

It is a very old instrument, referred to in documents of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). The ‘gu’ in the full name of the instrument means ‘old’ in Chinese, hence ‘guzheng’.

The guzheng’s pentatonic scale ranges to “do re mi sol and la”, a typical characteristic of Chinese music.

The guzheng is the only Chinese instrument which can accurately reproduce the sound of a cascading waterfall, and is used to perfect the sound of the orchestra.


Bowed Instruments

The bowed instruments constitute an important part of the orchestra. They were introduced to China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 208 AD) by the Hu people, hence the name ‘hu qin’ (‘qin’ means ‘stringed-instrument’). The huqin is a large family of instruments, which all have in common the fact that they have two strings, which are played by a bow. Three sub-families of instruments can be identified according to the different tone registers produced:


高胡 Gaohu

An abbreviation of ‘high register huqin’ (‘gao’ means ‘high’).The gaohu has a small body.


二胡 Erhu

Due to its popularity in southern China, this is also known as ‘nanhu’ (‘nan’ means ‘south’).
The erhu has a deeper register than the gaohu, with a warmer timbre.
This is the most famous and most popular form of huqin.


中胡 Zhonghu

An abbreviation of ‘middle register huqin’ (‘zhong’ means ‘middle’).
The zhonghu has a deeper register than the erhu, with a larger body.


Because Chinese instruments are largely in the high and middle ranges, western instruments with a deeper range – for example cello and double bass – are used in the modern Chinese music orchestra to give its sound a more rounded character.






Chinese percussion is multifaceted in character. Percussion instruments play a very important role in temple ceremonies and folk customs. They can be divided into four groups, according to the materials on which they are based:


1) Metal: ‘鈸 ba’ (a flat plate of metal struck with a mallet) and ‘鑼 luo’ (a gong).

2) Hide: ‘大鼓 da-gu’ (large drum) and ‘堂鼓 tang-gu’.

3) Wood: ‘梆子 bang-zi’(wood clappers) and ‘木魚 mu-yu’ (wood block)

4) Western percussion instruments, such as the snare, tenor and bass drums and timpani.





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