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The Liuqin’s Role in Chinese Folk Music

Last Updated on 2023/11/23

Tracing the Liuqin’s Journey from Tang Dynasty to Modern Orchestras.

The 柳琴 (Liuqin), also known as 柳叶琴 (Liuye Qin), 小琵琶 (Xiao Pipa), 金刚腿 (Jingangtui), and 闻子灵 (Wen Ziling), is a high-pitched Chinese plucked string instrument. Its sound is loud and crisp, commonly found in the provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong, and Anhui.

Design and Structure

The liuqin resembles the pipa in appearance but is smaller, shorter, and more rounded. A typical liuqin used in Liuqin Opera has 2 strings and 7 frets, covering a range of one and a half octaves. The right hand often uses a bamboo or ox horn tube, known as “柳琴套” (Liuqin Tao), for playing.


Originating from the ordinary pipa of the Tang Dynasty, the liuqin first gained popularity in Shandong. During the Song Dynasty, it spread to Jiangsu, becoming the primary production area, and later to Anhui during the Ming Dynasty. Initially confined to these three provinces, its crisp high tones led to widespread use across China during the Qing Dynasty, especially in operatic performances.

Despite its existence since the Tang Dynasty, the specific definition and name “柳琴” were firmly established only in the late Qing Dynasty. Before this, it was considered a modified version of the pipa, becoming a primary accompaniment instrument in Liuqin Opera, Sizhou Opera, and Luan Tan, as well as in Changzhou silk string performances. Its origin theories include:

  • 1860s: Artists in Lunan imitated the pipa and yueqin, creating the instrument from hollowed-out willow trees.
  • In Teng County, a scholar named Su and local artists and carpenters developed it.
  • In Linyi, artists Wu Da and Wu Er modeled it after the pipa held by the Guardian King.

The earliest liuqins were simple, with two silk strings and a narrow range. Players used a bamboo tube on the index finger, later replaced by a hollowed-out ox horn. In 1958, musician Wang Huiran standardized the liuqin, introducing 3-string and 4-string versions with 24 and 29 frets, played using a plectrum.


In the 1970s, a second-generation liuqin emerged – the four-stringed high-pitched liuqin. It featured bamboo instead of sorghum stems and steel wires instead of silk strings. These improvements enhanced performance capabilities, transforming the liuqin from an accompaniment to a solo instrument.

From the 1980s onward, the liuqin’s beautiful high tones made it a specialized high-pitched instrument in folk orchestras, leading to compositions of solo and concerto pieces specifically for it.


In Changzhou silk string performances, the liuqin complements the lead flute, enhancing contrasts and decorations. In folk orchestras, it plays high-pitched melodies and intricate ornamental passages, suitable for both lively and lyrical tunes.

Playing Technique

The player sits upright, holding the liuqin at the chest level. The left hand frets the strings, while the right hand uses a plectrum, often made of celluloid, plastic, ox horn, or tortoiseshell. The playing techniques include plucking, picking, double plucking, sweeping, and trills with the right hand, and various string techniques with the left.

The liuqin can play chords and harmonics with clear and effective natural harmonics. Its vibrato technique is distinctive, intense in forte and sweet in piano.

This comprehensive overview captures the essence of the liuqin, a significant instrument in Chinese musical heritage.

Featured image: source

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