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The Pipa: From Qin Dynasty to Modern Stages

Last Updated on 2023/11/23

The Rich Legacy of the Pipa, China’s Iconic String Instrument.

琵琶 (Pípa) is a traditional East Asian plucked string instrument with a history spanning over 2000 years in China. The earliest instruments referred to as “琵琶” emerged around the Qin Dynasty.

The name “琵琶” possibly originates from the Eastern Han Dynasty, as mentioned in Liu Xi’s “释名,” which describes the basic plucking techniques of “pushing” (批) and “pulling” (把), leading to the name “批把” (Pípa). Before the Tang Dynasty, the term “琵琶” broadly referred to all short-necked lutes (also known as the lute family) in Chinese language.

The Chinese Pípa spread to other East Asian regions, evolving into the Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuan Pipas.

Historical Origins

The origins of the Pípa are unclear. Its shape resembles lutes, Persian lutes, and ouds, possibly sharing a common ancestor.

Ancient Chinese records speculate on its origins. Du Zhi believed it originated in the late Qin Dynasty; Liu Xi suggested its origin from nomadic Hu people, possibly from Central or Western Asia; another theory credits its invention to a Han Dynasty Wusun princess.

During the Han Dynasty, it became a common instrument in China. Before the Wei-Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties, “琵琶” generically referred to all plucked string instruments. The modern Pípa, an improved version of the Tang Dynasty’s bent-neck Pípa, took its current form during the Ming Dynasty.

Pipa musician, 1870
Pipa musician, 1870


Also known as “批把,” the Pípa’s earliest historical mention is in the Han Dynasty’s Liu Xi’s “释名·释乐器,” where it was described as an instrument played on horseback. The name derived from its playing technique – forward plucking called “批,” and backward plucking called “把.”

Before the Tang Dynasty, “琵琶” referred to all plucked string instruments. The earliest Pípa appeared in the Qin Dynasty, initially with a round body for horseback playing.

Early Pípas differed from the modern version, mainly in their round shape, unlike the current pear-shaped Pípa. The Qin and Han Pipas belonged to the straight-neck category. In the Western Jin Dynasty, Ruan Xian, a member of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was proficient in Pípa, leading to its later naming after him.

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the bent-neck Pípa, a main instrument in the nine-part music, played a significant role in the development of Tang Dynasty’s song and dance art. Tang Society’s “通典” states that the Pípa was the primary instrument in these performances.


The modern “琵琶” combines the characteristics of the Chinese straight-neck Pípa and the Western Region bent-neck Hu Pípa, finalized in form during the Ming Dynasty.

The Hu Pípa, the earliest bent-neck Pípa in China, was not the only type (there were also straight-neck Pipas, like the five-string Pípa from Japan’s Shōsō-in). Introduced from Gaochang (Kucha) to Northern Zhou during the Wei-Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties, it featured a bent neck and a semi-pear-shaped body. The Sui Book’s “Music Annals” records that during Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou’s time, a Gaochang musician named Su Zhipo introduced this instrument. Pípa playing at this time was characterized by a horizontal hold and free-form, even on horseback. This playing style is still retained in Chinese Nanguan Pípa and the Japanese Pípa.

By the Wei-Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties, marked by the eastward spread of Hu culture, Pípa mainly served as an accompaniment instrument. Sui Book’s “Music Annals” mentions various songs and dances from the Gaochang kingdom.

The Tang Dynasty’s “Dunhuang Pípa Score” (dated 933 AD) from the Mogao Caves indicates significant developments in Pípa during this period. Under the Li-Tang royal rule, Pípa was a popular instrument in various festivals and dance programs. At this time, multiple schools of Pípa playing emerged, transitioning to a vertical hold and using fingernails for plucking. However, the Fujian Nanyin (Quanzhou Nanyin) Pípa still uses the horizontal plucking method.

Ancient Pipas had four sections with 13, 14, 15 frets, etc. This has now increased to six sections with 18, 24, 26, 28, or 30 frets, arranged in equal temperament. A six-section, 28-fret Pípa covers the range A–g3. Common techniques include various plucking, rolling, and striking methods for the right hand, and techniques like bending, vibrato, and harmonics for the left hand. It can play a variety of chords and harmonies. Famous pieces include “Ambush from Ten Sides,” “The King’s Farewell,” “Moonlit Night on the Spring River,” “White Snow in the Sunny Spring,” “Lady Zhaojun Crossing the Border,” and “Great Waves Washing the Sand.”


In Korea, short-necked lutes were also called Pípa. Initially, these were straight-necked. Later, the Tang-style Pípa was introduced from China during the Silla Dynasty. To differentiate, the existing Pípa was named “향비파” (Hometown Pípa), and the newly introduced one as “당비파” (Tang Pípa). According to the “Samguk Sagi,” in Silla music, the combination of three string instruments (including Pípa) and three wind instruments was known as “삼현삼죽” (Three Strings Three Bamboos). These Pípas were played with tortoiseshell picks.


Japan received the five-string Pípa from China during the Asuka period, and the four-string Pípa during the Nara period. The five-string version was used until the early Heian period, while the four-string Pípa, known as “Gagaku Pípa,” became part of Japanese court music, played with a semi-fan-shaped pick. This led to the development of various types, including the Heike Pípa, Biwa Hōshi, Tang Pípa, Satsuma Pípa, and Chikuzen Pípa.


The Vietnamese Pípa, known as “Đàn tỳ bà,” also originated from China and is often used in court music, played vertically with fingers.


The Ryukyuan Pípa, brought by Fujianese settlers, exhibits characteristics of the Fujian Nanguan Pípa, like a slender neck and a cylindrical body with nine frets, and Japanese Pípa traits. It has a unique feature: resonance strings inside the body, which produce sound when the instrument is shaken.

Featured image: source

Topics: history of the Chinese Pipa, evolution of East Asian string instruments, influence of Pipa in traditional music, ancient Chinese musical instruments, role of Pipa in cultural exchange, historical development of stringed instruments in China, Pipa’s journey through East Asian history

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