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Qi Bu E: The Cultural Symphony of the Lisu People

Last Updated on 2023/11/24

Craftsmanship and Melody: Inside the World of Qi Bu E.

The Qi Bu E (其布厄) is a plucked string musical instrument of the Lisu people, an ethnic minority in China. In the Lisu language, “qi” means string, and “bu e” translates to a cylindrical form, indicating the shape of the instrument. Also known as Qi Bo, Qi Bai, and Qi Ben, it is commonly referred to as the Lisu Pipa (琵琶) by the Han Chinese. The instrument is predominantly found in regions like Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Baoshan, Tengchong, and Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.

Cultural Significance

In Lisu culture, proficiency in playing the Qi Bu E and dancing is highly regarded. Boys as young as 10 are encouraged to learn the instrument and traditional dances. The instrument is not just a musical device but a symbol of cultural identity and pride, especially among Lisu women, who demonstrate their intricate weaving skills in the instrument’s decorative elements.

Variations and Structure

Regional Differences

The Qi Bu E varies in size and number of strings depending on the region. It ranges from small versions about 30 cm long to larger ones over a meter in length. For instance, in Longling County, the circumference of the soundbox matches the length of the neck, resulting in proportional variations in size. In the Baoshan and Mangkuan regions, a four-string variant about 70 cm long with an oval-shaped soundbox is popular.

Design and Craftsmanship

The Qi Bu E is characterized by its robust and expressive lines. Each instrument is adorned with a brightly colored strap, connecting the string groove to the tail of the instrument. These straps, often made from colored cotton or silk threads, are decorated with tassels, brush tassels, or pom-poms, especially at the head of the instrument. The strap not only facilitates playing but also serves an aesthetic purpose, showcasing the Lisu women’s intricate weaving skills. In Dehong Prefecture’s Longling area, straps are typically made from red, white, or blue and white silk fabric.

Historical Legend

A popular Lisu folklore involves the story of Adi, who mastered the Qi Bu E. Adi, the youngest of seven brothers, chose to learn the Qi Bu E, which initially disappointed his father for not learning a more practical skill. However, Adi’s musical prowess eventually won the admiration of his community and his family, highlighting the cultural importance of the instrument.


The Qi Bu E’s body is made from various local hardwoods like cherry, maple, or mulberry. Its design closely resembles the Dong pipa and includes a resonating box, neck, tuning pegs, bridge, and strings. The soundbox comes in various shapes, such as flat round, oval, elongated round, and pear-shaped. It is covered with a softwood panel, like fir or spruce, and has several small, symmetrically arranged sound holes. The strings, traditionally made from plant fibers or animal tendons, are now often replaced with steel or nylon.

Playing Techniques

Performance Styles

The Qi Bu E is played either standing or sitting, with the strap over the left shoulder and the instrument diagonally across the chest. The left hand supports the neck and manipulates the strings, while the right hand plucks the strings, sometimes using a horn or wooden plectrum. Tuning varies based on the piece being played, with several common tunings like a, c1, e1, a1; g1, c2, d1, d2; and #f1, b, #c1, a1. The instrument produces a clear, delicate, and sweet sound, with melodies played on one pair of strings and accompaniment on another.

Accompaniment and Solo Play

The Qi Bu E is often used for solo performances, ensemble playing, and as accompaniment for folk songs and dances. The repertoire includes a wide range of themes, from love songs to dances mimicking animals. A fascinating aspect of Qi Bu E performances is the “reverse playing” style, where the player holds the instrument above their head or behind their back, and even dances while playing.

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