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SuGudu: The Resonant String of Naxi Culture in Yunnan

Last Updated on 2023/11/25

Mongolian Roots to Naxi Tunes: The Evolution of the SuGudu Instrument.

The SuGudu (苏古笃), also known as SeGudu, is a traditional stringed instrument of the Naxi people. In Mandarin, it’s referred to as Huo Bu Si (火布思), Hu Bo (胡拨), or Hu Po (琥珀). This instrument holds significant cultural value, especially in the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County in Yunnan Province. The SuGudu, along with its relatives – the Kao Bu Si from Xinjiang and the Zha Mu Nie from Tibet – shares a close resemblance in design, with minor differences in the number of strings.

Historical Journey

The origin of the SuGudu traces back to the Mongolian region in the 13th century. During the mid-13th century, in the era of the Southern Song Dynasty, the Naxi chieftain Mutiangwang A’liang ruled over Baisha, north of Lijiang, which was a center of politics, economy, and culture. The instrument is believed to have been introduced to the Naxi people by the Mongols during Kublai Khan’s (忽必烈) expedition to Yunnan and Dali in 1253. Upon Kublai Khan’s triumphant return, he gifted the entire musical ensemble, including the Huo Bu Si, to A’liang. This event marked the beginning of the “Baisha Fine Music” (白沙细乐), akin to folk silk and bamboo music.

In the “Brief Record of Lijiang Prefecture” (丽江府志略) compiled in 1743 during the Qing Dynasty, there’s a mention of this classical Naxi music. The Huo Bu Si has been prevalent in Lijiang since the late Southern Song Dynasty through the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, and even into the late 20th century. Performers of this music traditionally don Mongolian attire.

Modern Adaptation

The contemporary SuGudu remains identical to the historical Huo Bu Si in structure. It’s made up of various components like the resonance box, neck, string axis, and strings. Originally 90 cm long and made from rosewood, the modern versions range from 106 to 116 cm in length and are crafted from walnut or red alder wood. The instrument features a half-gourd shaped resonance box covered with thin wood and python or sheepskin, along with a crescent-shaped sound hole. It has four strings and is played with a strap slung over the right shoulder.

Playing Techniques and Musical Role

The SuGudu is known for its soft, mellow sound. Players employ techniques like glissando, producing decorative tones typical of Naxi music. It’s tuned to four degrees (e, a, d1, g1) and can be played solo, in ensemble, or as part of a band. While not widely used in folk music, the SuGudu is integral to traditional Naxi music, including “Baisha Fine Music” and “Naxi Ancient Music” (洞经音乐), with the former reflecting Mongolian styles and the latter preserving Han Chinese musical traditions of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Traditional pieces played on the SuGudu include “Du (笃)”, “A Letter (一封书)”, and “Beautiful Clouds (美丽的白云)”, while ensemble pieces feature “Chui Cuo” and others.

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