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The Tianqin: A Unique Instrument of the Zhuang People

Last Updated on 2023/11/25

Musical Mastery: Playing Techniques and Styles of the Tianqin.

The Tianqin (天琴) is a plucked string musical instrument used by the Zhuang people, particularly the Biao and Dai subgroups. Known in the Zhuang language as Den (壮文: den, Vietnamese: then), the instrument is named after the onomatopoeic sound it produces. Distinctive in design with a clear, bright tone, the Tianqin is popular for solo performances or as accompaniment to songs and dances, especially among the Biao people. It is prevalent in the areas along the China-Vietnam border in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, including the regions of Dongzhong, Ningming, and Longzhou.

The Tianqin has a significant place in the history and culture of the Zhuang people’s Biao and Dai subgroups. Originally used by a shaman, referred to as a Tianpo (天婆) or witch, for rituals of exorcism and healing, the instrument’s role has evolved from these shamanistic origins to a form of popular entertainment, still retaining names like singing Tian (唱天), playing Tian (弹天), and dancing Tian (跳天).

A traditional Tianqin is about 120 centimeters long. It features a wooden neck carved with dragon patterns and a head shaped like a phoenix, a seal, the sun, or the moon, with wooden tuning pegs on each side. The body is made from a gourd or bamboo and is half-spherical, about 10 centimeters thick. The front is covered with bamboo shell or thin paulownia wood, and the back has carved patterns serving as sound holes. The strings are traditionally made of silk.

The instrument underwent a transformation in modern times. The neck length was reduced to 90 centimeters with a half-cylindrical shape and no decorations. The body is now commonly made of hemp bamboo or metal, round in shape with a diameter of 10 centimeters, and strung with silk or nylon strings. The Tianqin is tuned to different pitches like c1, g, or d1, g, with a range of g to g3.

In the Zhuang tradition, the Tianqin was considered sacred, only to be played by a Tianpo during a “Dancing Tian” ritual. This performance was initially a form of superstition among the Biao people, involving a woman, called a Tianpo, singing, playing, and dancing, claiming to be a fairy descending from heaven to entertain, solve difficulties, and bestow blessings. The instrument was treated with great respect and could only be played after offering incense.

A legend recounts the instrument’s origins in the Zhuang Biao community near the Nanling Mountains. Two friends, Nong Duan and Nong Ya, discovered the enchanting sound of water droplets in a cave and replicated it using a gourd, a wooden stick, and vine strings. The instrument quickly became popular in their village, leading to a wide circulation of the Tianqin among the Zhuang people.

The instrument’s design and construction are unique. The body resembles a banhu (板胡) and has a narrow head and long neck made from three sections of wood without nails or glue. The distinctive head is carved with dragons, phoenixes, or other symbols, often filled with bright colors and coated with transparent lacquer. The neck and body are unvarnished, taking on a bronze sheen with use.

In performance, the Tianqin can be played seated or standing, with various playing techniques like single notes, double notes, beats, sustained notes, staccato, and glissando. It is capable of expressing a range of emotions and is particularly suited for lively and lyrical tunes. The Tianqin is central to Zhuang festivities and is used for solo performances (“playing Tian”), singing accompaniments (“singing Tian”), and dance accompaniments (“dancing Tian”). Traditional repertoires include over thirty pieces, with popular solo pieces like “Inviting the Immortals,” “Teasing the Tian,” and “Celebrating the Harvest.”

The Tianqin also plays a crucial role in the Zhuang people’s “Dancing Tian” – a comprehensive performance involving playing, singing, and dancing. This form of entertainment is especially prominent during festivals, celebrations, and joyous occasions.

Each year, on March 3rd, the Zhuang people celebrate their traditional “Abao Festival.” This event, particularly significant in the Zhuang Biao communities, is a time of joy and socialization, where young men and women use the Tianqin to express their feelings and find love. The Tianqin, in these festivities, becomes not just a musical instrument but also a symbol of joy, community, and cultural identity.

Featured image: Wikipedia

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