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The Melodic Heritage of Da Guang Xian: An Insight into Traditional Chinese Music

Last Updated on 2023/11/26

The Da Guang Xian: A Traditional Chinese Musical Instrument from the Fujian and Taiwan Regions

Da Guang Xian (大广弦) is a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, notably popular in the Minnan region of China and Taiwan. This folk instrument, belonging to the Huqin family, is widely used in Gezaixi (歌仔戏), a form of Taiwanese opera, and in Minnan storytelling and singing performances. Its origins can be traced back to the southern provinces of China, such as Fujian, where it was initially used for folk songs, minor tunes, and narrative arts like Minnan’s Jin Ge.

The Da Guang Xian is prevalent not only in the Minnan and Taiwan areas but also among Southeast Asian communities with Minnan heritage. It is extensively applied in local opera, traditional performing arts, and instrumental music. The instrument comprises various parts including the soundbox, neck, tuning pegs, strings, and bow. The preferred material for crafting the soundbox is the rootstock of Taiwan’s Lin Tou wood. It shares a striking resemblance with Fujian Nanyin’s Erxian in terms of its cylindrical soundbox and bamboo neck, with the distinct difference being its larger soundbox and slightly thicker neck.

Classified under the “Hornbostel-Sachs” system as a “spike fiddle,” the Da Guang Xian has been documented with variable dimensions, as recorded in “Chinese Opera Annals – Fujian Volume” (中国戏曲志·福建卷, 1993). These variations are attributed to the lack of standardized specifications and the preferences of individual makers. The resonating chamber (soundbox) materials greatly influence these differences. According to an interview with a professional luthier in Zhangzhou, Wang Zhong, the soundbox materials include agave rootstock, palm tree heads, and Jiang wood. Each material imparts distinct characteristics to the instrument.

The crafting process of Da Guang Xian is not overly complex, allowing many professional luthiers, folk artists, and amateurs to create their own. A significant aspect of its construction is the selection and treatment of the soundbox material. In some parts of Minnan, the soundbox is also known as “Xian Sheng,” named after a traditional rice-measuring device due to its similar shape. The soundbox is typically made from natural materials such as agave root, sisal, or palm tree rootstock, and Paulownia wood. Given the natural variation in these materials, the dimensions of the instrument can significantly differ.

The best material for the resonating chamber is “Na Tou” (番麻), followed by sisal and palm tree rootstock. Instruments made with “Na Tou” are known for their rich, clear sound and unique timbre, unmatched by other materials. The choice of material and the regional environment significantly influence the development and distribution of the Da Guang Xian. The subtropical climate of Southern China, abundant in bamboo and agave, naturally lent itself to the creation and evolution of this instrument.

Furthermore, the socioeconomic context of the Minnan region also shaped the Da Guang Xian’s development. The dense population and limited land, compounded by exploitation from landlords and heavy taxes, led many locals to seek livelihoods overseas, notably in Taiwan. The economic hardships made the Da Guang Xian, an instrument that could be cheaply made from readily available materials, an accessible source of entertainment and livelihood, particularly for the lower social strata and itinerant artists.

The sound characteristics of the Da Guang Xian, especially when played with a horsehair bow, is robust, rugged, and slightly raspy. While this may have seemed crude to the refined tastes of scholars and literati, it resonated deeply with the rural populace. Its straightforward and hearty sound perfectly matched the straightforward and hearty nature of the local people, making it an ideal instrument for expressing their emotions.

Source: Baike BaiDu

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