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The Niutuiqin: A Legacy of Dong Music

Last Updated on 2023/11/26

Traditional Chinese Instrument: The Niutuiqin (牛腿琴)

Niutuiqin (牛腿琴), also known as the cow leg fiddle, is a traditional Chinese bowed string instrument, primarily associated with the Dong ethnic group. Its unique name, which literally translates to “cow leg violin”, is derived from the shape of the instrument, resembling a cow’s leg. In the Dong language, it is referred to as Guoge or Gegesi. It is characterized by a harmonious sound produced from its two strings and is also known as Yanbassen.

History and Distribution

The Niutuiqin boasts a long history, with diverse specifications and a delicate, soft sound. It is predominantly used in Dong folk songs and Dong opera accompaniments. This instrument is popular in various regions where the Dong people reside, such as southeastern Guizhou Province’s Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture (including Rongjiang, Congjiang, and Liping counties), as well as in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Sanjiang and Rongshui) and Hunan Province’s Tongdao Dong Autonomous County.

Folklore

A popular folklore surrounds the origin of the Niutuiqin. The story tells of an ancient Dong village in Qiandongnan, where a poor and a wealthy family lived. Conflicts between the two escalated to a point where a divine intervention was needed, leading to the physical alteration of the cows owned by the families. The poor man, left without his ox, crafted a wooden replica of the ox’s leg, which he caressed while singing about his sorrows. This act is believed to have eventually led to the creation of the Niutuiqin.

Early References

The exact origins of the Niutuiqin are not recorded in historical texts. However, its presence is noted in the Ming Dynasty, as mentioned in Tian Rucheng’s “Xingbian Jiwen·Manyi”, which describes the lifestyle of the Dong people, including their musical activities involving the Niutuiqin.

Construction

Traditionally, the Niutuiqin is crafted from a single piece of wood, with dimensions varying greatly due to the lack of a standardized size. The resonating body is carved on one side of the wood, typically using fir, paulownia, pine, catalpa, poplar, or miscellaneous wood. The preferred choice is fir wood with straight grain and no knots. The soundboard is covered with a thin paulownia wood panel. The instrument generally measures between 50cm to 85cm in length. The neck, flat in the front and rounded at the back, connects to both the head and body of the instrument without a fretboard. The bow is made of bamboo with horsehair or palm fiber.

Variations and Playing Techniques

The Niutuiqin is known for its versatility in playing techniques, including seated and standing positions. It can be played solo, in ensemble, or as an accompaniment to singing. The instrument’s tuning varies based on region and purpose, typically in fifths, but can also be tuned in fourths or minor thirds. The distinctive sound of the Niutuiqin is partly due to the use of palm fiber bow hair rubbing against the palm fiber strings, resulting in a tender sound with a slight rasp, well-suited for accompanying vocals.

Cultural Significance

The Niutuiqin holds a significant place in Dong cultural life, especially in narrative songs and large-scale Dong songs. It is commonly used for expressing emotions in love songs and narratives. Renowned Niutuiqin artists include Shi Guoxing from Liping, Guizhou, and Luo Shengjin from Sanjiang, Guangxi.

Modern Adaptations

Since the 1950s, efforts have been made to improve the Niutuiqin‘s volume and sound quality. Modifications include enlarging the resonating body, changing the flat soundboard to an arched one, adding a fretboard for easier finger positioning, and using silk or steel strings for better sound quality. These adaptations have broadened its appeal and use in various performance settings.

The Niutuiqin in Museums

Two Niutuiqin instruments are preserved in the China National Museum of Ethnology, Beijing, showcasing the traditional design with solid fir wood bodies. These instruments highlight the traditional craftsmanship and are significant cultural artifacts.

The Bass Niutuiqin

Developed in the 1960s, the Bass Niutuiqin is a modern variant designed by Chinese music professionals to add a low-pitched bowed string instrument to Chinese orchestras. It features a larger resonating box, four strings, and a bowing technique similar to that of a cello.

This adaptation has been successfully incorporated into professional music ensembles in Beijing and Guangxi.

Source: Baike Baidu

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