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Complete Guide to Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

Comprehensive List of Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

Traditional Chinese music, with its origins tracing back to the Neolithic age, represents a fundamental aspect of Chinese culture. Unlike Western music which often focuses on harmony and counterpoint, traditional Chinese music is primarily melody and rhythm driven. The music is deeply intertwined with various aspects of Chinese life, often serving as an accompaniment to dance, opera, and ceremonial practices.

One of the defining characteristics of traditional Chinese music is the importance of expressing emotion and depicting nature. This aspect is deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy, particularly in concepts drawn from Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These philosophies not only influenced the thematic content of the music but also the manner in which it is played, emphasizing a balance and harmony that mirrors the principles of Yin and Yang.

The musical structure in traditional Chinese compositions often follows the Pentatonic scale – a scale consisting of five notes, which gives Chinese music its distinctive sound. Additionally, the concept of Shi (時), which signifies timing or opportune moment, plays a crucial role in the performance of this music, emphasizing the importance of rhythm and tempo.

Throughout its evolution, traditional Chinese music has been influenced by various historical events, including the Silk Road trade which introduced new instruments and musical ideas from Central Asia and the Middle East. This intercultural exchange enriched the diversity of Chinese musical instruments and styles.

Historical Evolution of Chinese Musical Instruments

The history of Chinese musical instruments is as ancient and diverse as the civilization itself. These instruments have evolved through various dynastic eras, each leaving its unique imprint on the development of Chinese music.

In the early Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), the discovery of bone flutes indicates the presence of well-developed musical practices. The Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) further developed music, with the emergence of formalized music and instruments in court ceremonies and rituals, a practice which reflected the Confucian ideal of order and harmony.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), musical instruments like the guqin (古琴) and pipa (琵琶) became prominent. This era also saw the significant influence of the Silk Road, introducing the pipa, originally a Persian instrument, which was adapted and became a quintessential Chinese instrument.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), known as the Golden Age of Chinese culture, witnessed a flourishing of the arts and music. This period saw the introduction of numerous instruments from across Asia, enriching the Chinese musical landscape. Instruments like the erhu (二胡) and dizi (笛子) became popular, and the imperial court established a grand music academy, underscoring the importance of music in society.

The subsequent dynasties, including the Song (960–1279 AD), Ming (1368–1644 AD), and Qing (1644–1912 AD), continued to refine and develop these musical traditions, with each period contributing to the diversity and richness of Chinese musical instruments.

List of Chinese Musical Instruments

This list is evolving, and may be updated with new instruments.

Silk (絲)

Focusing on stringed instruments, Silk (絲) includes those that are plucked, bowed, and struck. Originally, these instruments used twisted silk for strings, but nowadays, metal or nylon is more common. The instruments in this category are:

Plucked
  1. Dombra (冬不拉) – A long-necked lute used by the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Bashkir people.
  2. Ding bengba (玎崩巴) – A four-stringed lute of the Dai ethnic group.
  3. Dutar/Dotar (都塔尔) – A fretted, plucked, long-necked lute with two strings, essential in Uyghur music in Xinjiang.
  4. Duxianqin (独弦琴) – A Jing people’s (Vietnamese in China) monochord zither with a single string, tuned to C3.
  5. Guzheng (古箏) – A zither variant featuring 16–26 strings and movable bridges.
  6. Huobosi (Kaomuzi) (火不思) – A Turkic-originated, plucked long-necked lute.
  7. Huluqin (葫芦琴) – A four-stringed, gourd-shaped lute used by the Naxi people of Yunnan, with a structure similar to the pipa.
  8. Kong hou (箜篌) – An angular harp.
  9. Kong qin (孔琴) – A five-stringed, pear-shaped ruan, akin to a ukulele.
  10. Liuqin (柳琴) – A small, pear-bodied, plucked, fretted lute with four or five strings.
  11. Palaung dingqin (德昂族丁琴) – A four-stringed lute of the De’Ang, Palaung people.
  12. Phoenix-headed konghou (鳳首箜篌 Konghou fengshou) – An ancient harp from the 10th century, found in Bezeklik Caves, cave 48.
  13. Pipa (琵琶) – A pear-shaped, fretted lute with four or five strings.
  14. Qi bu e (其布厄) – A four-stringed lute of the Lisu people.
  15. Qibeng (起奔) – A four-stringed plucked lute of the Lisu people.
  16. Qin qin (秦琴) – A plucked lute with a wooden, fretted body, also known as meihuaqin (梅花琴) for its plum blossom shape.
  17. Rawap (热瓦普 or 热瓦甫) – A fretless, long-necked lute used in Uyghur music in Xinjiang.
  18. Ruan (阮; pinyin: ruǎn) – A moon-shaped lute available in five sizes, also referred to as ruanqin (阮琴).
  19. Sai Ding (赛玎) – The lute of the Bulang people.
  20. Sanxian (三弦) – A zither with 25 strings and movable bridges, historically varying in number.
  21. Se (瑟; pinyin: sè) – Another 25-stringed zither variant with adjustable bridges.
  22. Sugudu (苏古笃) – A four-stringed, fretless lute of the Naxi people, traditionally made with snake skin.
  23. Tembor (弹拨尔) – A five-stringed, fretted, long-necked lute used in Uyghur music in Xinjiang.
  24. Tianqin (天琴) – A three-stringed plucked lute of the Zhuang people in Guangxi.
  25. Wanqin (弯琴) – Resembling a dragon boat, similar to Myanmar’s saung-gauk; a variation depicted in Mogao caves shows it as a four-stringed harp.
Bowed
  1. Banhu (板胡) – A two-stringed fiddle with a coconut resonator and wooden face, predominantly used in northern China.
  2. Dahu (大胡) – Another term for xiaodihu.
  3. Dapaqin (大琶琴) – A bass variant of the paqin.
  4. Datong (大筒) – A two-stringed fiddle integral to Hunan’s traditional music.
  5. Di-hu (低胡) – A lower-pitched, two-stringed fiddle in the erhu family, available in three sizes.
  6. Diyingehu or Bass Gehu (低音革胡) – A four-stringed contrabass, tuned and played akin to a double bass.
  7. Daguangxian (大广弦) – A two-stringed fiddle used in Taiwan and Fujian, especially by Min Nan and Hakka communities; also known as datongxian (大筒弦), guangxian (广弦), and daguanxian (大管弦).
  8. Erhu (二胡) – A popular two-stringed fiddle.
  9. Erxian (二弦) – A member of the huqin family, this two-stringed instrument is mainly used in Cantonese music and “hard string” chamber ensembles.
  10. Gaohu (高胡) – A higher-pitched, two-stringed fiddle, also called yuehu (粤胡).
  11. Gehu or Bass Gehu (革胡) – A four-stringed bass instrument, tuned and played like a cello.
  12. Ghaychak (艾捷克) – A four-stringed bowed instrument in Uyghur traditional music of Xinjiang, resembling the kamancheh.
  13. Huqin (胡琴) – A family of vertical fiddles.
  14. Huluhu (葫芦胡) – A two-stringed fiddle with a gourd body, used by the Zhuang in Guangxi.
  15. Jing erhu (京二胡) – An erhu variant for Beijing opera.
  16. Jinghu (京胡) – A high-pitched, two-stringed fiddle (piccolo erhu), primarily for Beijing opera.
  17. Jiaohu (角胡) – A two-stringed fiddle used by the Gelao, Miao, and Dong peoples in Guangxi.
  18. Kezaixian (壳仔弦) – A two-stringed fiddle with a coconut body, used in Taiwan opera.
  19. Khushtar (胡西它尔) – A four-stringed bowed instrument in Uyghur music of Xinjiang.
  20. Laruan (拉阮) – A four-stringed bowed instrument modeled on the cello.
  21. Leiqin (雷琴) – A two-stringed fiddle with a fingerboard.
  22. Liujiaoxian (六角弦) – A two-stringed fiddle with a hexagonal body, akin to the jing erhu, mainly used in Taiwan.
  23. Liuhu (六胡) – A six-stringed fiddle of the Mongolian people in Inner Mongolia.
  24. Maguhu (马骨胡) – A two-stringed fiddle with a horse bone body, used by the Zhuang and Buyei peoples in southern China.
  25. Matouqin (馬頭琴) – The Mongolian two-stringed “horsehead fiddle” (morin khuur).
  26. Niujiaohu (牛角胡) – A yak’s horn fiddle, primarily among Tibetan people.
  27. Niutuiqin or niubatui (牛腿琴 or 牛巴腿) – A two-stringed fiddle used by the Dong people in Guizhou.
  28. Paqin (琶琴) – A bowed, pear-shaped lute.
  29. Qiaoqin (桥琴) – A cello-like instrument with a snakeskin resonator from Shenyang.
  30. Sanhu (三胡) – A three-stringed erhu with an additional bass string, developed in the 1970s.
  31. Sataer (萨塔尔 or 萨它尔) – A long-necked, 13-stringed bowed lute used in Uyghur music in Xinjiang. It has one playing string and 12 sympathetic strings.
  32. Shaoqin (韶琴) – An electric variant of the huqin.
  33. Shenhu – A distinctive huqin used as the primary accompanying instrument in Shanghai’s Huju opera.
  34. Sihu (四胡) – A four-stringed fiddle with strings tuned in pairs.
  35. Tiexianzai (鐵弦仔) – A two-stringed fiddle with a metal amplifying horn, used in Taiwan; also known as guchuixian (鼓吹弦).
  36. Tuhu (土胡) – A two-stringed fiddle used by the Zhuang in Guangxi.
  37. Xiaodihu (小低胡) – A smaller dihu, tuned one octave below the erhu.
  38. Xiqin (奚琴) – An ancient prototype of the huqin family.
  39. Yazheng (轧筝) – A bowed zither, also referred to as yaqin (轧琴).
  40. Wenzhenqin (文枕琴) – A nine-stringed, bowed zither.
  41. Zhongdihu (中低胡) – A medium-sized dihu, tuned one octave below the zhonghu.
  42. Zhonghu (中胡) – A two-stringed fiddle, lower in pitch than an erhu.
  43. Zhuihu (坠胡) – A two-stringed fiddle with a fingerboard.
  44. Zhuiqin (坠琴) – Similar to the zhuihu, a two-stringed fiddle with a fingerboard.
  45. Zhengni (琤尼) – A bowed zither used by the Zhuang in Guangxi.
  46. Zhutiqin (竹提琴) – A huqin with a bamboo resonator, used in old-style Cantonese opera.
  47. Yehu (椰胡) – A two-stringed fiddle with a coconut body, prevalent in Cantonese and Chaozhou music.
  48. Dadihu (大低胡) – A large dihu, tuned two octaves below the erhu.
  49. Cizhonghu – Another name for xiaodihu.

Struck

  1. Niujinqin (牛筋琴) – A zither employed in traditional narrative singing in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, akin to a se but played with a bamboo mallet.
  2. Yangqin (揚琴) – A hammered dulcimer.
  3. Zhu (筑) – A zither resembling a guzheng, played using a bamboo mallet.
Combined
  1. Qingzhou cuoqin (青州挫琴) – A zither from Shandong, China, unique for being both struck and bowed.
  2. Wenqin (文琴) – An amalgamation of the erhu, konghou, sanxian, and guzheng, featuring 50 or more steel strings.

Bamboo (竹)

The category Bamboo (竹) encompasses woodwind instruments, which include:

Flutes:
  1. Bangdi (梆笛) – A type of dizi, a transverse bamboo flute.
  2. Chi (篪) – An ancient transverse bamboo flute.
  3. Dizi (笛子) – A transverse bamboo flute with a buzzing membrane.
  4. Dongdi (侗笛) – A wind instrument of the Dong people in southern China.
  5. Koudi (口笛) – A very small transverse bamboo flute.
  6. Paixiao (排箫) – Pan pipes.
  7. Wanguandi (弯管笛) – A Chinese adaptation of the Western alto and bass flutes in the dizi style.
  8. Xiao (箫) – An end-blown flute, also known as dongxiao (洞箫).
  9. Xindi (新笛) – A modern transverse flute with up to 21 holes.
  10. Yue (籥) – An ancient notched vertical bamboo flute with three finger holes, used in Confucian ritual music and dance.
  11. Zhuxun (竹埙): A bamboo version of the xun.
Free reed pipes:
  1. Bawu (巴乌) – A side-blown free reed pipe with finger holes.
  2. Mangtong (芒筒) – An end-blown free reed pipe producing a single pitch.
Single reed pipes:
  1. Mabu (马布) – A single-reed bamboo pipe played by the Yi people.
Double reed pipes:
  1. Guan (管) – A cylindrical double reed wind instrument made of hardwood (Northern China) or bamboo (Cantonese); known as guanzi (管子) or bili (筚篥) in the north, houguan (喉管) in Cantonese, and 鴨母笛 (Taiwan guan) in Taiwan.
  2. Shuangguan (雙管) – “Double guan,” two guanzi (cylindrical double reed pipes) of equal length, joined together.
  3. Suona (唢呐) – A double-reed wind instrument with a flaring metal bell; also called haidi (海笛).

Wood (木)

The category Wood (木) predominantly includes ancient percussion instruments:

Percussion Instruments:
  1. Bangzi (梆子) – A small, high-pitched woodblock, referred to as qiaozi (敲子) or qiaoziban (敲子板) in Taiwan.
  2. Hebei bangzi (河北梆子).
  3. Kuaiban (快板) – A type of clapper instrument.
  4. Muyu (木鱼) – A fish-shaped, rounded woodblock, struck with a wooden stick, commonly used in Buddhist chanting.
  5. Nan bangzi (南梆子).
  6. Paiban (拍板) – A clapper composed of several flat wooden pieces, also known as bǎn (板), tánbǎn (檀板), mùbǎn (木板), or shūbǎn (书板); paired with a drum, these are collectively called guban (鼓板).
  7. Qin bangzi (秦梆子).
  8. Yu (敔) – A tiger-shaped wooden percussion instrument with a serrated back, played by striking its head three times and back once with a bamboo-stalked stick, signaling the end of the music.
  9. Zhu (柷) – A tapered wooden box, struck from the inside with a stick to signal the start of ancient ritual music.
  10. Zhui bangzi (墜梆子).
  11. Zhuban (竹板) – A clapper made from two bamboo pieces.

Stone (石)

The Stone (石) category encompasses instruments that are variants of stone chimes:

  1. Bianqing (编磬) – A set of stone tablets suspended by ropes from a wooden frame, struck with a mallet.
  2. Tezhong (特鐘) – A singular, large stone tablet hung by a rope in a wooden frame and struck with a mallet.

Metal (金)

The Metal (金) category includes a variety of traditional Chinese percussion instruments:

  1. Bianzhong (編鐘) – A series of 16 to 65 bronze bells mounted on a rack and struck with poles.
  2. Bo (鈸; also called chazi, 镲子).
  3. Chun (錞; pinyin: chún) – An ancient bell.
  4. Dabo (大鈸, large cymbals).
  5. Daluo (大锣) – A large, flat gong with a pitch that drops when struck with a padded mallet.
  6. Dangzi (铛子) – A small, round, flat, tuned gong suspended in a round metal frame and tied with silk string, also known as dangdang (铛铛).
  7. Fangxiang (方响) – A set of tuned metal slabs (metallophone).
  8. Fengluo (风锣) – “Wind gong,” a large flat gong played by rolling or striking with a large padded mallet.
  9. Jingbo (京鈸).
  10. Jingluo (镜锣) – A small flat gong used in Fujian’s traditional music.
  11. Kailuluo (开路锣).
  12. Laba (喇叭) – A long, straight, valveless brass trumpet.
  13. Luo (锣) – A gong.
  14. Nao (鐃) – Refers to either an ancient bell or large cymbals.
  15. Pengling (碰铃; pinyin: pènglíng) – A pair of small bowl-shaped finger cymbals or bells connected by a cord, struck together.
  16. Pingluo (平锣) – A flat gong.
  17. Qing (磬) – A cup-shaped bell used in Buddhist and Daoist ritual music.
  18. Shangnao (商鐃) – An ancient bell.
  19. Shenbo (深波) – A deep, flat gong used in Chaozhou music; also known as gaobian daluo (高边大锣).
  20. Shimianluo (十面锣) – 10 small tuned gongs in a frame.
  21. Shuibo (水鈸, “water cymbals”).
  22. Tonggu (铜鼓) – A bronze drum.
  23. Weichun (帷錞) – An ancient hanging bell.
  24. Xiaobo (小鈸, small cymbals).
  25. Xiaoluo (小锣) – A small flat gong whose pitch rises when struck with the side of a flat wooden stick.
  26. Yinqing (引磬) – An inverted small bell affixed to the end of a wooden handle.
  27. Yunluo (云锣) – “Cloud gongs,” a set of 10 or more small tuned gongs in a frame.
  28. Yunzheng (云铮) – A small flat gong used in Fujian’s traditional music.
  29. Yueluo (月锣) – A small pitched gong held by a string in the palm and struck with a small stick; used in Chaozhou music.
  30. Zhongbo (中鈸, medium cymbals; also called naobo (鐃鈸) or zhongcuo.
  31. Zhui bangzi (墜梆子).

Clay (土)

The Clay (土) category includes instruments made from baked clay, typically used as percussion and wind instruments:

  1. Fou (缶) – A clay pot used as a percussion instrument.
  2. Taodi (陶笛) – An ocarina.
  3. Xun (埙, 塤) – A baked clay ocarina.

Gourd (匏)

The Gourd (匏) category is comprised of instruments that primarily use gourds in their construction, often in combination with bamboo and metal:

  1. Baosheng (抱笙) – A larger variant of the Sheng.
  2. Fangsheng – A gourd instrument from Northern China.
  3. Hulusi (葫芦丝) – A free-reed wind instrument with three bamboo pipes passing through a gourd wind chest; one pipe has finger holes, and the other two are drone pipes; mainly used in Yunnan province.
  4. Hulusheng (葫芦笙) – A free-reed mouth organ with a gourd wind chest, predominantly used in Yunnan province.
  5. Sheng (笙) – A free reed mouth organ with a varying number of bamboo pipes inserted into a metal (previously gourd or hardwood) chamber with finger holes.
  6. Yu (竽) – An ancient free reed mouth organ, similar to the sheng but generally larger.

Hide-skin (革)

In the Hide-skin (革) category, various traditional Chinese percussion instruments are represented, primarily featuring drums made with animal hide:

  1. Bajiaogu (八角鼓) – An octagonal tambourine, often used in narrative singing from northern China.
  2. Bangu (板鼓) – A small, high-pitched drum used in Beijing opera; also known as danpigu (单皮鼓).
  3. Biangu (扁鼓) – A flat drum, played with sticks.
  4. Biqigu (荸荠鼓) – A very small drum played with one stick, used in Jiangnan sizhu.
  5. Bolang Gu (波浪鼓; pinyin: bo lang gu) – A traditional Chinese pellet drum and toy.
  6. Bofu (搏拊) – An ancient drum used for tempo setting.
  7. Dagu (大鼓) – A large drum played with two sticks.
  8. Diangu (点鼓; also called huaigu, 怀鼓) – A double-headed frame drum played with a single wooden beater; used in Jiangsu province’s Shifangu ensemble music and kunqu opera.
  9. Ethnic Yao biangu.
  10. Gaogu (鼛鼓) – A large ancient drum, historically used for battlefield commands and large-scale construction.
  11. Huagu (花鼓) – Flower drum.
  12. Huapengu (花盆鼓) – A flowerpot-shaped large drum, played with two sticks; also known as ganggu (缸鼓).
  13. Huzuo Dagu (虎座大鼓).
  14. Huzuo Wujia Gu (虎座鳥架鼓).
  15. Jiangu (建鼓).
  16. Jiegu (羯鼓) – An hourglass-shaped drum used during the Tang dynasty.
  17. Linggu (铃鼓).
  18. Paigu (排鼓) – A set of three to seven tuned drums, played with sticks.
  19. Taipinggu (太平鼓) – A flat drum with a handle, also known as dangu (单鼓).
  20. Tanggu (堂鼓) – A medium-sized barrel drum, played with two sticks; also referred to as tonggu (同鼓) or xiaogu (小鼓).
  21. Tao (鼗; pinyin: táo) or taogu (鼗鼓) – A pellet drum used in ritual music.
  22. Waipu and Tao drums.
  23. Yaogu (腰鼓) – A waist drum.
  24. Yanggegu (秧歌鼓) – A drum used for rice planting songs.
  25. Zhangu (战鼓 or 戰鼓) – A war drum, played with two sticks.

Others

The Others category comprises a variety of traditional Chinese instruments made from unique materials, each with its distinct sound and cultural significance:

  1. Gudi (骨笛) – An ancient flute crafted from bone.
  2. Hailuo (海螺) – A conch shell used as a musical instrument.
  3. Kouxian (口弦) – A jaw harp, made either from bamboo or metal.
  4. Shuijingdi (水晶笛) – A flute made of crystal.
  5. Shu pi hao (树皮号, “tree-bark horn”): A traditional horn made from coiled tree bark, used by the Dong people in Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County, western Huaihua, Hunan province, near the Guizhou province border.
  6. Yedi (叶笛) – A tree leaf employed as a wind instrument.
  7. Zutongqin (竹筒琴) – A zither made from a bamboo tube.

Ethnic Instruments

The Ethnic Instruments category includes traditional Chinese instruments specific to various ethnic groups, each with its unique cultural and musical significance:

  1. Frame drum – Used by various ethnic groups across China, particularly by Mongolic, Tungusic, and Turkic peoples.
  2. Lilie (唎咧) – A reed wind instrument with a conical bore, played by the Li people of Hainan.
  3. Lusheng, or qeej – A free-reed gourd mouth organ with five or six pipes, used by various ethnic groups in southwest China and neighboring countries, including the Miao (Hmong) people.
  4. Miaodi (苗族笛) – A flute played by the Miao people.

Featured image: Matteo Damiani

Last Updated on 2024/05/08

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