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Chinese Music & Instruments

Traditional Chinese music dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization, and has always been an important part of Chinese art and culture. Today there is a rich heritage to be enjoyed, with many traditional instruments being widely practiced and studied.

Traditional Chinese music is played on solo instruments or in small ensembles of plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes, and various cymbals, gongs and drums. Instruments are usually divided into categories based on their material of composition, for example bamboo, wood, silk, metal and stone. An example of a bowed string instrument is the erhu; examples of plucked and struck string instruments are the yangqin, guzheng and pipa.


Erhu

The erhu, sometimes known in the West as the ‘Chinese violin’, is a two-string instrument, used in solo play as well as small ensembles and large orchestras. It is the most popular instrument in the family of Chinese bowed string instruments.

Its development can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is made up of a long stick-like neck with two large tuning pegs at the top and a small resonator body at the bottom. Two strings are attacked from the pegs to the base. The erhu is made of various heavy hardwoods, and the three most esteemed centres of making are in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou.

Playing the erhu requires the musician to be sitting down with the instrument placed on top of the left thigh. The bow is held with an underhand grip with the hair slightly loose, tension being provided with the fingers of the right hand. The bow hair is placed between the two strings and both sides of the bow hair are used to produce sound. Techniques include la gong (‘pull bow’, equivalent to the ‘down bow’ technique used on Western string instruments), and tui gong (‘push bow’, equivalent to the ‘up bow’ technique). The erhu can also be plucked, usually using the second finger of the right hand. 

Notable performers of the erhu include Tang Liangde, a soloist for the Chinese Film Orchestra in Beijing and who was named Art Educator of the Year in 1991; Wang Guotong, who became head of the Central Conservatory of Music in 1983 and is a well-known player in foreign countries; and Yang Ying, who was the featured soloist for the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble of Beijing from 1978-1998.


Yangqin

The yangqin is a hammered dulcimer instrument and a member of the struck string family. Originally from Central Asia, it may have been introduced to China along the Silk Road. It is used as both a solo instrument and in ensemble playing.

Trapezoidal in shape, the yangqin normally has four to five bridges and up to 144 strings. The strings vary in thickness and are tied at one end with screws. A musician normally strikes the strings on the left side of the bridges, but certain levels of bridge can be struck only on one side, or on either in the case of the ‘left’ bridge. Sound is elicited by striking with a pair of flexible bamboo hammers.

To play the yangqin a musician holds a hammer in each hand and strikes the strings alternately. Due to the hammer’s construction, one end being half-covered in rubber, there are two ways to play. Striking with the rubber side produces a softer sound, while the bamboo side produces a crisper, more percussive sound. The ends of the sticks can also be used to pluck the strings.

If played in an orchestra the yangqin, being considered a softer Chinese instrument, is often positioned at the front of the stage. The tones it produces last a long time after being played and such an arrangement minimises any dissonance. The yangqin has been called the ‘Chinese piano’, as it has an indispensable role in the accompaniment of Chinese string and wind instruments.

If being played solo, more techniques are required from the musician, such as pressing down on the strings to produce vibrato effects (which is similar to a guzheng), as well as portamento, gliding from one note to another.

Numerous musicians both Chinese and foreign utilize the yangqin in performances, such as the Chinese group Twelve Girls Band, Lisa Gerrard and Chris Martin.


Guzheng

The guzheng comes from a traditional instrument called the zheng, and belongs to the plucked string instrument family. It is the parent instrument of the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatga, and the Koren gayageum.

The guzheng is a plucked, half-tube zither with movable bridges, a large resonant cavity made from wutong wood, and normally has 21 strings (although other versions exist with a greater or lesser number). The strings were traditionally made of twisted silk, changing to steel in the 20th century. Currently most performers use steel strings wound with nylon.

The guzheng is played with many techniques including basic plucking and pressing actions that use one or both hands. Plucking is done mainly by the right hand with four picks attached to the fingers, and advanced players may wear picks on both hands (although in traditional performances picks are worn only on the right hand). Major techniques including a tremolo involving the right thumb and index finger to rapidly pluck the same note, and a wide vibrato achieved by repeatedly pressing the left hand on the left side of the bridge.

Important players and teachers in the 20th century include Wang Xunzhi, who popularised the Wulin school in Hangzhou, and Cao Guifen and Cao Zheng, both of whom trained in the Henan school and were known for being masters of the guzheng. The Twelve Girls Band are a contemporary Chinese group who use the guzheng in performance.


Pipa

The pipa is a four-stringed instrument belonging to the plucked family of Chinese instruments. It is sometimes called the ‘Chinese lute’, and first appeared in the Qin Dynasty. It is one of the most popular Chinese instruments, and has been played for nearly two thousand years in China.
The pipa has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. It looks like a lute but is in fact a handheld zither, as the soundboard body spans the entire strings to the head of the instrument.

The pipa is played either with a pushing action of the right hand from right to left, striking multiple notes, or pulling the thumb of the left hand from left to right, in the opposite direction. The strings were originally played using a large plectrum in the Tang Dynasty before it was gradually replaced by the fingernails of the right hand. False nails are now used for striking, as the soft silk strings of earlier times have now been exchanged for nylon-wound steel strings.

Famous players of the pipa include Sun Yude, who was one of the leading players of his generation, and Wu Man, probably the best known international pipa player, and who won China’s first National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments.

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