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Seven Famous Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

By Natasha Cohen15/12/2023 Chinese Culture, Learn Chinese

Despite some Chinese musical instruments having thousands of years of history behind them, and many having not changed in all this time, many are still widely used to this day. Both in traditional and modern music.

Here are some of the most famous traditional Chinese musical instruments that have influenced Chinese music over time, and that you’re still likely to hear today (including in pop music).

1. Pípá 琵琶

A type of four-stringed lute, the pipa is a plucked instrument that’s thought to have originated from the Han Dynasty in 206 BC. The exact period and location that the pipa first appeared is a little unclear though, as historical texts refer to several different lute-like instruments as ‘pipa’ around this time. However, it’s certain that the pipa is certainly more than 2,000 years old, and has been enjoyed by ancient Chinese emperors and 21st Century concert-goers alike.

Watch award-winning musician, Wu Man, perform a Qing dynasty song on her pipa here. You can also see pipas being represented in the 2018 Chinese TV drama, Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace.

2. Gǔzhēng 古筝

The guzheng (literally meaning ‘ancient zither’) is a plucked zither with at least 21 strings. It’s often played with plectrum-like finger picks made out of hard materials like resin or plastic, and is also often decorated. It’s thought to have been invented around the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), making it over 2,500 years old.

Listen to performer Carol Chang play the traditional guzheng song, ‘Autumn Moon over Han Palace’ here, and Cui Jianghui perform a cover of Taiwanese pop star, Jay Chou’s ‘Hair Like Snow’ here.

3.  Gǔqín 古琴 

Not to be confused with the guzheng, the guqin (roughly meaning ‘ancient stringed instrument’) is a slimmer, seven-stringed zither with an even more ancient history of over 3,000 years – some say over 5,000. It was considered a prestigious musical instrument for the highly educated.

The instrument was originally simply called a ‘qín’ (琴), but this has over time been used for many different instruments (such as the yángqín 扬琴, a Chinese hammered dulcimer with origins in the Middle East, and the Western gāngqín 钢琴 – the piano). To differentiate it from other ‘qins’, the prefix ‘gǔ’ 古 was added over time.

Hear our very own Teacher Wang explain more about the guqin, and listen to her play it here.

4. Èrhú 二胡

Sometimes known in the West as the Chinese violin, the erhu is a two-stringed fiddle that’s played with a bow. It’s perhaps the most well-known instrument that’s part of the ‘huqin’ family of similar bowed string instruments, and is thought to have evolved from the Tang Dynasty (618–907) instrument, the xīqín 奚琴.

Hear the 18th-century song, Jasmine Flower, played on the erhu here.

5. Shēng 笙

Like the guqin, the sheng is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments still played today, having existed since around 1100 BCE – making it well over 3,000 years old. The mouth organ-like free-reed instrument is made up of a collection of pipes.

Listen to ‘Phoenix Spreads its Wings’ performed on the sheng (accompanied by a group of pipa) here. You can also hear the versatile range of sounds this musical instrument can make in this video, where it’s being used to perform Super Mario (both the main theme tune and game sound effects).

6. Suǒnà 唢呐

With the original ancient wind instrument being invented in Iran and called the ‘sorna’, the suona evolved and appeared in China around the third century. The free reed instrument’s distinctively loud, piercing sound is very expressive. It’s also sometimes known as the Chinese oboe.

Hear the suona in this performance of ‘Spring in the Mountain Country’ here.

7. Dízi 笛子 / xiāo 箫

This entry is cheating a little, because although both the dizi and the xiao are Chinese flutes, the two are played a little differently.

The dizi is played horizontally, like a Western flute, and has a bright sound. While the xiao is played vertically, like a Western recorder, and has a mellower sound. However, both flutes need the same kind of mouth shape and breath control to play as a Western flute. The xiao first appeared sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), while the bamboo dizi emerged around the 5th century BC. However, if you include ancient bone flutes as a type of dizi, this would make them as old as 7,000 years old.

Did you know you could learn to play the guqin with our Teacher Wang, or the guzheng with our Teacher Zou, while learning Mandarin in China? Check out our Services page to find out more about Lingoinn’s homestay learning programmes.


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