China has perhaps some of the best-documented histories of any country around the World. As part of this history, there is all sorts to discover, such as the various rulers and emperors that the country has seen, and the multiple cultural exports it has created.
Included within this are the various instruments that the country has produced. China has a rich history of musical innovation, with thousands of varying instruments from the past still being played today.
Some of these instruments have become internationally famous for the difficulty involved in learning them, and the rich and complex sounds that they can create.
Included within these various instruments are string-based instruments. But what are these instruments called, what kinds of sounds do they make, and where do they originate from?
All of these questions, and more, will be answered. Take a musical journey through China’s rich history and explore 8 of China’s best string instruments and the rich sounds that they can create.
The Guqin is often referred to as the “Father of all Chinese music”, and this can partly be placed down to its mysterious origins. There is no concrete date that states when the Guqin was first developed, but historical research has shown it is mentioned in texts that are well over 3,000 years old!
This seven-string instrument can create some highly sophisticated and subtle sounds that have been recognized by scholars and the upper class, which has given the instrument a high-class reputation.
The instruments are so historically and culturally significant that a recording of music, played on the instrument, was sent into space, via the golden record that is currently carried aboard both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.
It is hoped that one day this record will reach extraterrestrial life and that the music contained within will serve as enlightenment about our civilizations and our culture.
The Guqin is played by laying the instrument flat on a surface and plucking the long strings with the right hand. As the player is plucking the strings, they can choose to manipulate the strings with their left hand.
They can apply low pressure, which is referred to as the ‘Fan’ position, or a stronger pressure, which is referred to as ‘An’. The player can also choose not to use their left hand to manipulate the strings, which is called the ‘San’ position.
The Guqin can reach up to 4 octaves, making it a remarkably quiet instrument that has a lot of depth to its varying sounds, making it a soothing and pleasant instrument.
Made up of between 21 to 26 strings, the Guzheng is a large instrument that bears some striking similarities to the Guqin. The strings sit atop a 64-inch soundboard which reverberates as the strings are plucked.
This helps to create a rich sound. The soundboard is constructed usually from Paulownia wood, which is extracted from a common hardwood tree found in China.
Much like the Guqin, the Guzheng is played with the instrument placed on a flat surface, and the player simply manipulates and plucks the strings to create music.
The right hand plucks away at strings, while the left hand manipulates the strings. Where this instrument differs from the Guqin is in how it is constructed.
The Guzheng has up to 26 strings while the Guqin only has 7. Both instruments are able to create rich soundscapes and resonances which have made them stand out both in China and internationally.
The instrument is believed to have originated during the Qin dynasty, by Meng Tian. Meng Tian was a famed inventor and a general in the Qin dynasty army. There are many legends pertaining to how the instrument was first developed, but as of yet, there is no concrete origin point.
With only two strings stretched across a long neck, it would be safe to assume that this instrument would not be able to create particularly deep or rich music. Despite this, the Erhu is famous for the rich and muted sounds that it can create when played by a master player.
The Erhu, though originally believed to have been developed by the Xi people of ancient China, is still a highly popular and versatile instrument that is consistently used to create modern pop music.
In the past, it was most commonly used as a folk instrument within Southern China.
The Erhu is played by placing the body of the instrument, the soundbox onto the player’s thigh or another flat surface, and then holding it lightly by its long neck. From here, the player can then manipulate these strings with their fingers.
Using their other hand, the player can then control a small bow which is rubbed against the strings. This can be easily compared to a Western violin. The sound created by the Erhu is pleasant, richly toned, and full of resonance.
The Pipa can be best-compared to a contemporary guitar or an ancient lute. In fact, the instrument has commonly been referred to as a “Chinese lute”. These comparisons are apt, thanks to its pear-shaped construction.
The body of the Pipa is slender and tall and reaches right up to a small neck. The body of the Pipa is made of wood and holds on to the bottom end of the four strings, which stretch to the very top of the small white neck.
The strings can be controlled and tightened via four parts that jut out from the head of the instrument.
The Pipa’s name is a direct reference to the method with which it is played The ‘Pi’ in the name refers to the sound made when the strings are stuck in an outwards direction, while ‘Pa’ refers to the sound the strings make when they are plucked.
The Pipa is very similar to the guitar, in that it can be played both through plucking and strumming strings.
The instrument is held slightly differently from a guitar, with the body of the instrument nestled on the player’s lap, with both hands at separate points on the instrument.
The left hand is kept towards the top of the instrument, to press the strings down into the many distinct frets. The right hand is then freed to strum and pluck as needed.
The smaller brother of the Pipa is the Liuqin, which is far smaller than the Pipa. Instead of being held by both the legs and the hands, the Liuqin can easily be held between both hands, in the same way that you would hold a ukulele.
The Liuqin still maintains that signature pear shape that gives it a silhouette very reminiscent of a lute.
What differentiates the Liuqin from the Pipa is its use of a bridge. This bridge elevates the strings above the soundboard slightly and transfers the vibrations created by the strings directly to the soundboard, to allow the instrument to reverberate properly.
This can create a loud sound level that quite betrays its small and unassuming size. As well as this, the Liuqin is most commonly played with a pick or a plectrum, unlike the Pipa which is played with just hands.
The Liuqin is played by holding the instrument aloft with two hands, with the left place along the neck, to manipulate the strings, and the right hand freed to pluck and strum at the strings.
The bridge on the Liuqin prevents the strings from being pushed against the body of the instrument, which allows for an incredibly unique dynamic range to come from the instrument.
Again, the Ruan is quite similar to the Western concept of the Lute. The Ruan features a striking circular body that is accented by a chestnut brown neck that has multiple frets to create different notes in play.
The Ruan is in fact a descendent of the Pipa, having been developed over 2,000 years ago, but bearing many similarities.
The round body of the Ruan gives it a unique and eye-catching appearance that also has an effect on the sounds that it can create.
The Ruan’s circular body is able to amplify the sounds of the strings, to create a more booming dynamic range that makes the instrument sound loud and booming.
The instrument is held similarly to a Pipa, with the body nestled upon the lap, and the hands holding it on both the neck and towards the body. The left hand presses down on the strings to create different notes, while the right hand strums.
The Tianqin has perhaps the smallest and most unassuming construction of all string instruments we’ve discussed so far. The body of the Tianqin is very small, smaller than the average hand.
This is then complemented by the incredibly long black neck that reaches well over the player’s shoulder.
The Tianqin is held and played by resting the small body on the lap, or within the player’s hand, suspended by a strap over the shoulder.
The long neck reaches up over the player’s shoulder and allows them to create immense sliding notes, by sliding their left hands along the strings as they strum. This creates a delicate and pleasant sound that is an absolute joy to hear.
The instrument has become incredibly culturally significant amongst the people of Vietnam since it was imported to the country by the Tianqin people of ancient china.
The harp is one of the most iconic string instruments across the World, with multiple permutations of the design found all across the World during many time periods.
Harps can create heavenly notes that can have the listener convinced they’ve been whisked away to a fantasy land.
The Konghou has three different variations, all of which have varying differences. First is the Wo-Konghou, which stood horizontally, and has been traced back to around 770 BC, by analyzing multiple ancient texts.
This version of the instrument has long since fallen out of style and is never played in contemporary Chinese music.
Next is the Shu-Konghou, which instead stands vertically, how we in the West usually picture them. These harps can be dated back to 25 AD when it was commonly played within the Sui and Tang imperial dynasties.
You will likely see this harp depicted in a lot of ancient Chinese art, as it was easily the most popular form of the instrument.
Finally, we have the phoenix-headed-Konghou. This incredibly named instrument lasted only a short period and has not been seen since the Ming Dynasty.
The instrument was introduced to the Chinese people when it was imported from India. True to its name, the instrument boasts an incredible size with a phoenix head carved into its uppermost point.
China has a rich musical history that dates back thousands of years, with thousands of varying instruments that can still even be heard today.
Many of these instruments share distinct similarities with one another but have unique differences that allow them to create immensely varied sounds and create music that has stood the test of time, thanks to their rich and transcendent tones.