The Plucked Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments
Among the most ancient musical instruments of China are the plucked strings. Aside from becoming essential parts of the ensemble in the regional operas, these instruments have become favorites for solo performances, too. Today, they are still being used in the theater, studied in music schools and are continually evolving both in the physical form and the techniques by which they are being played.
1. Qin/ Guqin/ 7-string Qin
This is one of the most ancient instruments with a history of more than 3,000 years. In the Zhou dynasty this was popularly called guqin. The earlier form of qin consisted of 5 strings. Over the 2,000 years the 7-string qin was established as the standard type. The qin resembles a shallow, oblong box which is made with two pieces of wood with different degrees of hardness—the bottom board and slightly bulged soundboard. The qin is fretless and bridgeless; however, finger positions are marked along the soundboard by 13 studs. The lower register of the qin sounds full, the middle register is rich and smooth, and the high register, bright. In ancient times, it was the instrument to purify and educate the heart.
The qin has been traditionally the most honoured of all Chinese musical instruments. It was not only used in court music, but also became an important part of people’s daily lives, and the most suitable companion for scholars and officials. Because of its low volume and great variety in techniques and tone color, the qin is highly suitable to be a solo instrument. Sometimes it plays duet with dongxiao in modern times.
2. Zheng/ Guzheng
Another traditional Chinese plucked instrument is the zheng. Originally, it is made from bamboo material and used by ancient herdsmen. Later it was very popular in the Qin dynasty (22`-206 B.C.). Its strings increased from 5to 12, and wood instead of bamboo was used for its body. The sizes of zheng vary from 16-string, 18-string, 21-string to 23-string, etc. The strings are made of silk or, more commonly now, metal. It has a treble pitch range, and its tone is mellow and clear. With its expressive tone, it came to be commonly used as a solo instrument in accompanying folksongs or in ensemble music. Nowadays, it is always used as a solo instrument.
The origin of the pipa can be traced to Central Asia. It arrived in China during the Northern Wei dynasty (A.D.) 384-534). The instrument gained popularity during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The earlier form of pipa had 4 strings and on the neck there were 4 frets. Several years later, frets were added to the body. It gradually developed into the modern pipa, which has 6 frets on the neck and 18 or more frets on the body. The pipa is played by using fingers of one hand, with the exception of the thumb to pluck the strings and the other hand on the frets. This instrument, with its delicate and enchanting timbre can also produce rapidly repeated notes as well as chords. Since the ancient times up to the present it is a very popular instrument for solos, ensembles, and accompanying operas and songs.
The Liuyeqin is about a century old treble plucked instrument. It is a common ensemble and solo instrument that looks similar to pipa but smaller in size. Originally, it was used as an accompanying instrument to a regional opera in Anhui province. Later, its strings were increased from two to three or even four. The smaller soundbox and short strings helps it produce a sharp, clear and crisp sound making it very capable of handling rapid plucking.
5. Ruan, Yueqin, and Qinqin
Ruan image source
These three plucked instruments are closely related to each other for they were derived from the same ancestor.
During the Han dynasty, (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) a type of lute instrument was developed with a round soundbox and a straight neck. This 4-string instrument was called qinhan-zi or pipa, or qinhan-pipa. A scholar named Ruan Xian was a brilliant performer of this instrument in the 3rd century. Since then, the instrument was called ruanxian or ruan in the Tang dynasty and the name became permanent.
yueqin image source
In the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1280), the yueqin, a type of instrument similar in shape to the ruan but with a shorter neck, was developed. It has 4 strings that run over frets to the tuning pegs. The kind of sound it produces is strident with a vigorous timbre. When used as a solo instrument, it is capable of leggiero passages. The yueqin has found an important place as an accompanying instrument in regional operas such as the Beijing opera.
qinqin image source
Later, an instrument derived from the ruan, called qinqin appeared in southern China. The instrument’s wooden soundbox is normally circular shaped. Its name was probably derived from qinhan-zi.
The sanxian was known as an innovation by the Yuan dynasty (A.D.1280-1368) musicians and soon gained popularity. It has a fretless long-neck and a wooden soundbox which is covered by snake skin. Because of its fretless neck, the player’s hand can slide on it freely. The sanxian comes in two sizes – large and small. The large type, which is popular in northern China has a deep sound which is produced by plucking the strings with fingers. It is often used in orchestral music or to accompany regional ballads. The small type, on the other hand, has a penetrating tone produced by plucking the strings with a plectrum. This is often used in accompanying regional operas such as the Kunju and Beijing opera.