Each part of the world has unique musical instruments, and China is among the wealthiest places in musical culture. In fact, there are more than 70 types of traditional musical instruments of China. Most of them have more than 30,000 thousand years of history.
The musical instruments in China are traditionally classified based on the material used in the instruments. There are eight traditional musical instruments categories: silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and skin.
Among many Chinese traditional musical instruments that exist, some of them are still popular in today’s society as a part of the modern ritual. For those who are curious about the traditional musical instruments of China, we have listed 20 traditional Chinese musical instruments that you might have seen and heard from movies as well as traditional performances.
Table of Contents
- 1. Yangqin
- 2. Bianzhong
- 3. Chinese Kuaiban
- 4. Guzheng
- 5. Dizi
- 6. Xiao
- 7. Ruan
- 8. Erhu
- 9. Pipa
- 10. Guqin
- 11. Suona
- 12. Sheng
- 13. Liuqin
- 14. Sanxian
- 15. Hulusi flute
- 16. Hanging Gong
- 17. Yueqin
- 18. HuQin
- 19. Bawu Pipe
- 20. Banhu
- What are some ancient Chinese instruments?
- What are Chinese music instruments used in Chinese orchestras?
- Why is music important in life?
- Why do people listen to music?
The Persian culture heavily influenced the origin of this Chinese musical instrument. The trapezoidal Yangqin is a hammered dulcimer that is likely derived from Iranian santur. The composition consists of three main parts: the frame, lines, and keys. Yangqin entered China during the Ming Dynasty via coastal cities such as Guangdong.
You can play Yanqin solo or as part of a musical group. The sound that Yangqin produces is resounding and firm but gentle and easy to combine with the other musical instruments. Thanks to its unique shape and sound, this instrument can be the centerpiece of the orchestra, just in front of the conductor.
If you see a musical instrument consisting of various bronze bells played melodiously, it is the Bianzhong. Inside of these chime bells is blank, each engraved with unique Chinese relief. The set of bells acts as polyphonic musical instruments that produce a beautiful tune, and some of them date back to 2000 to 3600 years ago.
The bells hung in a wooden frame and sounded with a hammer. There are several types of Bianzhong, depending on the number of bells it has. The formation bells can be 9, 13, 16, and 64.
In ancient China, the Bianzhong is an exclusive musical instrument for the upper class. It was commonly played during wars, royal meetings, and sacrifices, showing people’s social class and symbolizing power.
3. Chinese Kuaiban
Northern China has many beautiful traditional musical instruments, such as a Kuaiban or Kuaibanshu. This unique instrument uses bamboo as its main material. In ancient Chinese culture, bamboo has a special sacred meaning which symbolizes the elasticity, longevity, happiness, and spiritual truth of life.
The Kuaiban is one of the most accessible musical instruments to play that have a particular storytelling tradition originated in Northern China. Every weekend evening, you can see a group of middle-aged and elderly people perform Kuaiban on the south side hill in Jingshan Park, Beijing. Performers use this instrument to hold a beat while they tell a long, often very humorous story.
Historically, the Guzheng is the ancestor of the Japanese Koto musical instrument. Guzheng is a Chinese string instrument intended for Chinese opera performances and concerts. Female musicians usually play this instrument in traditional musical ensembles.
You can find Guzheng in ceremonies such as the Tea Ceremony. In many performances, Guzheng musicians sit on chairs in front of the table. Unlike the Koto ensemble, Guzheng is a solo traditional Chinese instrument. To play the Modern Guzheng instruments, you need to pinch the strings to create the heptatonic notes.
The Dizi is a typical traditional instrument that you can find in various Chinese folk music, including Chinese opera and modern Chinese orchestra. Dizi is a wind instrument that looks like a flute which you play horizontally.
This musical instrument originated from Central Asia and entered China around the 2nd century BC. These musical instruments were formerly made of bone. After that, the Dizi changed shape into a bamboo-based material.
Modern Dizi instruments currently have 12 holes: one spot for blowing, one membrane hole, six holes for playing, and four holes for adjusting the pitch and installing hanging decorations.
Xiao has been popular in China for thousands of years. The Xiao-like instrument dates back to the Han Dynasty. It is also called the Qiang flute because it is widely used by the ethnic Qiang population living in the Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
The instrument spread to the Yellow River watershed in the 1st century BC and gradually evolved to become similar to today’s Xiao flute with six holes. Xiao, as a traditional instrument, has a soft and graceful tone of voice but is not as smooth as an ordinary flute, so it is not suitable for expressing fast and lively songs.
It’s only ideal for playing songs with long and soft notes. Xiao has solid, expressive power and can play songs solo or in chorus.
Some people think that Ruan is a Chinese guitar and many non-Asia recognize this as one of China’s most popular instruments. Ruan has three parts: the head, holder, and body.
The head comes with decoration that incorporates bone carving art decorations like a dragon. There are four adjusting gauge bars on both sides. Ruan’s body has a resonant box that is round in shape.
The Erhu may be one of the traditional instruments you will most likely see in Chinese movies. You may see it played for entertainment in public parks and also played by street musicians. This instrument is also popular in Chinese opera performances and Chinese orchestras.
In the past, Erhu was used primarily in opera performances but has now become famous as a solo instrument. Erhu is not as loud as the violin because its voice box is small. The sound box traditionally has a snakeskin covering, but modern tools incorporate materials like plastics.
Pipa is a four-stringed musical instrument of China. The instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with grooves like a guitar. Pipa became popular because the trade and travel on the Silk Road brought Buddhism and significant regional changes.
The instrument originated somewhere in western or southern Asia. This instrument was popular in Chengdu, the capital of the Tang Empire (618–907 CE).
These days, you can find Pipa musicians on a stage as special guests at parties or restaurants. The modern pipe has been re-engineered better with strings to suit Western-style music with notable finger picks.
During the Tea ceremony, you might hear a unique musical instrument called Guqin. Ancient Chinese scholars favor this bamboo instrument. It is among the oldest musical instruments in the world. Sometimes, people call Guqin “the father of Chinese music” or “the instruments of the sages.”
The Guqin consists of seven strings with six or more finger holes. You need to pluck the string to make it sound. Musicians might use a variety of techniques to be able to fully express the music with its ultimate potential.
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Suona is a wind instrument from China that looks like a trumpet. Suona plays an essential role in traditional Chinese music. The old folks used to perform this musical tool solo during processions and spectacles. It is cone-shaped and perforated, with seven pieces on the front and one on the back.
Each Suona can produce various sounds, from very loud to profound, making it perfect for describing the emotions of joy and sadness. Nowadays, you can hear people play Souna during weddings, funerals, and military processions.
Some people use Suona in Chinese folk music as a soft and sentimental atmosphere and regional opera or Chinese orchestra as companions.
Sheng is one of China’s most popular instruments incorporated in Peking opera performances. These ancient Chinese instruments usually consist of several other traditional wind instruments and modern Chinese orchestras as accompaniment and the main melody.
It was first recorded in traditional Chinese wind instruments in writing carved on flat bones (1400-1200 BC).
In the traditional form, the players need to press the holes in shēng’s pipes by hand. While in modern ones, the holes in the tubes are closed and opened with a button or lever. Installed buttons or levers in large and additional pipe modifications make it easier for the player to play this traditional instrument.
People in China recognize a Liquin as a “Tu Pipa” because it is almost the same as a Pipa. However, compared to Pipa, the Liquin has a higher pitch despite having the same playing technique.
Liquin is one of the traditional instruments you can see anywhere in China, along with the stringed mandolin instrument. These days, we can see Liquin in ceremonial and Chinese musical performances.
The Sanxian comes with an extended fingerboard and a body traditionally made of snakeskin stretched over a rounded rectangular resonator.
It comes in several sizes for different purposes. In the late 20th century, a four-string version was also developed. The northern Sanxian is generally larger, at about 122 cm (48 in) in length, while the southern version of the instrument is usually about 95 cm (37 in).
You will come across Sanxian during a solo performance, ensemble, or as an accompaniment instrument. You can also find it in Chinese opera, folk music, and even rap music.
15. Hulusi flute
The Hulusi flute is a unique musical instrument in China because its appearance has a device like a “chayote fruit.” Hulusi is a key F instrument; you need six fingers to control the holes on the front side.
The Hulusi flute has one finger hole on the back side (for the thumb finger) and one top mouthpiece for blowing air. To change the sound, there are two sliding switches on the back side, up or down. Hulusi is also known as the Bilingdao to the Dais and is often played by men to demonstrate their love for women.
16. Hanging Gong
You can find the Chinese hanging gongs in orchestras. They use bronze as their primary material, with a large surface measuring about 1-2 meters in diameter. The players will strike the gong with a large round or flat-surfaced wooden sledgehammer, creating a strong, rich, and resonant sound.
Due to its legato character, this tool is not suitable for fast rhythms. In Shen Yun dance, the performers use these Chinese gongs to increase the power of music, accentuate a stroke, or express sacred reverence. The voice will immediately attract attention.
It is also often used to mark the start or the beginning of a ceremony because of its powerful sound.
Yueqin is a moon lute musical instrument in China, with a round resonator and short neck. This Chinese musical instrument has 18 inches with a relative pitch of C-G and a wooden belly.
Yueqin is a musical instrument of China that has a characteristic sound when a metal plate hangs inside the body and vibrates. You can find these instruments as part of folk opera performances.
Do you know the difference between violin and viola? It could be the same case with Erhu and Huqin. Huqin is a string musical instrument of China with vertical bowed lutes. Specifically, Huqin is a round instrument, hexagonal or octagonal sound box.
Due to its nature, which is harder to learn than any other instrument. It might take many years to learn Huqin, which requires consistency and willingness to master this instrument. Many Chinese opera uses Huqin as the accompanying instrument.
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19. Bawu Pipe
Bawu is a traditional Chinese instrument that came from Yunnan, southwest China. It has become an iconic traditional instrument throughout China. They used Bawu in modern Chinese compositions for ensembles as a traditional Chinese instrument.
This instrument is closely related to southwest China’s Hmong, Yi, Hani, and other minority cultures. It is commonly used as a solo instrument and is often featured in film scores, sometimes also heard in popular music recordings.
Banhu is one of the Chinese string instruments from the Huqin family. Banhu is usually used in Northern folk music, which plays an important accompanying role in folk operas.
The word ‘ban’ means a piece of wood, and ‘hu’ is short for huqin. Banhu also has two strings, but the Banhu is different from the Erhu. The sound box comes from coconut shells instead of wood, and the cover uses thin wooden planks instead of snakeskin.
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What are some ancient Chinese instruments?
Musical instruments of China have some ancient Chinese devices that have already been used for thousands of years. Guqin, a musical instrument found 2000 years ago; Bianzhong, a piece of large music that was already 3600 years ago; and Sheng, the traditional Chinese wind instruments in writing carved on flat bones, is thought to have existed since 1400-1200 BC.
What are Chinese music instruments used in Chinese orchestras?
Chinese music instruments used in Chinese orchestras are Erhu, Suona, Sheng, Gong, sanzian, banhu, drum, ruan, pipa, guzheng, etc. But not every Chinese orchestra can be part of it. For example, Kuaiban is already found to be a part of traditional storytellers. In the modern era, Chinese orchestras only include plucked strings, bowed strings, woodwinds, and percussion. Guzheng, Pipa, Liquid, Sheng, Dizi, and Suona were part of it.
Why is music important in life?
Music is important because it is a symphony of life, becoming a part of art that colors our life on earth. Without music, the world is lonely, empty, and monotonous because music can melt the atmosphere, relax the heart and stimulate the human mind as actors in life stories. Listening to music sometimes can make us become comfortable. Music is also a universal language regardless of geographical, juridical, or political boundaries.
Why do people listen to music?
Some people listen to music for their personal enjoyment or even become therapy for specific conditions such as mental disorders. Music plays an important role in reducing stress hormones (cortisol) and increasing the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, which provide enthusiasm and a sense of happiness. With the benefits of music, the body and mind can become more relaxed to resolve problems such as stress, depression, and anxiety.