Commonly Used Chinese Instruments

Like many cultures, music and dance are a huge part of the mosaic that defines it. Music and dance are particularly significant to the Chinese, offering an outlet for self-expression, art, and emotion. From the Beijing Opera and renowned acrobatic performances to dance troupes and musicians in the parks, Chinese instruments are of great value and offer unique sounds. If you ever wondered what exactly makes Chinese music sound so distinct, here are a breakdown of the country’s most popular instruments.
Traditionally, Chinese instruments were classified according to eight distinct categories including; wood, stone, silk (string instruments), bamboo, skin, gourd, clay and metal. Since this is one of the original classifications, there have been new developments, leaving instruments that don’t fit into any of the categories. While there are well over a hundred different Chinese instruments, here are some of the most popular.

Guqin

A zither with seven strings that are plucked to achieve the desired sound. The Guqin has been played since the ancient days and was often used by scholars and those involved in literature. While many other instruments are similar to this one, the Guqin is known as the “father of Chinese music.” The instrument is typically quiet, and the sounds are made by plucking stopped or open strings giving it a tune similar to that of a slide guitar or fretless double bass. Originally, the Guqin had five strings, but similar instruments with more have popped up over the years. Some famous players of this instrument include Confucius the philosopher and Qu Yuan the poet.

Photo Source: New York Times

Photo Source: New York Times

Erhu

Also referred to as a “Chinese Violin,” this instrument is bowed and features two strings. It dates all the way back to the Tang Dynasty and is probably one of the most recognizable of sounds within Chinese music. This instrument is typically seen used in solo performances but it’s not uncommon to see it played amongst larger groups. It’s sounds can be heard within jazz, rock and pop music since it’s so versatile and well loved. The most famous composer of Erhu music was Liu Tianhua who lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He wrote over 40 pieces of music with the Erhu at the forefront, making it extremely popular.

Photo Source: Sound of Mountain

Photo Source: Sound of Mountain

Pipa

This four-stringed instrument is pear-shaped, made up of a wooden body and contains 16 frets. It is believed that the instrument is over 2,000 years old and has been widely used for its ability to portray emotion. The instrument was most popular during the Tang Dynasty, and there have been countless accounts of this popularity throughout literary works over the decades. The tunes from the Pipa are said to express a broad range of emotions that emulate brutal battles, love, and sadness.

 

Photo Source: Pastoral Music

Photo Source: Pastoral Music

Dizi

This bamboo flute features a blow hole, six finger holes and a smaller hole that lies between them both and is covered up with a thin layer of reed. The Dizi is known as a classical Chinese instrument and has been widely used for years across various genres. You can see it used in the Chinese Orchestra, Chinese Folk Music and during Chinese Opera. This is one of the most commonly used amongst regular Chinese locals as it’s easy to carry, make and use.

 

Photo Source: Eason Music

Photo Source: Eason Music

Xiao

Essentially a flute, this instrument is played vertically with the blow hole at one end. It is typically constructed of dark bamboo and makes mellow, deeper sounds that are most suitable for solo performances. The instrument is said to date back to Han Dynasty during 206 B.C making it extremely famous.

 

Photo Source: China Whisper

Photo Source: China Whisper

Suona

This woodwind instrument features a double reed and is characterized by its loud and high pitched sound. It is most often seen in traditional Chinese music, mostly in the northern region of China. Usually, it is played solo or accompanied by drums at funeral or wedding ceremonies. It is a very traditional instrument for ethnic Chinese and has been used in important festivals, especially those that take place outdoors for centuries.

 

Photo Source: Digital Stamp

Photo Source: Digital Stamp

Guzheng

This zither is played by plucking the 18 to 20 strings that it features as well as moving around its various bridges. Historians believe that it dates back to 475-221 BC and has been widely used to express natural sounds. Players who are well practiced have been known to re-create the sounds of thunder or waterfalls just by plucking the Guzheng. It is played by plucking the strings with the right hand and pressing the strings on the left side to make a pitch and vibrato.

Photo Source: Ali Express

Photo Source: Ali Express

The list of Chinese instruments goes on, but this should give you a well-rounded idea of the most significant which have stood the test of time.

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Shannon Ullman

Hey! I'm a published American travel blogger and teacher. My travel writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Matador Network and Thought Catalog. I spent over a year living and traveling around China while I taught English there. I have also visited dozens of other countries around the world.