By Sari Xu
Silk musical instruments form the biggest category among the Bayin (8 tones), including – silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, andskin. In our previous blogs, we’ve discussed one thirds of the silk tone – The bowed string family. Now let’s have a look at another well-known silk category – the plucked string family!
(A Uygur Bowed Instrument vs. A Uygur Plucked Instrument)
Other than the Xinjiang Uyghur musical instruments that we’ve introduced long time ago, some widely-used plucked string instruments include: Guzheng, Pipa, and Sanxian. Others like Guqin(古琴), Se(瑟), Konghou(箜篌,harps), and Ruan(阮) are less popular nowadays but very typical in traditional music performance especially for solo.
The Zheng, or Guzheng (古筝), is known as a Chinese zither with a history of more than 2,500 years. The oldest specimen yet discovered held 13 strings and was dated to around 500 B.C, possibly during the Warring States period (475 – 221 B.C). Guzheng became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 B.C). By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) the guzheng may have been the most commonly played instrument in China.
During its long history, Guzheng has gone through many changes. The modern guzheng commonly has 21 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m) long, and is tuned in a major pentatonic scale. It has a large, resonant soundboard made from Paulownia. Other components are often made from other woods for structural or decorative reasons. Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on one or both hands.
Playing styles and Schools of Guzheng vary a lot and were first divided between Northern and Southern before being further subdivided into specific regional schools. Regional schools that are part of the Northern style include Henan, Shaanxi, Shandong, and Zhejiang. Regional schools included in the Southern style include Chaozhou, Hakka, and Fujian.
Examples of Northern pieces include High Mountain and Running River(高山流水) and Autumn Moon over the Han Palace(汉宫秋月) from the Shandong school. Southern style can be represented by Jackdaw Plays with Water (寒鸦戏水) from the Chaozhou school and Lotus Emerging from Water (出水莲) from the Hakka school.
Check out the famous Guzheng solo piece High Mountain and Running Riverby artist Xiang Si-Hua here!
The Pipa(琵琶), sometimes referred as the Chinese Lute, is another widely played 4-stringed Chinese plucked instrument. Ithas a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. It also has a smaller version called Liuqin (柳琴). Similar as Guzheng, Pipa also has a long history of around 2,000 years and existed in China as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C – 220 A.D). Although historically the term “Pipa” was once used to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones, its usage since the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) refers exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument.
Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa, which include the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa. Interestingly, based on the Chinese, as well as records of these countries, we can easily deduce the evolution of Pipa during its long history! For example, the Tang-style Pipa (from Tang Dynasty 618 – 907) has a comparatively shorter neck, while the Ming-Style (1368 – 1644) has a longer neck and more frets. It also omitted the plectrum and could be played directly with fingers.
Nowadays, thanks to the efforts of contemporary musicians and performers worldwide, Chinese and Western composers are both creating new works using Pipa and Guzheng.Undeniably, these two are always the best companion of each other, and I personally still love the traditional piece the most!
Check out this duo performance of Pipa and Guzheng! And this opus was originally created by Yi ethnic group called Dance of the Yi People!
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