Chinese Flutes, Dizi, and Xiao: Comparing the Western Flute with the Dizi and Xiao – Fun Facts about Their Similarities

By Sari Xu

Different artforms are always interlinked and have no clear boundaries. Keeping this in mind, one day as I was browsing some fantastic Baroque paintings online, something shines in an oil painting suddenly caught my eye– was it a Dizi?! Or maybe… A flute?

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Recalling all my knowledge about history and flutes, I believed that the gentleman standing in the middle of the painting was playing a Baroque flute which was, during that time period, still made of wood. Back in that period, flutes were divided into two main categories: French flutes and German flutes. Since then, the various pieces which make up a flute have become detachable and it can be separated into 3 or 4 parts. The main difference between these two types of flutes are their different sound frequencies, namely A = 400 Hz and A = 415 Hz, respectively.

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A German flute, a French flute, a classical flute, a flute of romantic period and a mordern flute, respectively
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German flutes

 

To provide more background information about flutes, they are the oldest musical instrument in the world and were first made from bird bones and mammoth ivory. During the Renaissance period (1450 -1600), the flute started to evolve and was more frequently used in musical performances.  They were played vertically at that time. Then came the Baroque period, when the royal families were in charge of Europe. The upper class needed everything to be displayed in the fanciest way to indicate their fortune and power, so different artforms were largely developed to be luxurious and delicate like paintings and architecture. Instrumental and vocal music became more complex in terms of the number of instruments used in one piece of music and musicians also developed more advanced playing styles.  This helped to serve their demand for ostentation.

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Ancient Chinese flutes made of bones

 

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Huangdi (The Yellow Emperor)

This reminds me of the Chinese flutes, the Dizi and the Xiao, which have very similar structures to the Western flutes. Interestingly, they were also first made from bones just like flutes. Around 4000 years ago, Huangdi (The Yellow Emperor), one of the legendary ancestorsfound out that bamboo was a better material for giving the Dizi a better tone color, and since then bamboo has been used to craft wind instruments.

Before the Han Dynasty (B.C 202), the Dizi was played vertically, exactly as the Xiao is played nowadays. And again, as the ruling class of Han became stable and developed, wind instruments were introduced by the lower classes to the royal household and were largely used to accompany the traditional opera performances and in the army. From then onwards, “flutes” played both vertically (end-blown) and horizontally (side-blown) were named “Dizi” until the name “Xiao” was eventually given to the end-blown instruments.

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First records of the horizontally played Dizi, by Gu Hongzhong, Five Dynasties Period, 907-979

 

During the Baroque period in Europe, China found itself in the Ming Dynasty, a period characterized by the incredibly rapid growth of the economy. Folk music became popular again in developed cities, and people in the Southern part of China succeeded in forming their own Chinese orchestras known as “Sizhu (silk and bamboo) bands”, which contain mostly string and wind instruments. Music composition was also taken to another level thanks to the Chinese traditional notion called “Gongche” notation. These bands continued to exist until the Qing Dynasty (1616-1840) and then developed into the modern-day bands we know nowadays.

Reviewing history painting by painting, it is really exciting to prove that, despite the variation in the pace of development of the different instruments from the East and West respectively, music has no geographical boundaries. Even centuries ago, we were able to find so many things in common between Western flutes and the Chinese Dizi and Xiao. They both originated from the lower classes and were made using bones in ancient times. And then, they were both introduced to the royal families and the raw materials used to create the instruments changed to plants like wood or bamboo.  Finally, the style in which they were played changed from end-blown to side-blown.

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While the Dizi and Xiao were far ahead of the Western flute in terms of being used in a formal orchestra during the Ming Dynasty (around the Baroque period in Europe when orchestras were not formally organized), flutes also got the chance to lead the trend later in the 19th century when Theobald Boehm completely revolutionized the flute by redesigning the keys, holes and fingering system.  His work even influenced several other wind instruments used in orchestras.

To conclude, history always shares similar patterns of development worldwide, and it’s nice to see that even now, both Western and Eastern music are still growing and learning more from each other!

 
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