By Sari Xu
Although the above piece of music was originally a famous pop song released a few years ago, I believe that this cover version produced using a Xun actually did a better job of representing the myth in this song. Because of its comparatively low and deep timbre, the Xun is always a symbol of themes like loneliness, heartbreak, desolation, and harmony. This characteristic is not only due to the raw materials with which it is made (previously discussed here: link to previous article), but also due to the fact that the Xun dates back to the Stone Age.
During ancient times (around 7000 years ago), people often tied a stone or mud ball to a rope in order to hunt wild animals. This kind of tool was named “stone shooting stars”. Some of the balls were hollow, which meant they made many sounds when thrown. Most people found the sounds enjoyable and learned how to blow air into the balls. Gradually, the “stone meteor” became the musical instrument we know today as the “Xun”.
Back in that time period, a Xun only had one finger hole and naturally could therefore only produce one note. This remained the same until the Xia dynasty (2070 – 1600BC). Archaeologists discovered vessel-flutes like the Xun in the graves of common people which date back to the Xia dynasty. The instruments which they found had three finger holes and were able to produce the notes “Do”, “Mi”, “Sol”, “La” and “Fa”. They were mostly made from bones and stone.
The shape of the Xun and number of finger holes were standardized during the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046BC) to that which we know today. Most of the Xun from that time period had five finger holes and produced sound of a much higher quality. They were able to produce all the tones and half-tones in a single octave thanks to a better selection of raw materials such as pot, and even porcelain.
By the Zhou dynasty (right after the Shang dynasty, 1046 – 256BC), the Xun had become a common musical instrument and was played particularly frequently in imperial courts. The design of the Xun also varied according to different situations such as whether it was played for enjoyment or for a celebration.
Later on, during the Qin (221 – 207BC) and Han (220BC – 200AD) dynasties, the Xun was altered yet again in order to have 7 finger holes and the two Xun were categorized into the Song Xun (颂埙) and Ya Xun (雅埙). While the Song Xun was the size of an egg and produced higher tones, the Ya Xun was larger and produced lower pitches.
The modern Xun is based on the 6-hole Xun model instead of the 7-hole model. By adding two more finger holes on the front side of the instruments, musicians brought it back into the public eye after its disappearance during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). This became one of the Xun we play a lot today and is called the 8-hole Xun. Apart from this model, the 10-hole Xun is also very popular nowadays. It was made as people wanted to extend the range of the instrument so it could reach the higher notes and therefore added two more holes.
As one of the oldest musical instruments and the only existing clay instrument still being played in China, I believe that the Xun is far more than a musical instrument. It survived thousands of years and has witnessed millennia of Chinese history. The Xun itself is therefore a myth which can be discovered by learning to play the instrument and its music. I hope that this article has helped to give you an insight into the culture behind the instrument and inspired you to want to try learning to play the Xun!
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