The Chinese Clay Flute – A Comparison between the Xun and the Western Ocarina

By Sari Xu

(Let’s first compare the sound of an ocarina with the sound of a xun by watching the two video clips below!)


When first introducing the Xun to people outside of China, we always start by mentioning that the Xun is similar to the western vessel flute – the ocarina.  This does however lead to some problems and misunderstandings, such as people thinking that the two instruments have the same fingering, same structing and that knowing how to play one of them makes it far easier to play the other.  In fact, by comparing these two instruments, we will discover a myriad of fun facts regarding their similarities and differences, which will in turn help us to learn more about their playing techniques.

First of all, the Xun and the ocarina are made using very similar raw materials, namely clay.  Their crafting processes are therefore also very alike due to the pottery needing to be baked at around a certain temperature.  Their timbres are also similar due to the ceramic materials which they are both made from.  Both produce low notes in general and pieces played using both instruments convey a sense of loneliness, grace or harmony (they can of course also be used to express positive emotions, but this is not often the case).

So far it sounds like the Xun and ocarina do not have many differences apart from the shape of the instrument.  This is not the case and we will now take a look at their 4 main differences:

  1. Different Origins and History
  • While the ocarina originated in Italy and was invented by a baker known as Dunati in order to create whistle sounds, the Xun was first used in order to hunt wild animals back in the Stone Age, around 7000 years ago (link to the previous article). Compared to the ocarina which is around 3000 years old, the Xun is immemorial and has therefore had a far greater impact on the development of other clay instruments throughout the world, especially in China’s neighbouring countries.
  1. Different design and craftsmanship
  • Ocarinas are normally produced by injection molding in order to produce a standardized shape and structure. Xun on the other hand are always 100% handmade.  This makes the Xun a far rarer instrument due to the difficulty of finding a great craftsman, something which has definitely stunted any growth in popularity of the instrument.  Note that most Xun which are found online at a low price are not musical instruments.  They are mass produced and can only really be used for decorative purposes.
  • In terms of the shapes, most ocarinas are shaped like a handgun or submarine and have 4-12 finger holes. Nowadays the most popular pot Xun have 8 or 10 finger holes and can be found in a variety of shapes such as a gourd, brush pot or fish (link to 1st article about the different types of Xun).  Different shapes have a clear effect on the timbre and sound quality of the instrument.
  • Ocarinas are normally left blank or have a ceramic glaze on the surface. Some flaws are also added on purpose, such as small cracks on the front or back in order to give the instrument a particular look.  The Xun always contains traditional engravings.  By carving oracle bone scripts, poems, calligraphy, freehand paintings of bamboos or plum blossoms on the surface of a Xun, a sense of Chinese aesthetics is added to the musical performance.

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  1. Different playing techniques
  • An ocarina has a fipple mouthpiece, the entirety of which is placed in the mouth when blown. The mouthpiece of the Xun is a larger oval hole which functions like the mouthpiece of a flute.  By making a very similar flute embouchure (covering around 1/3 of the hole), the air flow gets through the cavity.
  • There is an air path already inside the cavity of the ocarina. It is therefore comparatively easier to produce your first note by blowing the fipple mouthpiece of the ocarina.  Playing the Xun requires a better control of the lips, embouchure, and air flow.  Beginners will struggle at first, but will reap great rewards through persistent efforts.
  1. One more fun fact about the materials used to make Xun
  • Despite the fact that nowadays the Xun can be made from black pot, red pot and white clay, it was originally made using stone and bones. They can also now be made using bamboo, wood, synthetic materials, and even coconuts!



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