Chinese Music 101: Wood Musical Instruments – Ancient and Modern Percussions

By Sari Xu

So far, we’ve discussed about silk, bamboo, stone, clay and skin musical instruments under the Bayin – 8 tones of Chinese traditional musical instruments. Wood, as one of the most common materials used in Western musical instruments, surprisingly, is not that widely used in China for its traditional tones. Most Chinese instruments under the wood category are of the ancient variety. I guess this is because in China, Silk and Bamboo are easier to access by the royal family, and the softer timbre they bring are more favored by the ancient literati and artists.

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Rather than being used in wind instrument like flutes, piccolos, and clarinets in Western music instruments, wood is mostly used in percussions in China. Muyu (木鱼), literally wooden fish, is also known as a Chinese temple block and could be struck with a wooden stick. It’s used by monks and lay people in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, usually during rituals when chanting, involving the recitation of sutras, mantras, or other Buddhist texts. It’s used not only in China, but also East Asian countries like Korea, Japan where the practice of Mahayana is prevalent.

Shofukuji_Nagasaki_January_2012_04
The Original Muyu

 

More interestingly, the original type of wooden fish is literally in the shape of a fish! Along with a large temple bell and drum, it is found suspended in front of Buddhist monasteries. When proceeding with various duties (such as eating, lectures, or chores), a monk and a supervisor utilize the instrument to call all monastics to go to their tasks. Historically, this was the first wooden fish developed, which gradually evolved into the round wooden fish used by Buddhists today.

Other than Muyu (Wooden fish), another block is also widely used till nowadays. Bangzi (梆子, or sometimes Bangban),a wood block smaller than a Muyu with a higher pitch, is very popular in use of the Chinese traditional Bangzi Opera as an accompaniment. Bangzi Opera, or Bangzi Xi, Bangzi Qiang, is one of the Top 4 kinds of Chinese Opera, originated from the ancient Western Qin Qiang (西秦腔, Opera of the Qin Dynasty, 221 – 207 B.C). The common point of various types of Bangzi Opera, is that they all use Bangzi – the wood block, to give the beat. A Bangzi is usually made of Jujube wood, red sandalwood, or rosewood. it’s also worth mentioning that, the two wooden sticks used to strike the bangzi are of various thicknesses and lengths in order to get different pitches.

Back at the ancient time, the wood instruments were also mainly used during rituals. Remember there is a struck string musical instrument called Zhu that we discussed about previously? Actually, there is another percussion instrument also called Zhu () under the wood category! It was used in the Confucian court ritual music in ancient China. It consisted of a wooden box (which was often painted red or otherwise decorated) that tapered from the top to the bottom and was played by grasping a vertical wooden stick and striking it on the bottom face. The instrument was used to mark the beginning of music in the ancient ritual music of China, called Yayue (雅乐). The instrument is rarely used today, with specimens appearing mainly in Chinese museums, an exception is that, in Taiwan it is still used in Confucian ritual music by the Taiwan Confucian Temple.

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