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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  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!

 

 

About Interact China


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via ChineseFashionStyle.com, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.


P.S. We Need People with Similar Passion to Join Our Blogging Team!
If you have passion to write about Oriental Aesthetic in Fashion, Home Decor, Art & Crafts, Culture, Music, Books, and Charity, please contact us at bloggers@interactchina.com, we would love to hear from you!

Advertisements

The History of the Xun – A 7000-Year-Old Instrument Rich in History and Culture

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”.

Picture1

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

567

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!

 

About Interact China


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via ChineseFashionStyle.com, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.


P.S. We Need People with Similar Passion to Join Our Blogging Team!
If you have passion to write about Oriental Aesthetic in Fashion, Home Decor, Art & Crafts, Culture, Music, Books, and Charity, please contact us at bloggers@interactchina.com, we would love to hear from you!

Comparing the Western flute with the Dizi and Xiao – Important Differences that You Must Know

By Sari Xu

Have you ever heard people referring to the Dizi or the Xiao as Chinese flutes? Have you ever tried to play a Chinese Dizi solo composition with a Western flute? Do you think the fingering techniques of the Western concert flute and the Dizi look very similar?

Yes, you might believe that as woodwind instruments, the flute, Dizi and Xiao have lots of similarities, and this is true. However, they also have different features and advantages that are worth mentioning related to their designs, structure, and playing strategies.

Appearance:

Apparently, they are made of different raw materials and look different. Modern flutes, and most of the woodwind instruments that we usually see in a Western orchestra nowadays, are made of metals such as nickel, brass, silver or gold. On the contrary, the Dizi and the Xiao, and most of the wind instruments in China are made of bamboo (or wood, as a high-end product line nowadays). This is the reason why the flute can generate louder notes than the Dizi, and the notes which the Dizi produces sound more tender and more natural than the flute. Also, due to their differences material-wise, the Dizi and the Xiao are 100% handmade and the quality of the craftsmanship largely decides the quality of the instruments, while the assembling of the flute requires help from machinery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Other than the quality of the craftsmanship, another factor that influences the timbre of a Dizi or a Xiao is the quality of the bamboo. The older the bamboo is, the better the tone will be, and the usage of a different part of a single piece of bamboo may result in the woodwind tone having a different quality. Bitter bamboo is most suitable for making the Dizi and black bamboo (or, purple bamboo) is the best fit for the Xiao. This variety between the quality of the bamboo decides whether the notes of an instrument will be tender or bright.

STRUCTURE:

Regarding the structure, both Western and Chinese flutes were unable to be separated into different pieces and only had holes on the pipe. This was until Theobald Boehm’s revolution, after which the modern flute began to have keys that cover each finger hole on the main pipe and a more comfortable embouchure hole on the head pipe. The flute can be detached into 3 parts, while most Dizi and Xiao are still undetachable or can only be detached into 2 pieces.

 

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE DIZI:

A fun fact about the Dizi (yes, only the Dizi, this does not apply to the Xiao!) is that it has an additional hole at the back of the pipe between the embouchure and finger holes, called “Mo Kong” (literally “membrane hole”). A special membrane called “Di Mo” (“Dizi membrane”), an almost tissue-like shaving of reed (made from the inner skin of bamboo cells), is glued over this hole. This membrane is really significant to the Dizi because the vibration it causes brings a distinctive resonating effect to the sound and makes the note louder while adding to it a unique nasal sound.

8

At the advanced level, playing the Dizi is something which requires incredible skill.  An extremely advanced playing technique called “circular breathing” is widely used among professional Dizi players to produce a continuous uninterrupted sound. This sounds impossible for human beings because we have to breathe, right? However, by breathing in through the nose while SIMULTANEOUSLY pushing air out through the mouth, using the air stored in our cheeks, this becomes possible! (I imagine you are trying this skill right now in front of the screen.  Give it a try, but don’t push yourself too hard, this is an ADVANCED skill!!!)

To conclude, when comparing the Western flute with the Dizi and the Xiao, it is important to understand both their differences and their similarities. Because their fingering techniques, breathing techniques and embouchure techniques are all very alike, the skills are totally transferable. If you have expertise in playing the flute, it would definitely be much easier and require far less time to learn to play the Dizi and vice versa. That is why knowing about their differences is so crucial! Good luck with whatever you are learning to play!

 

About Interact China


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via ChineseFashionStyle.com, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.


P.S. We Need People with Similar Passion to Join Our Blogging Team!
If you have passion to write about Oriental Aesthetic in Fashion, Home Decor, Art & Crafts, Culture, Music, Books, and Charity, please contact us at bloggers@interactchina.com, we would love to hear from you!

The Xun – A Clay Flute: An Introduction to the different types of Xun

By Sari Xu

Picture1
The back of a glazed pot Xun

This picture above confused me for a while when I first searched the term “Xun” online.Is this a duck egg? A teapot? Or maybe a broken flower vase with two holes? But later on, after watching the video below, I discovered that this was the ancient Chinese instrument known as the Xun and it certainly can produce amazing melodies. Here is a picture of the front of this “egg” – it has 6 more holes!

 

2
The front of a glazed pot Xun

Having been in use for around seven thousand years, the Xun is currently the only surviving example of Chinese traditional clay instruments (sometimes referred to as “earth instruments”). To be more specific, it is an egg-shaped globular, vessel flute with at least three finger holes (at most eight) on the front and two thumb holes on the back. While it looks very similar to the western ocarinas, it has an oval blowing hole at the top instead of a fipple mouthpiece.

Pot Xun:

Nowadays, what most musicians prefer and the most commonly used type of Xun, is the pot Xun, which is made from premium pottery materials such as red pot, black pot, etc. Different materials used to make Xun have to be baked at different temperatures, for example, black pottery provides strong water absorbency when baked at low temperatures; red pottery is usually baked at medium temperatures, producing a stable sound quality and water resistance; baking the pottery at the highest possible temperatures will produce the best rigidity and water resistance, but these Xun are not able to absorb as much water as the Xun baked at low temperatures.

 

As well as the material used, the different shapes of the Xun also affect the performance and functions of a pot Xun:

  1. Brush pot Xun – for Xun that are “taller”, they are referred to as “brush pot Xun” because the shape is similar to a brush pot or pen container. This kind of Xun is great for beginners, with a comparatively low price and easy to pick up.
  2. Ox head Xun – this type of Xun looks exactly like an ox head, and has a lower and deeper sound quality that is calming and relaxing.

 

  1. Gourd Xun – unlike the Hulusi, they are still made of pot, but are shaped like a gourd. Thanks to its shape, it provides a better performance at a higher pitch, but struggles at some lower pitches.
  2. Fish Xun – shaped like a fish, the fish Xun has a premium sound quality and sensitivity. Thus, they are usually considered a high-end product.
  3. Pear Xun – with only one inner cavity, a pear Xun looks shorter than a brush pot. This makes it harder for beginners to pick up because it does not have an insulation board inside of it like the other types of Xun, which reduces possible resonance. However, it also has a unique timbre that attracts lots of musicians.

 

 

10
The inside of a Xun

 

Other than the most popular pot Xun, there are several other types of Xun:

Half-porcelain/ porcelain Xun:

They are not totally baked like porcelain, and usually have enamel (also called “glaze”) on the surface. With very similar characteristics to the pot Xun which are baked at medium temperatures, these Xun are also waterproof and have a stable sound quality, unaffected by water, changes in humidity or temperature. Porcelain Xun, on the contrary, function very similarly to the pot Xun baked at high temperatures and are completely unable to absorb water, while also having enamel on the surface.

12
Porcelain Xun

 

Wooden/ Bamboo Xun:

These two kinds of Xun share the advantage that they do not weigh much, and are hard to break. But they don’t absorb any water and have a totally different timbre compared to the pot or porcelain Xun.

 

11
Wooden Xun

 

Of the many different types of Xun on the market which we have discussed in today’s post, the pot Xun are the ones which are the easiest to buy as well as being the easiest to pick up for beginners.  The different shapes always provide a different timbre and trying out the different types of pot Xun and getting to know their unique features are a huge part of what makes learning this clay instrument so fun!

 

About Interact China


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via ChineseFashionStyle.com, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.


P.S. We Need People with Similar Passion to Join Our Blogging Team!
If you have passion to write about Oriental Aesthetic in Fashion, Home Decor, Art & Crafts, Culture, Music, Books, and Charity, please contact us at bloggers@interactchina.com, we would love to hear from you!

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?

timg-4.jpeg

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.

12108105018_hug1
A German flute, a French flute, a classical flute, a flute of romantic period and a mordern flute, respectively
ec77a1a990294c94b5b7b412b6753974.jpeg
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.

0b46f21fbe096b634c74e7080c338744ebf8ac7d.jpg.png
Ancient Chinese flutes made of bones

 

timg-2.jpeg
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.

8b4371bc2e9c499d9e72f20f99979e46.jpeg
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

 
About Interact China


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via ChineseFashionStyle.com, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.


P.S. We Need People with Similar Passion to Join Our Blogging Team!
If you have passion to write about Oriental Aesthetic in Fashion, Home Decor, Art & Crafts, Culture, Music, Books, and Charity, please contact us at bloggers@interactchina.com, we would love to hear from you!