By Sari Xu
Before the rising of electronic music, even before the discovery of electricity, nature was where all the greatest music stems from. Despite of the differences among each ethnic group, Chinese people, all together have devised tons of traditional musical instruments that could be grouped into 8 categories based on their materials – silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and skin. Under each category, there must be something you are familiar with and something surprising!
Silk Instruments: silk instruments are mostly stringed instruments nowadays. Back at the ancient times, before the use of metal or nylon, the Chinese have used twisted silk for strings. They could be grouped into 3 categories: plucked, bowed, and struck. Some popular plucked musical instruments include Guzheng, Pipa and Sanxian. Others like Guqin(古琴), Se(瑟), Konghou(箜篌,harps), and Ruan(阮) are less popular nowadays but very typical in traditional music performance especially for solo. Outside of the greatest Han ethnic group, ethnic minorities also have their own stringed music with talented players. For example, in Uyghur traditional music of Xinjiang, Tembur, Dutar and Rawap are widely played and are either fretted or fretless plucked lute. It’s very easy to recognize them with their long neck and representative Uyghur patterns.
Xinjiang people have also devised some fancy bowed instruments such as Ghaychak, Sataer, and Ghushtar. Other ethnic groups like Mongolians and Zhuang people also got the talents in design and devised the “horsehead” fiddle Matouqin(马头琴) and Zhengni(筝尼), respectively. The most common bowed instruments include Erhu, Zhonghu, Jinghu, Banhu, etc. They could be together described as Huqin(胡琴), which refers to the family of vertical fiddles. Though plucked and bowed instruments each has a large family, there are comparatively fewer instruments under the “struck” category. The most representative one is Yangqin(扬琴), which is a hammered dulcimer commonly used in traditional Chinese music orchestra till today.
Bamboo Instruments: bamboo instruments, apparently, are instruments made of bamboo and usually refer to woodwind instruments like vertical flutes. Dizi, Xiao, Paixiao and Chi are some commonly played Chinese flutes worldwide. Other woodwind pipes could be categorized into free reed, single reed and double reed pipes. The most representative instruments in these 3 categories are Bawu, Mabu, and Suona respectively.
Wood Instruments:Most wood instruments are of the ancient variety. For example, Muyu (木鱼) is a rounded woodblock carved in the shape of a fish, and could be struck with a wooden stick. It’s mostly used in Buddhist chanting. Another example would be Bangzi(棒子), which is also a woodblock, smaller than Muyu and has a higher pitch.
Stone Instruments:Yes! Stones could also produce beautiful musical rhymes. Back at the ancient times, there were a range of stone chimes like Bianqing(编磬), Tezhong(特钟) and Qin(磬).
Metal Instruments: Metal instruments are mostly percussions. The two greatest categories here are Luo (Gong) and Bo.
Clay Instruments: Believe it or not, both wind and percussion instruments could be made of the clay! Xun is a typical wind ocarina made of baked clay, and Fou is a percussion instruments that could be played just in the way of playing the drum.
Gourd Instruments: gourds could also be used in music and Sheng and Hulusi are two representative wind instruments made of this “plant”!
Skin Instruments: Don’t be scared! Animal’s skin was commonly used to make the surfaces of drums. These include Dagu (“Gu” in Chinese means the drum), Jian’gu, Bangu, Biangu, Paigu, Huagu, Yaogu, Diangu, Yanggegu, Gaogu… and so on! Haha, this is such a big family!
Other than the 8 categories, instruments made from other unique materials do exist as well, and I promise these treasures, at least one of them, would be a big surprise! Next time, we’ll have some more discussion regarding each category of the Bayin (8 tones), as well as other traditional Chinese musical instruments! Stay tuned!
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