The Chinese Musical Instrument: The Guqin and its Music

Written by Juliette Qi


As you may have heard, / As you may have heard of before, the guqin (Chinese: 古琴, literally “ancient string instrument”), or qin, is a traditional Chinese musical instrument with plucked strings.

The Guqin or the Chinese Zither

In 2008, in recognition of its original value, UNESCO added guqin and its music onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. To better understand guqin and its music, I recommend that you watch this video in which an artist plays you a famous and historical piece called “Guanglingsan”.


Guqin Player in front of the Incense

Played since ancient times, the guqin was traditionally appreciated and considered by Chinese scholars as a refined instrument. Emphasized by the quote “A gentleman does not part with his qin or his se (another musical instrument) without good reason” (Lijing), it is also associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. The Chinese sometimes refer to guqin as “the father of Chinese music” or “the instrument of the wise.”

Until the twentieth century, the instrument was simply called “qin”. It is also called “qixianqin” (literally “seven-string instrument”). The guqin should not be confused with the Guzheng, another long Chinese zither also devoid of frets, but with a movable bridge under each string.



Musician Playing Guqin

Having 3000 years old, Guqin, or Chinese zither, occupies the first place among the solo instruments in Chinese music. The art of Guqin was originally reserved for a cultured elite group and was practiced privately by nobles and scholars, not intending for public performances.

The guqin is an instrument with soft sounds and a range of four octaves. Its empty strings are tuned in the bass register and its lowest note is two octaves below the C, namely the same lower note as the cello. Its sound is produced by pinching the strings,  pressing the strings on a key or using harmonics. The use of the glissando gives it a sound reminiscent of the pizzicato of the cello, the double bass without frets or the slide guitar. Traditionally Guqin has five strings, but the ones with 10 strings or more also exist. Its modern seven-string form was standardized two millennia ago.


To Master an Art of Literati

Musicians Playing Guqin and Xiao

Along with calligraphy, painting and an ancient form of chess(Go), guqin is one of the four arts that every Chinese intellectual has to master. By setting the strings in ten different ways, the musicians can get a set of four octaves. There are three basic instrumental techniques: san (free string), an (chord stopped) and fan (harmonics).

The novel La cithare nue(“The Naked Zither”)

The French novel La cithare nue (“The Naked Zither”) by the writer Shan Sa, published in 2010 by Albin Michel, tells the moving story of a Chinese noble woman in the fifth century whose destiny crosses that of a luthier in the sixth century through their mutual love and that of the third century female musician Cai Wenji by their imaginary interaction with her.

In reality, there are now less than a thousand accomplished Chinese Guqin players and probably no more than fifty masters still alive.




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Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instruments

Uygur music is accompanied by a variety of instruments. The present Uygur music instruments are developed from ancient instruments from the Western Region and also from modern China and foreign instruments. The major instruments are stringed, wind and percussion instruments. Here we introduce five typical instruments, namely Dutar, Tämbür , Rawap , Khushtar , and Ghijäk .
musical instruments




A long-necked plucked lute with two nylon (formerly silk) strings tuned a fifth or sometimes a fourth apart, with seventeen chromatic frets. Dutar is beautifully decorated, like all Uyghur lutes, with settings in horn or bone. It is used to accompany folksongs, and as a supporting instrument in the Muqam. Dutar can be found in almost every Uyghur home, and is the sole instrument which Uyghur women have traditionally played. It is played glissando, mainly on the upper string but with some heterophony from the thumb on the lower string.
musical instruments
musical instruments




The longest of the Uyghur lutes at around 150cm, Tämbür has five metal strings. The melody is played on the double right-hand strings, using a metal pick (nakhäla) on the index finger. Tämbür is sometimes used as principal instrument in the Muqam, folksongs, narrative songs and instrumental pieces.
musical instruments




The shorter lute, plucked with a horn plectrum. Several different types are played by the Uyghur. The Kashgar Rawap , at around 90cm, has a small bowl-shaped body covered with skin and five metal strings, and is decorated with ornamental horns. The Shorter Herder’s Rawap , found in the Khotan region, measures around 70cm and is strung with two paired or three sheep-gut strings. Both of these types are played by the narrative singers. Dolan Rawap , the principal instrument in Dolan Muqam with one melodic and several sympathetic strings and pear-shaped body, ressembles the Afghan rubab more closely than the Kashgar Rawap . The Qumul Rawap is similar to Dolan version, and used in folksongs and the Qumul Muqam. The Kashgar Rawap has more recently become a professional virtuoso solo and orchestral instrument (Täkämmul Rawap) with six metal strings. An equivalent bass Rawap has also been added to professional orchestras.
musical instruments
musical instruments




A prominent instrument in the professional troupes, the Khushtar viol was developed in the 1960s, modeled in its shape on instruments depicted in Xinjiang’s early Buddhist cave murals. It is tuned and bowed like the professional Ghijäk , but its tone is lower and softer, since the whole instrument is made of wood. It is also found in soprano and tenor versions.
musical instruments
musical instruments




musical instruments A fiddle with a soundboard of stretched skin. The largest of the Uyghur Ghijäk is found amongst the Dolan, with one horse-hair melodic string and several metal sympathetic strings. The Qumul Ghijäk has two bowed strings tuned a fifth apart, and six to eight sympathetic strings. The earliest Chinese historical records relate that a bowed instrument strung with horse-hair was played in the Qumul region, but the contemporary instrument is probably a fairly recent hybrid between the Chinese Erhu fiddle and the Uyghur Ghijäk , testament to the Chinese cultural influence in this easternmost point of Xinjiang. The Ghijäk now played by professional musicians was adapted in the 1950s, today its four metal strings are tuned like the violin but its playing technique is closer to the Iranian spike fiddle, held on the knee, the bow is held loosely in the hand, palm upwards, and the strings are pressed against the bow by pivoting the instrument. This Ghijäk is also found in soprano and tenor versions.

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Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instrument – Tambur

Tambur is another long-neck lute from Central Asia that exists in different shapes, and is the wire-strung companion of Dutar . musical instruments
Tambur has a pre-Islamic history in the Middle East. It has been found in Ancient Persia and Baghdad Iraq during the Akkadian era (3rd millennium B.C.). In the Sassanid period 5 to 6 century C.E., Tambur in lute form was all ready in use. Later Tambur spread throughout the Middle East and also became popular in Mesopotamia and later on in Babylon. The influence of the Tambur is quite wide spread from Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran to Xinjiang China (Turkistan).
Tambur is either played solo or accompanied by other instruments arranged in ensembles to orchestras. The repertoire being played on the UyghurTambur is called “On Ikki Maqam” or “the 12 maqam”.
musical instruments




Tambur is made almost entirely of wood. The shell is assembled from strips of hardwood called ribs joined edge to edge to form a semi-spherical body for the instrument. The number of ribs traditionally amounts to 17, 21 or 23, yet examples with slightly wider and consequently fewer ribs (7, 9 or 11) can also be found among older specimens. Traditionally, thinner strips called fileto are inserted between the ribs for ornamental purposes, but are not obligatory. The most common tonewood veneers used for rib-making are mahogany, flame maple, Persian walnut, Mecca balsam wood (Commiphora gileadensis), Spanish chestnut, Greek juniper, mulberry, Oriental plane, Indian rosewood and apricot. Ribs are assembled on the bottom wedge (tail) and the heel on which the fingerboard is mounted.




The soundboard is a rotund thin (2.5–3mm) flat three-, two- or single-piece plate of resonant wood (usually Nordmann, silver or Greek fir). This circular plate measuring about 30 to 35 cm in diameter is mounted on the bottom wedge and the heel with simmering glue and encircled with a wooden ring. A soundhole is either wanting or consists of a very small unornamented opening (mostly in historical specimens), giving the instrument its peculiar sonority.




The neck (Sap) is a mince (only 4-4.5cm in diameter) 100–110cm long D-section fingerboard made of light wood and carries catgut frets adjusted to give 36 intervals in an octave. Catgut frets are fixed on the neck by means of minute nails. The main bridge is trapezoidal and mobile, and since the shell lacks braces to support the soundboard, the latter slightly yields in under the bridge. The smaller upper bridge between the pegbox and the neck is traditionally made of bone.




The plectrum is made of tortoiseshell and is called “bağa” (meaning turtle). Cut in an asymmetrical V-form and polished at 45 on the tip, it measures 2-2.5mm x 5–6mm x 10–15cm. Nowadays it has seven strings. In the past tamburs with eight strings were not uncommon.

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Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instrument – Khushtar

Khushtar, meaning Lilting Strings, is a bowed-string instrument played by the Uyghur people. It is commonly found in Urumqi of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, western border of China and Turkestan. musical instruments
Khushtar is named for the bird that is carved on top of the handle. Khush means bird, and tar means strings. The sound of a Khushtar is very clear and resonate, reminiscent of a birdsong.
musical instruments




The pear-shaped instrument is made up of six ribs of mulberry or apricot wood. The face board is made of soft pine. The neck is relatively short, with the fretless fingerboard glued to the front.

Khushtar has 11 strings, four are for playing, as with a normal violin, and the others are that resonate along with the bowed strings. The four playing strings are tuned to the normal western scale (G D A E), so if you can play a Violin or Viola, you can learn to play Khushtar in no time. The four strings stretched from four tuning pegs made of walnut wood, and another seven sympathetic strings on the side of the neck. The instrument is supported at the base with a movable foot. The bow is stretched with horsehair, and is not attached to the strings like the Chinese Huqin family.
musical instruments




In performance, the Khushtar is placed on the left knee, and the left hand presses the strings while the right hand bows. The body of the instrument can swivel and turn to facilitate bowing.

musical instruments
The Khushtar is tuned and bowed like the professional Ghijek, but its tone is lower and softer, since the whole instrument is made of wood. It is also found in soprano and tenor versions.

The Khushtar’s beautiful form and resonate sound has made it a mainstay of Uyghur Orchestras. In recent years, it has also gained in popularity among mainstream Chinese as well as with many Westerners.




Amazingly, this musical instrument was actually lost for some generations. However, after meticulous research, the Khushtar has been brought back to the forefront and is crafted once again according to tradition. It was invented by Tuer Xunjiang of the Xinjiang School of the Arts in the early 1970’s, based on the ancient ‘Ashtar’ (or ‘eight strings’ in the Persian language). Because in ancient times during the heyday of the Silk Road, the Khushtar was called Ashtar. Khushtar modeled its shape on instruments depicted in Xinjiang’s early Buddhist cave murals.

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Dutar -Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instrument

Dutar is a two string pear-shaped long-necked lute from western China, played by the Uyghur and Uzbek people of Xinjiang Province.

Dutar ( Dutor or Dotar ) is the main plucked instrument all over Central Asia. It can be found in many different shapes and styles, but Uyghur Dutar is the largest in form, and Kashgar Dutar is the typical style. It is used to accompany singing and dancing and also can be an instrument of virtuosity.


The Origin


Although western ethnomusicologists state that these instruments came from the Persian Dutar or Dotar (originally a two-string instrument but now with four strings), the Uyghur people say that the Persian instrument descended from theirs. In Persian, the term Dutar or Dotar means two strings with Do or Du meaning two, and tar meaning string. It is interesting to note the number of instrument names that contain the term tar, e.g. Sitar comes from the Persian Setar or four strings and the guitar.




Usually Dutar are carved from a single block of wood, but both the large Dutar of the Uzbeks and the Uyghurs are made of staves. The Uyghur Dutar has two gut or raw silk strings, and gut frets. It comes in a number of sizes ranging from 1 to 3 meters or 3 to 6 feet in length.




The body of the Uyghur Dutar is made from separate ribs (usually mulberry wood), glued together with often a narrow half round strip on the outside of the joins (slightly raised). The flat front is also made of thin mulberry wood. There is no sound hole. musical instruments




musical instruments
The long thin neck (mulberry or apricot) includes the straight peg box. The frets are made of 4-windings of nylon strings and tied-on in half diatonic scale. There is no groove at the side. There are two flat T-shaped friction pegs, one on the front, and one on the left. The two silk strings run over a small loose bridge to a bit of wood at the edge of the body.

musical instruments The neck is often highly decorated with inlay bone or black and white plastic nowadays in squares, triangles, lines. The top of the ribs have triangle inlays, together forming a kind of wind rose. The entire instrument except the front is varnished.




musical instruments
Dutar has a warm, dulcet tone. It is played in folk and Uyghur classical music On Ikki Maqam or the Twelve Maqam. Dutar remains a very popular instrument amongst the Uyghur people, and it can be found in many Uyghur households. musical instruments
Left hand playing is with two fingers for the first string and the thumb for the second string. The right hand plays often in a rhythmic fashion with a different finger for each beat. But also normal strumming with the index finger is done. Although some players play solos on the Dutar, it is mainly used to accompany songs.’

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Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instrument – Ghijek

The Ghaychak or Ghijek is a round-bodied musical instrument with three or four metal strings and a short fretless neck. Ghijek is very popular throughout Central Asia. It is used by Iranians, Afghans, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Tajiks, Turkmens and Qaraqalpaks. musical instruments




musical instruments Ghidjak is the only bow instrument found in the Pamirs. Ghijek is usually carved from the wood of an apricot tree. Very thin wood covers the bowl, and cowhide is stretched inside the drum as a sound table. The bowl has many holes, to make the sound more resonant, and it is adorned with colorful ornaments. Its sound box is metal or wooden, and it has three or four metal strings and a neck made of willow, apricot or mulberry wood. It is tuned in intervals of fourths. The sound box is carved out of a single piece of wood. The upper orifice is partly covered in the middle by the handle and the lower one is covered by a skin membrane against which rest the bridge. The bow is made of horsehair and tied to a curved stick.




Ghijek is a spiked fiddle, meaning it is meant to be played upright, rather than horizontally like a western fiddle. It has four strings and a short neck, making it similar to a modern violin. To play Ghijek , place the head on your leg, the neck in your left hand, and hold the bow with your right. If you are familiar with playing a violin, playing Ghijek should come easily.

musical instruments

Ghijek produces a trembling, whining sound and is often highly decorated. To hear Ghijek is to hear the spring, flowers blooming, birds singing. Ghijek is the most popular bowed instrument in Uyghur orchestra. It is also played alone in solo recitals.




Ghijek first appeared in a bow and arrow shape in early Uyghur Oral histories. Its print debut occurred during the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) in China, where it was described as having horsetail strings. The instrument seemed to develop in parallel with the more well known Persian Ghijek , yet the Uyghur Ghijek was unique. These Ghijek typically had 2 bowed strings, and 10 sympathetic strings, as noted by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE) scholars. Over time, Ghijek is standardized on the short neck form. In 1955, Uyghur masters standardized Ghijek to 4 strings and aligned the tones with the western scale, a modern instrument ties to its over 1000 year tradition.

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Xinjiang Uyghur Musical Instrument – Rawap

Rawap is one of the most popular musical instruments for Uyghur people. The Uyghur people are accustomed to taking their Rawap wherever they go, be it a small gathering on the farm or during the long distance travel when riding on the camel. musical instruments




Rawap has three main parts, ear, handle, and head. The goat’s horns are a very unique feature to Uyghur Rawap .

musical instruments In the old days Rawap is faced with horse or donkey hides. Today, however, snake skin is used for the highest quality Rawap , while Ox skin is also commonly used.




Several different types are played by the Uyghurs, such as Kashgar Rawap , Qoychi Rawap , Qumul Rawap . Kashgar Rawap are the most popular ones.

Kashgar Rawap


Kashgar Rawap , which is called after the town Kashgar where it is found, is a long-neck lute, around 90cm, unlike the Afghan Rawap, which is a short-neck lute.

musical instruments The body and the beginning of the neck is carved from one piece of mulberry wood, in a kind of half coconut shape, with two bended horn-like extensions at both sides at the beginning of the neck. The front is covered with a thick skin, often made of python skin. The long half round neck is joined by a V-join to the horns. The frets are tied-on nylon in 3-double windings in an almost chromatic scale. At the left side of the neck is a groove.

The peg box is glued to the neck, and turns quite sharply backwards in a curve. There are 2 pegs on the right and 3 pegs on the left side of the open peg box. The pegs are T-shape, but rounded. There are 5 metal strings, with only the first one fingered and a bit separate from the others which serve as drones and resonance strings. The strings run over a small loose wooden bridge on the skin to two pins at the end of the body. There is lots of inlay decoration of black and white horn in fishbone, triangles, stripes, etc. Also the back of the body has inlayed lines.

The Kashgar Rawap has more recently become a professional virtuoso solo and orchestral instrument with six metal strings tuned. An equivalent bass Rawap has also been added to professional orchestras.




The player holds the instrument horizontally, at about shoulder level, and plucks with a plectrum in the right hand while pressing the strings with the left hand. Tremolo is its characteristic playing technique. The sound is extremely echoing due to the resonance strings via the skin. It is used in accompaniment of folk songs and dances. musical instruments

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Xinjiang Kazakh Musical Instrument – Dombra

Dombra is a pear shaped long necked lute of the Kazakh people of Central Asia. It belongs to the family of two-stringed lutes that are widespread in Central Asia. musical instruments




Dombra in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is also referred Dambura or Danbura in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Dumbura in Bashkir and Tatar, Dombor in Mongolia, Dombra in Kazakhstan, Dombira Xinjiang China. The name arises from the Persian Tanbur Instrument shares some of its characteristics with the Turkic Komuz. The Dutar of Turkmenistan is also closely related.




The instrument consists of a rectangular or oval body usually hewn out of a single piece of wood, covered by a wooden soundboard, with a long, slender neck. It is usually unfretted, although modern versions of the instrument have added frets set at chromatic intervals. Dombra is strung by a single gut, or nylon string, which passes from a wooden tuning peg at the end of the neck, looped around a pin at the base of the body and up to a second peg to make two tunable strings.




Dombra is played without a plectrum and is strummed quite rapidly with the index finger, or with the index finger and thumb. Typically Dombra music alternates between double and triple rhythms and has a general emphasis on fourths and fifths as basic structural intervals, with the widespread use of melody plus drone. musical instruments




The instrument differs slightly in different regions. The Kazakh Dombra has frets and is played by strumming with the hand or plucking each string individually, with an occasional tap on the main surface of the instrument. While the strings are traditionally made of sinew, modern Dombra are usually produced using nylon strings.

The Turkestani and Badachstan Dambura are fretless with a body and neck carved from a single block of wood, usually mulberry or apricot. Dambura is played with much banging and scratching on the instrument to help give a percussive sound. The two strings are made of nylon or gut. They cross a short bridge to a pin at the other end of the body. There is a tiny sound hole in the back of the instrument, while the top is thick wood. It is not finished with any varnish and filing of any kind, and as with all other Afghan instruments there is some decoration.

Dumbura is the equivalent instrument of the Tatars and Bashkirs. A performer strikes all the strings at the same time. The upper string performs the bourdon tone and the lower string performs the melody. Dumbura is used as a solo as well as an ensemble instrument.

musical instruments

Dombra especially associated with pastoral nomadic peoples and was traditionally used to play dance tunes, solo programmatic pieces, or to accompany songs and epic tales. The Kazakh poet Abay Qunanbayuli is often shown holding a Dombra at rest and many hold it in high regard as a symbol of nationalism among the post-Soviet nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But now virtuosic instrumental pieces are also common. As a result, Dombra has become a popular instrument with non-Kazakh peoples throughout Central Asia, Russia and Dombra clubs in the United States.

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