By Sari Xu
Silk musical instruments, or nowadays more referred as string instruments, form the biggest category among the Chinese Bayin categories (8 tones), including – silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and skin. In our previous blogs, we’ve discussed about two large groups of instruments under this category: bowed string family and plucked string family. Other than these two groups, struck string instruments family also plays a very important role here.
The most famous struck string is Yangqin (扬琴), which is sometimes known as Chinese hammered dulcimer. It used to be written as the characters 洋琴, which literally means “foreign zithers”, this is because it was derived from Iranian Santur. Overtime, the first character was changed to “扬”, which means “acclaimed”. Just like other string instruments Pipa, Guzheng, and Erhu, Yangqin and hammered dulcimers of various types are not only famous in China, but also very popular among Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, Iran, and Pakistan.
In terms of elements of construction, Yangqin also shares a lot of common points with other hammered dulcimers. As a member of the string musical instruments family, the strings are definitely the most significant element. Modern yangqin usually have 144 strings in total, with each pitch running in courses, with up to 5 strings per course, in order to boost the volume. The strings come in various thicknesses, and are tied at one end by screws, and at the other with tuning pegs. The pegs and screws are covered during playing by a hinged panel/board. This panel is opened up during tuning to access the tuning pegs.
Interestingly, though older Chinese string musical instruments used silk strings, which later formed the category as “silk instruments”, Yangqin, as one of the representative of Jiangnan Sizhu (江南丝竹, Silk and bamboo genre in Shanghai region), was traditionally fitted with bronze strings!
The design of bridges on a yangqin is also a piece of art and more complicated than the bridges on a modern guitar from my opinion. There are usually four to five bridges on a yangqin called bass bridge, “right bridge”, tenor bridge, “left bridge”, and the chromatic bridge, respectively from right to left. During playing, one is supposed to strike the strings on the left side of the bridges. However, the strings on the “chromatic bridge” are struck on the right, and strings on the “left bridge” can be struck on both sides of the bridge.
Hammers are the most unique element of a yangqin and what form the “struck instrument” category. They are mostly made of another commonly used material in traditional Chinese music – bamboo! One end of the hammers is half covered by rubber. This brings two ways of playing the yangqin: with the rubber side for a softer sound, and with the bamboo side for a crisper, more percussive sound. This technique, known as 反竹(Fan Zhu), is best utilized in the higher ranges of the yangqin.Additionally, the ends of the sticks can be used to pluck the strings, producing a sharp, clear sound. Glissandos can also be achieved in this way by running the ends of the sticks up or down the strings! This means, once the player reaches the professional level of playing the yangqin, he or she could play this instrument as a yangqin, a guzheng, and a pipa at the same time!
Other than the yangqin, Zhu (筑)was also a famous struck string instrument back at the ancient time though it’s no longer used. The instrument remained popular through the Sui and Tang dynasties (581 – 907), and was lost during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1276).
Now, let’s enjoy one of the traditional music pieces played by a yangqin soloist!
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