How to Play Hulusi

Hulusi is played vertically and has three pipes which connect with the gourd wind chest. It has a very pure, clarinet-like sound.




The traditional materials for making Hulusi are bamboo and gourd. Bamboo is used for the pipes and gourd is used for the wind chest. Nowadays many new materials are used to replace bamboo and gourd. The new materials often used are sandalwood, ebony and cloisonné to make Hulusi look prettier, more luxurious and more professional look. The reeds are made of brass. A plastic sheath is inserted in which protects the two pipes and keeps them sturdy.


Main Pipe


Single pipe Hulusi are rare. Two or three pipes are the most common. Most Hulusi have a main pipe, which has seven holes, 6 in the front and 1 thumbhole in the back. In 1958, a fourteen-note version was invented, and in the 1970’s a version with two melody pipes, tuned a fourth apart, was invented. Take the following Hulusi for example, the player can either play the key of G or D, depending on which mouthpiece and main pipe is controlling. Musical Instruments


Drone Pipes


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Hulusi has a main pipe and two drone pipes, which can play chord. One drone pipe produces high pitch and once produces low pitch. But it is not uncommon for a Hulusi to have only one drone pipe sound while the other drone pipe is merely ornamental and has no sound.

For the above Hulusi , the one on the left have two pipes both playing chord while the one on the right only has one drone pipe sound.


How the drone pipes play chords?


Traditionally, there are two foam lids at the end of drone pipes, which can be plugged or unplugged to open or close the drones when playing. When the lids are open, the high pitch drone produces a “mi” tone along with the “so” tone of the main pipe when having all finger holes closed, and the low pitch drone produces a “la” tone as resonance. However, the foam lids are not convenient to control as you need to move your hand away from the main pipe when playing, which might disturb the playing.

Drone pipes with foam lids
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In recent years, there is new technique to replace the foam lids on the drones as to make the drones easy and convenient to control when playing. The drone switches are for great delivery of sound and are quick on and off.

drone pipes with switches
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The new technique allows you to switch on and off the drones easily at any time without affecting the playing.

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Dai Ethnic Tribe, Home of Peacock


Population and Location


The Dai are one of the 55 ethnic groups of China. The name Dai, meaning free people, has been officially used since 1953 to replace “Tai” or “Thai.”

There are about 1.5 million Dai in China. Most of the Dai live in the Xishuangbanna and Dehong Dai-Jingpo autonomous prefectures in southern Yunnan province of China. Musical Instruments




The Dai language belongs to the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong group of Sino-Tibetan languages. The written language was derived from Devanagari and differs from region to region.


Livelihood and Housing


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Most Dai grow rice. They also raise livestock, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, rubber, fruit, camphor, coffee, sisal hemp and vegetables. Local industry and craftsmanship includes embroidery, weaving, musical instruments and bamboo ware. Jade and drugs are traded illegally in this region.

Most Dai live in valleys and bamboos houses built on stilts. They live on the top floor; the lower floor is for domestic animals, and balconies are used for friend visiting.


Dating and Marriage


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Dai are famous for their dating and marriage customs. Teenage girls traditionally have a room away from their parents so she can meet her lover. A girl shows her interest in a young man through singing and a young man would play Hulusi to express his love to the girl.

On the wedding, the parents tie a silk thread in the hands of bride and bridegroom to pray for a good future and bless they can love each other all their life.

The Dai community is so close knitted that traditionally they do not use family names, believing that they are all of the same family.




The Dais have a rich and colorful culture. They have their own calendar, which started in 638AD. There are books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Dai historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering poetry, legends, stories, fables and children’s tales.




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Their achievements in music are well-known among all the ethnic groups. They love singing and dancing, accompanied by their native musical instruments. Their folk and traditional musical instruments include bronze drum and Hulusi. Peacock dance is their most popular folk dance.




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The Dai religion is Theravada Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism was introduced into the Dai region more than a thousand years ago. The Dai also take part in animistic worship by offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors. In actuality, the Dai are perhaps more animistic than Buddhist.

In the mind of the Dai people, the “Holy Bird” peacock is a symbol of happiness and auspiciousness, and thereby is a common role in numerous folk legends.

There were many Buddhist temples in the countryside, and it was a common practice, especially in Xishuangbanna, to send young boys to the temples to learn to read and write and chant scriptures, as a form of schooling. Some of them became monks, while most of them returned to secular life.




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Important Dai festivals are the Water-splashing Festival, the Door-closing Festival and the Door-opening Festival, all of which are related to Buddhism. The Water-splashing Festival is the New Year of the Dai ethnic minority. On the 24th to 26th day of the sixth month of the Dai calendar, people engage in traditional activities such as water-splashing and dragon-boating, hoping to pacify evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

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Hulusi, Oriental Saxophone

If you like playing and collecting Chinese musical instruments, Hulusi will not disappoint you.





natural gourd and bamboo pipe Hulusi
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natural gourd and sandalwood pipe Hulusi
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Hulusi is the free wind instrument of Chinese folk music. It is originated from ethnic Dai tribe in Yunnan in the Southwest China, which can be traced back to Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD). It is also popular among other ethnic groups like De’ang, Hani and Yi in the nearby regions. Dai people call it “Bi Lang Dao”. “Bi” means wind instrument, “Lang” means vertically held, and “Dao” means gourd. Whereas, in Chinese Mandarin the instrument is called Hulusi , named after its shape and sound. “Hulu” means gourd, and “si” means silk, implying the sound is as soft as silk. For its soft and harmonious sound, it is described as Oriental Saxophone.


Construction and Various Types


Hulusi or Gourd Flute is made of a gourd with bamboo pipes fixed at the bottom. The gourd is the wind chest. The middle pipe is the main pipe with 7 finger holes, 6 on the front and 1 on the back. The pipes next to the main pipe on both sides are drone pipes or harmonic pipes. The reeds are at the top end of the pipes. Most of reeds are made of brass, and could be in triangle or rectangle shape. Hulusi is a solo instrument and rarely played in ensembles. It was predominantly played by the Dai and other non-Han ethnic groups in Yunnan province but now can be seen everywhere in China.

cloisonne gourd and ebony pipe Hulusi
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sandalwood gourd and sandalwood pipe Hulusi
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There are various types of gourd planted all over China, while those planted in Yunnan, with its slim shape, thick texture and solid structure is considered the most ideal for making Hulusi . In addition to natural gourd, quality timber such as ebony and sandalwood are popular choice for more professional players.


Legend about Hulusi


The sound of Hulusi is hauntingly beautiful, mellow and tender, and has a very pure, clarinet-like sound. It is ideal for expressing soft and tender feelings. Traditionally, Dai men play Hulusi to express their love to women and they also play Hulusi in the fields when taking a break from planting or harvesting. Musical Instruments Musical Instruments

There is a legend about Hulusi among Dai people. In the remote past, a Dai young man saved his girl friend from a flood by holding a big gourd and rushing through the turbulent waves. His loyalty to love touched Buddha, who inserted bamboo pipes into a gold gourd and gave it to the brave man. Holding up the gold gourd, the man played beautiful music. All of a sudden, the torrential flood retreated, flowers blossomed and peacocks opened their tails. All things on earth seemed to be sending their good wishes to the lovers. Ever since then, Hulusi has been passed down from generation to generation among Dai people. Musical Instruments

Hulusi is widely appreciated for its beautiful and soft sound. Although it is still predominantly performed in China, Hulusi has been popular in other countries. It has in recent years been adopted by European composers and performers. Rohan Leach from England, Rapheal De Cock from Belgium and Herman Witkam from the Netherlands have all taken the instrument in new directions.

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