We’re looking forward to our Dragon Boat Festival music concert, to be held on Thursday 25th June. To help you prepare, Ricefield Arts volunteer Menghan has written an excellent blog highlighting the long history of some of the instruments you’ll hear at the concert.
Guzheng | 古筝
The guzheng, also known as a Chinese zither, is a Chinese plucked string instrument with a more than 2,500-year history. It was the most popular instrument in China. The modern guzheng commonly has 21, 25 or 26 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m) long, while the oldest specimen yet discovered held 13 strings and was dated to around 500 BC, possibly during the Warring States period (475–221 BC).
Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on one or both hands. Many people are confused with the guzheng and guqin which is actually a Chinese zither with 7 strings played without moveable bridges.
Pipa | 琵琶
The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a unique pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China.
In China, many music and stories are related to this instrument. The most prevalent one is about a beauty called Wang Zhaojun (王昭君). It is said that Wang Zhaojun began a journey northward to marry a nomad ruler. She left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname “fells geese” or “drops birds.” Later, the melody she played on the saddle was regarded as Zhaojun’s Lament (昭君怨) and the stringed instrument was commonly depicted as a pipa.
A poem called Pipa xing (琵琶行) is also well known in China. It was written by a famous poet called Bai Juyi and it depicted a pipa performance during a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River. The most widely known sentences of this poem are describing the sound of pipa – the bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain, the fine strings hummed like lovers’ whispers, chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering, as pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall (大弦嘈嘈如急雨，小弦切切如私语，嘈嘈切切错杂弹，大珠小珠落玉盘).
Erhu | 二胡
The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a Southern Fiddle. It is sometimes known in the Western world as the Chinese violin or a Chinese two-stringed fiddle.
The most widely known piece of erhu music in China is Two Springs Reflect the Moon (二泉映月), composed by the Wuxi folk artist Ah Bing (阿炳), whose original name was Hua Yanjun, a blind street musician. Two Springs Reflect the Moon expresses the composer’s suppressed grief at having tasted to the full the bitterness of life in the old society and it has become an exquisite example of Chinese instrumental folk music stemming from the heart of a small-town folk artist.
Guqin | 古琴
The guqin is a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family. It can also be called qixian-qin or seven-stringed zither (七弦琴). Similar to the guzheng above, it also has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favoured by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement, as well as being associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as “the father of Chinese music” or ‘the instrument of the sages’.
Guqin is commonly associated with a Chinese musician Bo Ya (伯牙) and his story of ideal Chinese friendship. It is said that Bo Ya was good at playing the qin and Zhong Ziqi was good at listening to the qin. When Bo Ya played the guqin pieces Gao Shan 《高山》(meaning ‘high mountains’) and Liu Shui 《流水》(meaning ‘flowing water’), Zhong Ziqi could see the real mountains and feel the rivers and oceans. When Ziqi died, Bo Ya broke the strings of his qin and vowed never to play the qin again. Thus, the term Zhiyin (知音, literally ‘to know the tone’) has come to describe a close and sympathetic friend and the melody of High Mountains Flowing Water has also come to be well-known.
Dizi | 笛子
The dizi is a Chinese transverse flute. It is also sometimes known as the di (笛) or héngdi (横笛), and has varieties including the qǔdi (曲笛) and bāngdi (梆笛). It is a major Chinese musical instrument that is widely used in many genres of Chinese folk music, Chinese opera, as well as the modern Chinese orchestra. The dizi is also a popular instrument among the Chinese people as it is simple to make and easy to carry.
Most dizi are made of bamboo, while it is also possible to find dizi made from other kinds of wood, or even from stone, for example, Jade dizi (or 玉笛; yùdi) are popular among both collectors interested in their beauty, and among professional players who seek an instrument with looks to match the quality of their renditions.
Hulusi | 葫芦丝
The hulusi is a Chinese free reed wind instrument. Unlike the bamboo instrument above, it is held vertically and has three bamboo pipes that pass through a gourd wind chest; the centre pipe has finger holes and the outer two are typically drone pipes.
The hulusi has a very pure, very mellow clarinet-like sound. It was originally used primarily in Yunnan province by a number of ethnic minority groups, and has gained nationwide popularity throughout China.