The erhu is one of the most well-known Chinese instruments. With a history of over 4,000 years, this two-stringed fiddle is capable of conveying a wide range of emotions. While the erhu has often been called the “Chinese violin,” it differs from the western instrument in many ways. First, it is played vertically, often resting on the musician's lap. It has no fingerboard, so the player's fingers must hold and vibrate the strings by pressing only against the strings themselves. The erhu bow is already fixed between the two strings, and the bow hair is either pushed forward or backward to catch a string. The music resonates from the instrument’s wooden drum, which acts as a natural amplifier. Intonation is one of the instrument’s greatest challenges, as different positions and degrees of pressure can dramatically change the free-floating strings’ pitch. The erhu is incredibly expressive, capable of imitating sounds from chirping birds to neighing horses. The erhu can be played both as a solo instrument and as part of an orchestra.
Very similar to the erhu, the instrument rests on the musician’s lap and is played vertically. The strings are supported by a vertical post that pierces the resonator with the bow fixed between the two strings and the bow hair is either pushed or pulled to against the strings. Without a fingerboard, the sound produced on this instrument is based on the skills and dexterity of the performer. The resonator, or the instrument’s wooden drum design, is larger in comparison to the erhu, creating a richer, deeper sound when played. When compared to its western counterparts, this instrument would serve as an equivalent to a cello or viola. The zhonghu is often played both as a solo instrument and in an orchestra setting.
The gaohu also shares similar traits with the erhu as in design. The strings are supported by a vertical post that pierces the resonator. In performance the gaohu is held upright on the performer’s thigh, and the tautness of the strings is determined by the pressure of the performer’s hand. Bowing is done horizontally, with right-hand fingering techniques for altering the bow tension and for crossing strings. Without a fingerboard, the gaohu can produce a great range of effects in the hands of a skilled performer. The resonator, or the wooden drum of the gaohu, is smaller in comparison to the erhu, which allows the instrument to play at a higher pitched sound. The gaohu can be played in both solo pieces and orchestral pieces.
The Chinese zither, called guqin, has existed for over 3,000 years and represents China’s foremost solo musical instrument tradition. Described in early literary sources and corroborated by archaeological finds, this ancient instrument is inseparable from Chinese intellectual history. Guqin playing was developed as an elite art form, practiced by noblemen and scholars in intimate settings, and was therefore never intended for public performance. Furthermore, the guqin was one of the four arts – along with calligraphy, painting and an ancient form of chess – that Chinese scholars were expected to master. According to tradition, twenty years of training were required to attain proficiency. The guqin has seven strings and thirteen marked pitch positions. By attaching the strings in ten different ways, players can obtain a range of four octaves.
The pipa, or Chinese lute, has reigned as the “king” of Chinese folk instruments. This plucked instrument is often found in the hands of heavenly maidens depicted in traditional paintings. Its playing technique is quite difficult as it is plucked while held upright on the musician’s lap. The pipa’s construction further epitomizes ancient Chinese belief. Its body, by traditional Chinese measurement, is three feet five inches, representing the three powers—heaven, the earth, and man, and the five elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Additionally, the four strings represent the four seasons.
The guzheng is the parent instrument of the Asian long zither family. Originally believed to have been invented during the Qin Dynasty (897-221 BC), and new evidence has shown that the guzheng may even be older (in Mandarin the prefix “gu” means “antiquity”). In the first century AD, the guzheng is described as a plucked half-tube wood zither with movable bridges, over which a number of strings are stretched, and in the 2nd century BC the guzheng was described as having twelve silken strings and high narrow jade bridges. The modern guzheng usually has 21 to 25 strings made of metal wound with nylon. There have been many attempts to modernize the guzheng by adding more strings, tuning devices, and pedals like those on the concert harp, but few of these “improvements” have taken hold. The guzheng is traditionally tuned to a pentatonic scale, but many modern scales range from combinations of different pentatonic scales, to diatonic and semi-chromatic scales. The performer uses the right hand to pluck the strings, with the left hand pressing the string on the left side of the bridge to produce vibrato, pitch alterations or slides. In contemporary practice, the left hand often joins the right hand to play a counter-melody. The guzheng has played an important part of Chinese history as both a court and folk instrument, and many centuries old stylistic schools of playing the guzheng are still in existence today.
The Chinese yangqin is a hammered dulcimer, played with rubber-tipped sticks. In the shape of a trapezium, the yangqin is stringed in groups; each group consists of four to five individual strings that are tuned to the single same pitch. Long bridges with plastic, ivory, or metallic tips are used to support the strings. The yangqin is believed to have originated in Central Asia but was in fact first brought to China by sea-faring European traders at the end of the Ming Dynasty (around AD 1600) - this is evident from how popular the yangqin is in the coastal trading regions around Guangdong. It was consequently popularized throughout the whole of China, even as far as Tibet and Xinjiang. Back in the past, this Chinese dulcimer merely had two bridge sets and three rows of strings which severely limited the range of the instrument. However, following China’s liberation, the yangqin was reformed - the revolutionized yangqin that we know today has since become a staple of the Chinese orchestra. Currently, the yangqin possesses four bridge sets. Each are typically of wood and possess peaks and cavities to fit the strings resting on it. A single bridge may contain from seven to ten peaks. The Chinese yangqin is sounded by using bamboo sticks with hammer tips to strike its strings. The bridge peak that supports each group of strings help create tension, so that striking the strings produce a note. This sounding methodology is what gives the yangqin its characteristic reverberating quality.
The liuqin shares a similar shape as the pipa and has a history of more than a hundred years. Known for its bright, penetrative sound quality in the Chinese orchestra, this Chinese mandolin is the accompanying instrument of choice for folk operas. Prior to reformation and assimilation into the Chinese orchestra in 1958, the liuqin had a mere two or three strings, no more than seven frets and sounded primitive when played. Through reformation, the instrument was firstly designed to have a larger base, three strings and 24 frets, and subsequently given a fourth string and four more frets. A fine tuner was then installed at the base of the instrument to allow for precise tuning; and an attachable stand made to prop up the instrument for stable playing. Played using a plectrum, the Chinese liuqin’s original silk strings have since been replaced with steel ones, which help to amplify the liuqin’s volume and thus giving it its characteristic piercing tone. Highly capable of producing penetrative sounds, this instrument is not easily overwhelmed by other instruments in the Chinese orchestra. Primarily developed to fill in the lack of high frequencies within the plucked string section (the only alternative being the pipa, whose range is more of alto rather than soprano), the liuqin is considered one of the more successful examples of reformed instruments. The changes made to the liuqin have since heightened the liuqin’s performing capabilities and allowed for great showmanship. Today, the liuqin is an indispensable instrument in the Chinese orchestra. Its versatility allows it to execute quick, passionate and carefree excerpts, thus garnering increasing popularity in recent years.
Once one of China’s most ancient but extinct plucked string instruments, the Chinese ruan (moon guitar) as we know of today was developed for the modern Chinese orchestra in the 1970s. This occurred as a result of a deficiency in lower registers among plucked string instruments. Thus, the ruan was recreated to fulfill this lack of sound. In addition to that, the pipa during the time possessed a round body, straight neck, 12 frets as well as four strings. This instrument’s shape, just like today’s ruan, is believed to be one of the earliest forms of the ruan. Hence, it can be argued that the ruan was first invented during this period. It is also arguable that the ruan received immense popularity during the Tang dynasty, which was considered to be the golden age of China. Thereafter, the ruan ceased to be developed further and historical materials, bearing archives of ruan repertoire, declined in production. Only after the liberation of China was this ancient instrument revived.
The dizi or bamboo flute is one of the most popular instruments in traditional Chinese music. The Chinese flute is played horizontally, much like a western flute, and is commonly carved out of a single piece of bamboo with a cork-lined blow-hole. The body of the flute has six finger-holes at measured distances. It also features an extra hole between the blow-hole and finger-holes which is covered by a thin membrane of reed and gives the dizi a bright, resonant, and slightly humming tone. While many of the world’s cultures have similarly carved flutes, only the dizi has this unique feature. The dizi is known for its expressive range as well as an inherent ethereal quality. When played in the middle and upper registers with a quick breath attack, the dizi gives the listener a lofty, sprightly feeling, as if floating. Played in its lower registers with a soft breath attack, however, it can bring one to peaceful and grounded retrospection. The dizi is also famous for its ability to imitate sounds of nature. It can reproduce the aural environment of a forest so accurately that natural landscapes often appear vividly in a listener’s imagination.
The guanzi is a double-reed musical instrument, which has a very long history. It was developed in ancient Persia (today's Iran). In ancient China, people called it bili or luguan. About more than 2,000 years ago, the guanzi had already been very popular for a time in Northwest China's Xinjiang region. Later, it was introduced into the mainland and the performance levels were greatly improved. Today, northern people frequently play the guanzi. The instrument is loud with a clear and bright tone. It carries with itself a strong countryside flavor. The structure is very simple, as it is made of only three parts. It is often performed in solo, concert, and accompaniment. In some music of North China, the guanzi has played a very important role. The performance dimensions are various, with performers able to execute roulade and glissando (types of notes) as well as some unique skills. While performing, performers can depend on the rounding of their mouth to imitate human voices and animal sounds. There are various kinds and different sizes of guanzi, such as the double-reed guanzi.
One of the instruments most unique, playful, and distinctively Chinese-sounding is the suona. The suona is a double reed woodwind instrument. A mouthpiece is connected to a wooden pipe shaft with holes and a flared copper end. Notes are played by fingering, and players use their mouth to control the suona’s volume, pitch, and timbre. Skillfully played, the suona produces clear, bright notes that sometimes resemble birdcalls. Not surprisingly, one of the most famous suona pieces is called “Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix.” The suona is a popular sight in many traditional Chinese folk rituals. It heralds the bride’s arrival in Chinese weddings, accents rites in funerals, and commemorates abundant harvests in festivals. Along with the erhu and pipa, the suona is one of the cornerstones of Chinese music.
The existence of the gong dates back to the Bronze Age, around 3500 BC and the main gong producing areas were believed to be Burma, China, Java and Annam. For centuries a gong was viewed as a symbol of status and success among Asian families and the secrets of gong making were closely guarded. Since the time of Buddha in 600 BC, all sacred Chinese gongs have been inscribed with the two Mandarin Chinese characters “Tai Loi”, which means happiness has arrived. Some of the ancient uses for the gong include meditation, healing, communication, and announcing the beginning of ceremonies. Gongs were also used in European orchestras from 1790 onwards and are currently a part of orchestras around the world.