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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 5, November 12 - 18

Traditional Instruments Ayi

Hey Ayi,
A Chinese friend of mine invited me to a "classical" music concert, but when I got there, to my surprise, it turned out to be Chinese classical music! It was quite beautiful, and I am now left with an insatiable desire to know about all these strange instruments of eastern melody.

Moon Lute-struck

Dear Moon,
How flattering that you've taken a shine to one of the Middle Kingdom's more subtle contributions to world civilization. Your ever-enlightening Ayi is more than happy to answer your question concerning the beautiful and little understood music makers of the Motherland.

First, the basics. Chinese traditional musical instruments are divided into eight distinct groups, based upon the eight trigrams of the Book of Changes. Each trigram corresponds to a group of instruments, the groups being silk, bamboo, metal, stone, gourd, clay, leather and wood. The two most important groups are bamboo and silk, thus bamboo and silk have come to symbolize traditional Chinese music.

The most well known instruments are the erhu (two-stringed opera violin), the zheng or qinzheng (known in the west as a zither), the pipa or Chinese Moon Lute; the suona--a horn traditionally used at weddings; the di--a type of flute, and the xiao which is a wind instrument like a flute played vertically in the fashion of a western recorder.

The erhu resembles a violin crossed with a small drum. It has a range of about three octaves. The erhu has two silk strings, and a small drum-like body covered by python skin. The word 'hu' indicates the instrument's origins in the north among the 'Hu' people--known to Westerners as the 'Huns'.

The pipa is made of wood, is traditionally four-stringed, and has twelve 'stops' (or frets) along the neck. The sound is slightly different from, but reminiscent of a western guitar.

The zheng dates from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The instrument as a variety of string variations, from 19 to 26, the original version having 21. Over the years, rulers have added or reduced the number of strings on the instrument used in their court orchestras in order to be remembered in history for their own personal style. The instrument is played with two hands. The left hand acts to modulate the tone by pressing, rubbing and pushing on the silk strings, while the right hand is used to pluck them. The zheng is most often used to accompany a person singing or to accompany poetry recitals. This instrument is also quite popular in Japan and some ignorant people actually mistake it for a Japanese invention.

The suona, a seven or eight-holed flute-like horn is still featured at Chinese weddings, where its high, sharp tones are used to annoy the drunks until a big enough fight breaks out to serve as entertainment. Lastly, the flute-like xiao is played vertically much like a recorder.

There is a legend that a man was walking along the edge of a bamboo forest when he heard a beautiful sound, and when he investigated, he found that a bamboo shaft had split. As the wind blew through the split bamboo, the sound produced was so beautiful that the man, named Xiao, cut another bamboo shaft and fashioned a flute from it, thus giving the instrument its name. The xiao traditionally has six holes, five on top and one on the bottom, and is generally 70-80 centimeters long.

The di is played horizontally in similar fashion to a western flute. There are six finger holes for playing, three holes for each hand. The instrument has a reed-paper covering a hole between the mouth hole and the highest finger hole, and the membrane serves to give the di a reedy and bright timbre. There are many different sizes of the flute made to facilitate key changes. The playing range of each spans nearly two octaves plus a fifth. There are over 600 different traditional Chinese musical instruments, but your Ayi is too busy to discuss them all, especially since many are simply variations on these basic forms. There are bells, gongs, clappers, and gourd instruments, but they all fall in the basic categories I've outlined. If you understand these basic instruments, which are the most common, it will increase your appreciation of the beautiful music that has been composed for them over millennia.

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