The Instruments of Sizhu Music  
“To the Chinese, timbre is everything in music.”

As early as 2000 years ago Chinese musical instruments were organized into eight categories according to the materials used to make them: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, clay, earth, leather, and wood. The characters for the silk and bamboo categories (“si” and “zhu”) have become the equivalent for Chinese Chamber musics (Sizhu Yinyue”). The musical style of Sizhu originated at the end of the 19th century in the tea houses of the Southern Chinese provinces, with the players sitting around a table playing music and drinking tea. A Sizhu ensemble usually consists of 6 musicians playing erhu (huqin), di (qudi or bandi), pipa, gucheng, yangqin, and ruan or liuqin.

Philosophically, Chinese music tries to bring to light the tension between the “yin” and “yang” elements of the universe. This is achieved by contrasting the instruments’ tones and colors. The players are given plenty of room for improvisational embellishment and creative expression. The outcome is intimate yet spacious, and often resembles a dialogue. A consequence of this freedom of expression is that traditional and contemporary music styles can easily be combined.

  Erhu (Chinese Violin)  
  Historical records show that the forerunners of the modern erhu were instruments known as xiqin, which were introduced to China from the Mongolian Xar Moron river area. These xiqin were made entirely of bamboo. By the Song period (960-1279 AD), a new variation on the xiqin developed in the northwest, played by means of a horsehair bow. The mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 AD) commonly played the xiqin (by now known as the huqin, a category of instruments to which the modern erhu belongs). The huqin continued to evolve over the years, and by the time of the Ming dynasty it already closely resembled the modern erhu. It wasn’t until the early period of the Republic of China (1912-present) that the erhu made the transition from accompanying to solo instrument.

Erhu Sample 1

Erhu Sample 2
  Di (Chinese Bamboo Flutes)  

  The historical origins of the di are unclear, but we know it had become a distinct instrument sometime around the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589 AD). The di comes in many different shapes and sizes, but the two predominant forms are the qudi and the bandi. The qudi (long di with membrane) is mainly used in southern China, in Kunqu opera and other regional folk music forms. It produces a full sound, and is played in a steady, undulating manner. The bandi (short di with membrane) is more common in northern China, and widely used in regional opera forms and folk music. It is narrower than the qudi, thus having a more sonorous, bright sound, and is played with an animated, leaping style. Tongue thrusting is a major part of bandi playing.

Di Sample 1

Di Sample 2
  Guzheng (Chinese Zither)  
  This instrument, also simply known as the cheng, has had a substantial impact on the Chinese musical tradition. Japanese historians have determined that the most ancient origins of the guzheng lie in an old Sumerian instrument. The earliest record of the guzheng can be found in Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), where it was used to accompany singers. In its earliest form, the guzheng was a simple five-string plucked instrument. Over the centuries the instrument evolved into its contemporary form with 19, 21, 25, or 26 strings. Its sound varies between warm and elegant to crisp and sprightly, depending if the strings used are of silk or metal. As an accompaniment for vocalists, as a solo instrument, and as part of an orchestra, the guzheng has become a major part of many regional musical styles.

Guzheng Sample 1

Guzheng Sample 2
  Pipa (Chinese Lute)  
  In its earliest form, ‘pipa’ was simply a term referring to a variety of plucked string instruments. The modern pipa was the result of contact with India circa 350 A.D., when a four stringed, pear-shaped lute-like instrument was introduced to China. The original pipa playing technique involved the use of a single wooden pick, but nowadays the five fingers are used. Over time the pipa has evolved into the modern six ledge, 24 fret model. The pipa is a richly expressive, which is demanding to play. Still it is one of the most important stringed instruments in Chinese music.

Pipa Sample 1

Pipa Sample 2
  Ruan (Chinese Guitar or Banjo)  
  The ruan, known in ancient times as the qin-pipa or the yueqin (or ‘full moon qin’, from its shape), was an early form of the pipa with a longer neck. Amongst artifacts unearthed at a Six Dynasties (220-589 AD) tomb in Nanjing was an engraving showing Ruan Xian, one of the ‘Seven Wise Men of Bamboo Grove’, playing the instrument that from then on carried his name. During the Sui and Tang periods the ruan was largely used for court music and folk music. Ancient ruans had eight frets, while the modern one has 24. Today the ruan comes in four different sizes: the xiao ruan (small ruan), the zhong ruan (mid-size ruan), the da ruan (large ruan), and di ruan (bass ruan), of which the most commonly seen are the zhong ruan and da ruan. The ruan is an essential part of Chinese ensembles, and works excellently as accompaniment for vocalists.

Ruan Sample 1

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Ruan Sample 3

Ruan Sample 4
  Liuqin (Chinese Ukulele)  
  The liuqin takes its name from its resemblance to the leaves of the liu (willow) tree. The liuqin is most popular in the Shandong, Anhui, and Jiangsu areas, and is an important accompaniment for the traditional liuqin opera forms of southern Shandong. In its original form, the liuqin had two strings and seven frets, while the modern one (developed mostly over the past 50 years with the establishment of traditional Chinese music ensembles) has four strings and 29 frets, with a four-octave range comparable to the violin. Its bass notes are deep and resonant, its mid tones warm, and its high notes bright and penetrating. The liuqin is plucked, and is used largely for playing higher melodies. With its great expressive quality, it has come to be regarded as the pearl of traditional Chinese orchestras.

Liuqin Sample 1

Liuqin Sample 2
  Yangqin (Chinese Dulcimer)  
    The “Musica Getutscht”, published in Germany in 1511, described the dulcimer as a rectangular box run with several strings, nailed to a rail at either end, and played with two hammers at the side of the instrument. The dulcimer spread to many corners of the world, and evolved into the yangqin in China. According to historical records, the instrument, which is also known as the “butterfly qin”, was originally introduced to China during the late Ming period (1368-1644 AD), finding most popularity in modern Guangdong. In modern times the yangqin has gone on to gain great popularity throughout China, and has become a principal accompaniment for Chinese folk and operatic music.

Yangqin Sample 1

Yangqin Sample 2
  Sheng (Chinese Mouth Organ)  
    The sheng is the only Chinese wind instrument that can produce harmony. The instrument is blown with a mouthpiece, and the tone is produced by multiple reeds which trigger tubes that define the pitches. The first historical records of the sheng come from inscriptions on tortoise shells around 1400 BC. The “Book of Songs” also mentions the instrument by its ancient name “He” around 600 BC. In ancient times the sheng was made from calabash gourds. After the Tang Dynasty it was made from wood, but in modern times the prevailing material is copper. The form of the instrument has kept changing over time. There are shengs of three different playable pitch ranges.The number of reeds and tubes varies, with a maximum of 61 on a single instrument. Modern instruments use keys, and some even have a turntable mouthpiece. Western composers and audiences are usually very curious about this instrument.

Sheng Sample 1

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Sheng Sample 3

Sheng Sample 4