Chinese Percussion


The history of percussion instruments in China is longer than any other category of traditional instruments. The character of 'drum' was first found in the inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty. At that time (BC 1562 - 1066) more than 50% of instruments were percussion.

Percussion instruments produce sound by striking on their surfaces. Common material used for making percussion instruments in the past were gold, rock, wood and bamboo.

The percussion section is the most important section in Chinese opera, particularly in "martial" scenes known as wu-chang. The player of the bangu, directs the rest of the orchestra through his different methods and positions of striking his instrument. He has control over the overall development of the action and creation of atmosphere, and is equivalent to the conductor of a western style orchestra.

Because of the richness of timbre, sound and variety of Chinese percussion instruments, they are frequently used in western style musical compositions. A large gong can create a stately and imposing atmosphere; dramatic effects can be achieved with the tanggu, and muyu and Ching also can produce an atmosphere of mystery.

Percussion Instruments were easy to learn and play . As the instrument can produce different sound effects, it is frequently used in joyful and exciting occasions such as harvest, marriage and dragon boat as well as more as well as memorial ceremonies.

The more popular percussion instruments include Luo, Gu, Bo, and Bianzhong.


Bangu (Single-headed Frame Drum)

Bangu Chinese instrument


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(ban: flat board; gu: drum)

It is also commonly called Jing Bangu (bangu for Peking opera) and Danpi (single drumhead). The drum's frame is constructed of thick wedges of hard wood glued together in a circle, wrapped with a metal band. Its body is bell mouthed in shape, open at the bottom. Its top surface (C.25cm), covered with a piece of pig or cow-hide, has a small convex central circular opening (about 5 or 6 cm in diameter), which is called the Guxin (drum heart), the actual sounding position. The player strikes on this central area with a pair of bamboo sticks.

The type used for Peking opera and other northern musical dramas, with a smaller central striking area, has a relatively solid tone quality. The type used for the southern gong and drum ensemble, with a larger striking area , is loose and soft in tone. The southern type is fit for solos with a variety of techniques and rhythms. The Jing Bangu leads the percussion section in the instrumental ensemble of the Peking opera.

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Bo (Pair of bronze cymbals)


Bo Chinese instrument


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They were frequently used in Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907) with varying designs. Now it is commonly made of high-tin bronze.

The performer strikes the pair together. The most common type now is the Jingbo (the prefix jing referring to Beijing), a name from the instruments use in the Peking opera. This type is clear and forceful in tone quality. It is also used in other regional opera genres and instrumental ensembles, and is one of the four major instruments (drum, large and small gongs, and cymbals) in the jubilant Luogu (gong and drum) music. In local operas the instruments is often for the accompaniment of acrobatics fighting.

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Luo (Gong)


Luo Chinese Instrument


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Chinese gongs are made of high-tin bronze, hammered into a sifter shape. Its central resonating area can be either flat or convex. At least its long history can be traced back to the early Western Han period (206BC-AD 24) according to an archaeological find from a tomb of that period in Guangxi. In the Tang text (618-907) it is called Shaluo (sand gong), the earlier evidence in classical literature.
Modern varieties are great in number with varying tone qualities. The name is usually preceded by a prefix to specify each different kind. The largest type (over 120cm in diameter) called Dachaoluo, with the name from its deep and grave tone, is used in weddings, funerals and temple ceremonies. The smallest goujiao luo (dog-call gong), only 8cm in diameter, can often be seen in theatre instrumental ensembles in southern Fujian province. Both the larger and the smaller include a series of types under different names and in varying tone qualities. Much more are the derivative types in ethnic minorities with individual acoustic features, functions and performing styles.

Diameter: 35-50cm(larger type) 8-23cm(smaller type)

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Tanggu (Medium-sized Barrel Drum)


Tanggu Chinese instrument


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(tang: hall; gu: drum)

The drum is listed as "hide" in the traditional bayin classifications. The common type is similar in shape to a barrel. Its wooden shell, entirely painted red with decorative patterns, is covered with two drumheads of cowhide or pig skin. Four lateral iron rings around the shell allow the drum to be vertically suspended in a frame. It is struck with a pair of wooden beaters. Tone quality can be modified by moving the point of striking closer to the centre of the surface, with varying dynamics.
The Tanggu is constructed mainly in two types. The larger one can produce a deep and sonorous tone and the smaller is solid and forceful in tone quality.
The drum is traditionally used with other instruments like luo (gong) and bo (cymbals) in folk festivals and celebrations, and in ensembles or in accompaniments as well. Types for local operas are mostly smaller, e.g. The Jing Tanggu in Peking opera.

Diameter: over 1m (large drum); 20-30cm (small drum)

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Muyu (Woodblock or Slit drum)

Muyu chinese instrument


(mu: wooden; yu: fish)

It was used originally to accompany Buddhist chant only. An account of this instrument was found in the literature of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644): "The muyu is carved from a block of wood and into the shape of a fish, then its interior is hollowed out. Sounds can be produced by striking" Since the Qing dynasty (1645-1911) the instrument has appeared in folk instrumental ensembles.
The muyu is mostly made of mulberry or Chinese toon wood. The larger type is primarily used in Buddhist temples, but recently appears in sets, varying in diameters and tone qualities. The set is mainly used for regular rhythms in the accompaniment.

Diameter: 5-50cm (or more) 8-16cm (types in sets)

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Bianzhong (Collected Bronze Bells)


Bianzhong Chinese instrument

Bianzhong Chinese bells

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(bian: collected; zhong: bell)

This instrument, listed as "metal", heads the bayin classifications. Its long history dates back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1122BC), when a set of 3 bronze bells was common, though the earlier pottery type of the late Stone Age was unearthed in Shaanxi province. From the 5th to the 3rd century BC the number of bells was increasing, mostly to 9 and a few to 13.

The largest set ever seen was from the tomb of Zenghou Yi (the 5th century BC) in Hubei province. This archaeological find has become a focus of world academic attention. The set consists of 64 bells, hung in three layers. The upper ones are called niuzhong, i.e. bells with bronze loops for vertical suspension; those on the two lower layers are called yongzhong, i.e. bells with handles for suspension at a slight angle. Because of the bells shape two different pitches, a major or minor third apart, can be produced on any of the bells, depending on the two striking locations, the frontal or the lateral. 12 semi-tones are found in the set, with a total range of 5 octaves.

The inscriptions on the bells unite to form a literature of a large tone system, valuable sources for the study of the musical culture in the period of the Warring States (475-221 BC). With the construction for two different pitches from a single bell and the unique casting technology, the bianzhong has established itself as the eighth wonder of the world.

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Lion Drum

Lion Drum Chinese instrument

Lion Drum

The size of a Lion Drum is very big, widely used for Lion dance. There are normally 2 types, the northern Lion Drum (normally in red colour) and southern Lion Drum (in black colour).

It is a single headed drum, If its size and the colour doesn't draw a crowd, then the glorious booming sound is sure to get lots of attention.

The Lion drum has a thick durable goat skin head, and a wooden body, normally with hand painted decorations.

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Yunluo (Set of small bronze gongs)

Yunluo Chinese instrument


(yun: cloud; Luo: gong)

The Yunluo was first mentioned in China as yun-ao in the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368). The small gongs in set, usually 10 in different pitches, are suspended vertically in the same wooden frame. Each is attached to a cubicle within the frame by cords. The gongs are all of the same diameter but of varying thickness. In tuning, thicker dimensions give higher pitches, and thinner ones, lower. The instruments are struck with a small beater.

In the redesigned type the number of gongs is increased, ranging from 29 to 38, and two mallets with either hard or soft tips, are used for different tonal effects. One sounds clang and solid and the other soft and drifting. Owing to the enlarged range, modification in thickness cannot produce any other pitches. Thus varying diameters are used for the new tones.

The yunluo are mostly seen in instrumental ensembles, and recently for solos as well.

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