Chinese Plucked-stringed instruments


The plucked stringed instruments are used to a great extent in a Chinese traditional orchestra. There are many plucked stringed instruments compared to a western orchestra. There may be more types of plucked stringed instruments in China than any other country in the world. This is due to a long history and broad development of this instrument family. Musical scores that have survived from ancient times also favor plucked stringed instruments.

Plucked stringed instruments are played by using a pick or finger nails to pluck the strings. The Yangqin is an exception which is played by using a pair of hammers to strike the strings. It is categorised as a member of the plucked stringed instrument probably because of its location on stage and its musical effects which are similar to other familiar members.

The sound of plucked stringed instruments is lively and attractive. They can be performed in the forms of solo, ensemble or in an orchestra.

The popular plucked stringed section consists of Pipa, Liuqin, Yueqin, Ruan, Sanxian, Guqin, Guzheng, Duxianqin, Yangqin etc.

Pipa (Pear Shaped Lute, Chinese guitar)

Pipa Chinese instrument

Pipa Chinese Guitar

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Tuning: A-d-e-a

Range: A - c3

The word "Pi" meant "to play forward" and "Pa" meant "to play backward". The pipa had a half pear shaped sound box, a crooked neck, and normally 4 or 5 strings. The Pipa arrived in China in the 4th century AD from Central Asia. The history of pipa dates back more than 2000 years. Tang poet Bai Juyi described the Pipa in his "Song of the Pipa" as "large pearls, small pears tumbling onto a plate of jade", shown the great popularity in the Tang and Song period.

The number of frets (bridges) has gradually been increased over the years, up to 23, 25 even 30 frets in the modern type. This has expanded the instrument range chromatically. The range is over three and a half octaves. The modern Pipa also use steel strings with or without nylon coiling rounded instead of silk. The musician tapes picks (fake fingernails or small plectra attached) to all right hand fingers on the hand except for the thumb, although all five are used. The pipa is clear, bright and mellow in tone and has a variable volume.

The Pipa occupies a very important role among the plucked strings because it has a magnificent tone and can produce very expressive sound, from gentle and pleasing music, to dramatic sound effects of horses galloping and battlefield scenes. Today the playing techniques are even more sophisticated. The pipa is often used for solos and in ensembles or in modern Chinese orchestras.

To the top

Liuqin (Small Lute, Treble Lute)


Liuqin Chinese instrument

Liuqin Chinese Guitar

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Tuning: g, d1, g1, d2
Range: g-g4

The Liuqin looks like a miniature pipa, but it has the shape of a willow leaf, this is where the Liuqin got its name from. It also has two sound holes on either sides of the strings. The Liuqin is also called tu pipa (unrefined pipa) because of its appearance of a small pipa. The Liuqin is widely used in musical theatres.

The performer plays it with a pick made traditionally of horn, but more commonly today, plastic. A modern Liuqin's front is made of tung wood and the reverse side, of red sandal. The four strings are steel wires. The frets, increased from 7 to as many as 24, are arranged in half step intervals. The plectrum is made of horn.

The sound of Liuqin is a little like mandolin, high pitched, bright and it can produce an exciting and agitating tune when played loudly, and a sweet and touching tune when played softly. Liuqin often played in Chinese operas.

To the top

Ruan (Long-necked Lute)


Ruan Chinese instrument


Zhong Ruan (alto)
Tuning: A, d, a, d1 or G, d, a, e1
Range: A - a2
Da Ruan (tenor)
Tuning: D, A, d, a or C, G, d, a
Range: D - e1


The Ruan was once termed as Qin pipa (dating to the Qin dynasty between 221-207BC) or Yueqin (moon shaped short neck lute). The name is a shortened form of Ruan Xian who was a musician in the 3rd century (the Six dynasties). Pictorial evidence, excavated from a tomb of his time in Nanjing, depicting Ruan Xians performance of this instrument, confirms that its construction was roughly the same as that of today.

The Ruan is now constructed as a family of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, a development intended to increase its range and effectiveness in the modern Chinese orchestra. The alto (Zhong Ruan) and the tenor (Da Ruan) are commonly used. A plectrum is needed in performance. Mellow in tone quality, it is often seen in ensembles or in accompaniments, and also as a solo instrument in recent years.

To the top

Yueqin (Short-necked Lute)


Yueqin Chinese instrument


Tuning: g, d1, g1, d2
Range: g - c4


Yue: moon; Qin: string instrument)

The Yueqin, with the name from its moon shaped sound box, "Yue" means Moon in Chinese. It is similar in construction to the long necked Ruan lute, from which it was developed. The resonating chamber of the folk type is sometimes octagonal or hexagonal in shape. The four strings in unison, and the two course are tuned a 4th or 5th apart.

The instrument is plucked generally with a plectrum. Clear and vigorous in tone it is commonly used to accompany local operas and narratives, and for solos or in ensembles as well. In the accompaniment to Beijing opera, the Yueqin, together with the Jinghu, the Jing erhu (both two string fiddles) and the Sanxian (three string lute), forms the most important four. Now the strings are mostly made of nylon or nylon coiled wire. The frets are arranged chromatically for free modulation.

To the top

Sanxian (Three -string Lute/Banjo)

Sanxian Chinese instrument


Small sanxian
Length: 95cm
Tuning: A, d, a or d, a, d1
Range: A - d2

Large sanxian
Length: 122cm
Tuning: G, d, g
Range: G - d4

(san: three; xian: string)

The name appears popularly as Xianzi, in which zi is a diminutive suffix. Its ancestor is said to be plucked stringed instrument xiantao (a type from a rattle drum), commonly seen among the ancient people. The modern type has a resonator of padauk or red sandal, covered on both sides with python skin. Its fretless neck functions as its fingerboard. The strings are nylon coiled steel wires. Performers pluck with fingernails, generally without any plectrum. It is solid and sonorous in tone quality.
Sanxian has a structure of a wooden drum covered with a snake skin, and an extended long and smooth finger board. It has a distinctive rich and harmonious sound with great volume and wide range. When it is played at the low pitch, it sounds like an old man humming a tune; when it is played at the high putch, it sounds like a young girl singing a song.

Two types can be distinguished. The smaller, with a range of two and a half octaves, is found in the Yangtzi valleys of southeast China. Its other name is quxian (theatre string) for its accompaniment to kunqu opera and tanci narrative song.

The larger, with a range of three octaves, is used to accompany dagu and other northern singing narratives. That explains the origin of its other name "narrative string" (shuxian). Now it is also a solo instrument and appears in ensembles or other music as well.

Guzheng (Half- tube Zither)


Guzheng Chinese instrument

Quzheng Chinese Harp

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Range: D - d3
(12 string type)

Also called "Zheng", it was popular as early as in the Warring States (475-221 BC), especially in the state of Qin in west China. That betrays the origin of the name qin zheng. Another hypothesis for its name came from a folk tale that the se (a large zither) was split in half to settle a family quarrel between two sons, thus creating the first two Guzheng. In Chinese character the lower portion for Guzheng happens to mean "quarrel".

The Guzhengs sound box is constructed of wood, red sandal for its sides and bottom and wutong wood (firmiana platanifolia) for the arched soundboard. According to the historical texts, it was described as having 12 strings before the Han and Jin period (206 BC-AD 420). In succeeding periods the number of strings kept increasing: 13 after the Tang and Song (618-1279), 15 or 16 since the Min and Qing (1368-1911), 21 since the 1960s and 24 or 26 at present. Each string is suspended over the upper soundboard by a single adjustable bridge as a device for fine tuning. The strings are traditionally silk, or steel wire with or without nylon coiling round, which has been more common since the 1960s. The strings are tuned to give three complete octaves of a pentatonic scale, sometimes of a heptatonic one.

The instrument is rich in playing techniques. The performer plucks the strings with his right hand fingernails (either real or simulated), while left hand fingers apply pressure to the strings to execute vibratos, glissandos, other embellishments and occasional plucking techniques. Sounding melodious and elegant, it is an important solo instrument now, and often in accompaniments as well. It has a loud and bright tone. If its strings are struck consecutively, it produces a sound like flowing water.

To the top

Guqin (small Guzheng)

Quqin Chinese instrument


Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Tuning: C, D, F, G, A, c, d

The Guqin symbolizes the silk category in the Bayin classifications. Among its other names the most commonly are qinxian qin (seven string zither) and guqin (ancient zither). The latter arose from the instruments long history of 3000 years or more.

Legends and stories described in the historical sources surround the qin with an aura of romanticism. One is about Yu Boya, a qin player, whose performing was so deeply appreciated by his friend Zhong Ziqi for its spiritual nature that when Ziqi died, Boya destroyed his qin, as he believed there would be no one to appreciate his music properly. Another tale is told that Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of the Shu Kingdom (221-263), playing the qin on the gate tower; though without any garrisons inside, intimidated the enemy troops headed by General Sima Yi.

The instruments range can reach four octaves or more. From the 13 studs on its sound board harmonic and stopped tones can be produced. Its music is primitively simple, elegant and full of lingering charms. And its tone qualities are variable: deep and vigorous in the low register, pure and mellow in the middle one, bright and delicate in the high. Besides, rich harmonic tones are crystal clear. Sophisticated in playing technique, it is often used for solos or in duets with the vertical dongxiao flute.
The qin was the instrument of the literati through the ages. Even great Confucius was a qin player. The extent tablatures are thousand in number, a vast repertory of various schools.

To the top

Duoxianqin (One String Instrument)

Duoxianqin Chinese instrument

Duoxianqin one string instrument

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(Duo: one or only; Xian: string; Qin: musical instrument)

A traditional instrument of the Jing Nation Popular in Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong provinces.

The sound of the Duoxianqin is a little like Hawaiian guitar, and the only string can be tuned to different pitches to suit the music. Modern duoxianqin normally requires

some kind of amplification.

To the top

Yangqin (Struck Box Zither, Hammered Dulcimer)

Yangqin Chinese instrument

Yangqin Hammered Ducimer

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Range: G - g3

Besides daqin (struck instrument with two beaters), one of its other names means "foreign instrument" in its original Chinese character, owing to the fact that the yangqin is an adaptation of the Persian santur or some Arabian type.

The original was confined to the south-eastern coastal province of Guangdong late in the Ming dynasty (c. the 16th century). It spread later throughout the inner areas.
The earliest type was arranged in two choirs (two rows of bridges), each having 8, later 10-12, courses (2 or 4 strings per course). In the 1960s it developed into a type with 3 choirs, 10 courses each, or a type with 4 choirs, 12 or 13 courses each. Special devices such as the grooves with balls on both sides were added for the convenience in modulating. One of the recent types, without grooves, is arranged in traditional Chinese 12 lü, similar to Western chromatic scale, for more convenient modulation. Its range is over 4 octaves. Under the box is a damper to control lingering tones.

The instrument, bright and harmonious in tone, is often used for solos and in ensembles or in the accompaniment of local operas, narratives and other vocal singings.

To the top


A 2 size traditional Chinese instruments poster available.