Ancient Chinese believed that the music could purify people’s minds. More than 3,000 years ago, ancient China had some 70 types of musical instruments. The royal family and aristocrats had their own orchestra. For them, music was also a way to display their power, position and taste distinguished from common people. However, as music was never limited to the upper social class, the musical trend gradually turned from solemnity to entertaining. Huge and complex instruments like the bronze chimes gave way to more lively and easy-play wind and reed instruments. The Tang Dynasty, one of the strongest and most prosperous empires in Chinese history, was a golden age for musical development. Many of the Tang emperors were musicians or composers themselves. With frequent cultural exchanges with other cultures, a large number of exotic instruments were introduced, altered and finally adopted into the family of Chinese traditional instruments. Chinese traditional musical instruments can be mainly classified into three categories, string, wind and percussion. Here is a brief introduce to typical Chinese musical instruments.


Guqin, the oldest musical instrument in China, is also known as the Seven-stringed instrument. The body is a long and narrow wooden sound box. Usually, it is 130 centimeters long, 20 centimeters wide and 5 centimeters high. The surface is generally made of paulownia wood or China fir, and has seven strings stretched along it. On the edges are 13 inlaid jade markers. Catalpa wood is used for the base, and there are two holes, one big and one small, which are named the‘phoenix pool’ and ‘dragon pond’, to emit the sound.

The fingering skills are known as recital, rubbing, plucking, concentration, floating notes and harmonious notes. The instrument is rich in tone color with airy and floating notes, which can be called the sound of harmony. The most unique part of the Guqin probably lies in its performance etiquette. Before giving a performance, players should take a shower and burn incense in the room. They are to keep their minds peaceful and concentrated to ward off evil spirits.

Musical Culture in Guqin

Guqin always stands elegantly and gracefully in Chinese musical instruments. Chinese ancient scholars have to acknowledge four art, including play the Guqin, play Chinese chess, write good calligraphy and draw painting. The melodies of Guqin are gentle, pure and free from vulgarity, which echo with the Zheng (uprightness) of Confucianism, the Qing (softness) of Taoism, and He (harmony) of Buddhism. So, the Guqin is a representative instrument of traditional Chinese musical culture. The most famous Guqin repertoire is the High Mount and Flowing Water, which is also a metaphor for friends who can communicate with their spiritual pursuits.

A Story of Guqin

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC), there was a man named Yu Boya, who was a famous music master at that time. He happened to meet Zhong Ziqi. No matter what kind of piece of music Yu played, Zhong could understand very well, therefor, they became bosom friends. They agreed on a meet at the same place in the following year. Unfortunately, Zhong died before they could meet. Yu played at Zhong’s graveyard for the last time and crashed his Guqin. He decided never to play the Guqin any more to show his deep friendship to Zhong and how difficult to meet a bosom friend.

Guqin is an instrument hard to learn, easy to forget, and hard to understand the connotation of Guqin melody. So Guqin is not a popular musical instrument in current China and faces with the risk of lost.


Chinese Zither (Chinese name: Guzheng) is one of traditional musical instruments in China. It’s a kind of plucked instrument. It originated during the Warring Period more than 2,500 years ago in China. The earliest known versions were constructed with a bamboo frame and used silk strings. Its scale was pentatonic, using the notes DO, RE, MI, SO, and LA with a major note for each of its five strings. Because Guzheng was developed in a region called ‘Qin Guo’, its name became known as the ‘Qin zheng’.
Guzheng became very popular in the imperial court and among the common people. Historical records from ancient books and scholarly writings give vivid accounts of the instrument and its music. Hou Jin, a scholar of the Eastern Han Period (25 AD – 220 AD) wrote that Guzheng’s sound touches the Heavens above and the Gods and spirits below.

By the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD), the number of strings had increased from five to thirteen, and the bamboo had been replaced with wu-tong or paulownia wood for the frame of the instrument. In addition, many new forms of Guzheng appeared through cultural exchanges with Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and many other Asian countries.

Guzheng remained popular through the late Qing Dynasty ( 1644 AD – 1911 AD), where contemporary Guzheng musicians began the first attempts to formalize Guzheng music by compiling and arranging both classical and popular works such as ‘ High Mountain and Flowing Water’ and ‘the Homebound Fisherman.’ In 1948, the renowned musician Cao Zheng established the first university level Guzheng program in China. The old silk strings were replaced with nylon strings, which are still being used today. The music played by the Guzheng suits both refined and popular tastes, and it’s still a popular musical instrument in China.

The representative works of Guzheng include: the Homebound Fishermen, Lotus out of the Water, High Mountain and Flowing Water.

Pipa has four-stringed lute with 30 frets and pear-shaped body. The musician holds the instrument upright and play with five small plectrums attached to each finger of the right hand. The history of Pipa dates back at least 2,000 years. This instrument has extremely wide dynamic range and is remarkably rich and expressive.


The original pipa comes to us from the second century BC. Poetry and drawings depict an instrument held horizontally and named for the forward (pi) and backwards (pa) plucking of the strands.

The pipa has a long history with the Chinese people. Compositions were passed from master to student over hundreds of years. While many of these compositions have been lost over time, several still exist to delight listeners today. As the Chinese people rediscover their history, so too has there been a reemergence in interest in classical instruments such as the pipa. Some contemporary performers have even started to also integrate the music with western sounds to create a new generation of pipa music.

The Famous Music Work of Pipa

As to pipa music work, most of Chinese people will remind of the classic pipa work-ShiMianmaifu (Chinese:十面埋伏). It’s one of the top ten ancient music works in China. The work vividly describes the situation of a famous Chinese general besieged by his rivals. It’s really a piece of magnificent and stirring music.


Erhu, a kind of bowed instrument, is the most representative one in the Chinese traditional folk musical instrument. As one of the most popular Chinese string instruments the two-stringed vertical fiddle has a long history of more than 1,000 years. Capable of making expressive and haunting sound, Erhu is extremely popular in China today as a medium for both traditional and contemporary music as well as plays an important role in both solo and orchestral performances.

Although hailed as a Chinese violin, Erhu is quite different from its western counterpart. There is a vertical post with a fingerboard crosses the sides of a resonator at its base. This resonator is covered with a piece of stretched python skin that produces a unique ‘whining’ tone. The erhu bow is placed between its two strings namely the inner and outer strings. Traditionally the two strings are made of silk, but metallic strings are also used. An erhu player usually sits with the instrument on his or her left upper thigh in front of the left hip. The erhu is played by moving the bow horizontally over the two vertical strings. The erhu’s range spans over three octaves and the tune shares some features with violin, although it produces a more nasal tone, which is gentle but firm.


The tone of Erhu resembles a human voice. Besides, it can imitate many natural sounds, such as bird and horse. As a very expressive instrument, Erhu can play not only melancholy tunes, but also joyful melodies. Erhu is usually employed in national orchestras. In smaller orchestras, there are usually two to six Erhus; in larger ones there are ten to twelve.

Horse Racing, Moonlight on the Second Spring are the top classic Erhu music works. The Moonlight on the Second Spring is created by a blind musician A Bing, which has become a classic performed bymany orchestras. Domestic affection is his main subject of this piece of music.


Xun(Chinese: 埙) is a kind of wind instrument. It’s one of the oldest musical instruments found so far in China with a history of more than 7,000 years, and play a important role in world music circle. The instrument has been found along the Yangtze River and the Yellow River as Neolithic relics, and is believed very popular in ancient China. The ancestors used a kind of oval stone with naturally formed holes on it to hunt the preys. When thrown it at the animals, the stone produced a whistling sound as the air flowed through the holes, which could have provided inspiration for early wind instruments.

Xun is easily made of clay with an egg shape and there are no more than ten holes on the surface. It can produce sound with a tamber similar to that of humanvoice, and is suitable for performing some lamenting aria. It is often accompanied by the Chi, a bamboo pipe with eight holes.

Chinese Chimes

Chinese chimes are large-scale musical instrument in China, which originated in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046BC-771BC), and reached heyday during the Warring States period (770BC-221BC). Chinese Chimes are made flat with sharp corners like two tiles pieced together. So the sound wanes faster, making it possible to organize the bells into groups and play them as a rhythm instrument. Zeng Houyi’s Bronze Chimes, thousands of years from now, are perhaps the greatest find among all the chimes unearthed so far in terms of the size and significance.


The bells fill a 60-square-meter area and a total weight of five tons. The heaviest one is 203.6 kilogram and is 1.5 meters tall, while the smallest one is 2.4 kilogram and 20.4 centimeters high. Tests have shown that each bell can produce two different high-pitched notes (a major third and a minor third) depending on where they are struck.

The instrument has a range of five octaves and is one of the earliest instruments with 12 semitones. After 2,500 years in the tomb, the instrument can still play ancient music. The beautiful pitch produced can be modulated, giving some idea of the musical complexity available even in the early times. Acoustic tests have found that the mixture of tin and lead in the bronze instrument fits with modern metallurgy. Even today, making such bells is by no means an easy job, especially the big bells.

Chinese Chimes

The 1.5-meter-high bell would require 136 pottery molds to make a bigger mold, which would be filled with melted bronze water at some 1,000 ℃. The smaller the bell the higher the pitch and volume. Therefore, the chime’s effect depends greatly on its size and shape. The bell’s shape explains how the chimes can generate two different tones. When the front side is struck, the lateral amplitude is zero, and vice versa. In this way, two tones coexist without interfering with each other.


The unearthed instruments not only have accurate tonality, but also are inscribed with elaborate patterns such as humans, beasts, dragons and words marking the tones of each bell, indicating the ancient Chinese had already mastered an advanced bronze making techniques at the time. It is presumed that the complexity of manufacture prevented the chimes from getting popular and the technique disappeared after the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

Chinese Chimes

Current Situation

As one of the oldest musical instrument in China, Chinese Chimes were a kind of royal musical instrument, played in court to emperors in ancient China, so popularization is not wide among people. Now Chinese chimes are always shown to people as an antique in museum.



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