Learn The Culture 1/10: Top 10 Globally Popular Chinese Instruments

Knowing who’s in Top 100 Billboard and who sold the most records this year is cool but not great. Great is knowing more than your genre-related information. It’s being educated on an international level about music, its instruments, ramifications, and cultural impact on nations. In this 10-part series we will teach you fun but imperial facts you should be knowledgeable about. Kicking things off with the Top 10 Globally Popular Chinese Instruments.

10. The Chinese Bass Drum (Dà Gǔ)

You’ve heard this etheral, powerful, awesome instrument in all the movies where fight scenes break out. The humongous drum played with two bamboo sticks, allows for the rendition of various sounds on the same surface by creating a tighter, smaller sound when hit on the edges and an imposing, reverberating, defined boom in the very middle.

9. The Chinese Plucked Zither (Guzheng)

Usually tuned as a pentatonic scale, the guzheng spans four octaves and is easily mistaken for a classic acoustic guitar in Western culture when used in a song. To the untrained ear, that’s what Taylor Swift strums on stage. However, the lingering undulation is a clear distinct mark of the beautiful instrument. It is crafted of Paulownia wood and features 21, 25 or 26 strings. Just like the acoustic guitar, professional players often use fingerpicks made of ivory, plastic, or resin to glide smoothly over the strings.

8. The Chinese Transverse Flute (Dízi)

You’ve heard this Chinese flute more times than you could possibly imagine and you didn’t even know it was named Dizi. This bamboo flute is universally famous, is a very high-priced item on collectors’ lists, and has been found to have existed since over 9000 years ago. Pro Dizi players usually carry at least 7 flutes with them, each corresponding to a different key and they employ various techniques to play it. It is approached differently depending on the geographical area of China that you’re in.

7. The Ancient Chinese Zither (Gǔqín)

The plucked seven-string instrument has long been a favorite of the scholars, elite classes, and government officials. The Chinese refer to it as the father of Chinese music. The guqin is generally quiet but rather complex in its playing technique requiring most often for the instrumentist to slide between notes (glissando). In 2010 a guqin dating to the Song Dynasty was sold for $22 million, thus becoming the most expensive musical instrument ever sold. Well damn!

6. The Cucurbit Flute (Hulusi)

The Hulusi is a free reed wind instrument that has a very pure, very delicate clarinet-like sound. It is characterized by three bamboo pipes that pass through a Calabash gourd wind chest making it the perfect instrument for melancholic pieces. The vertical flute is so popular that it well transcended Chinese borders and is now adopted by European composers and performers. Rohan Leach and Jack Reddick from England, Raphaël De Cock from Belgium, Sara Bentes from Brazil, Nadishana from Russia, and Herman Witkam from the Netherlands have all taken the instrument in new directions.

5. The Chinese Lute (Pípá)

The wooden pear-shaped instrument is a four-stringed plucked lute. Associated with the consort Wang Zhaojun, one of the four legendary beauties of China, the pipa has strong traditional implications and is a symbol of sophistication, tranquility, and royalty. It is closely related to the oud in the Middle East or even the banjo in America. According to the Grammy-nominated pipa player, Wu Man, “the pipa was not meant for large, public performances. It was meant to be an intellectual instrument played in a very small setting, like in the palace in front of the emperor.” Safe to say, no other instrument sounds as unmistakably Chinese as this lute.

4. The Reed Pipe (Sheng)

We gotta be honest here. This instrument looks like something that Thanos would play in his free time. On a serious note, sheng used to be primarily used for accompanying the dizi, instrument number 8. But as it has grown tremendously in popularity, it now stands strong on its own. The sheng is played by either exhaling or inhaling into the mouthpiece, and players can produce a relatively continuous sound without pause by quickly switching between the two, similarly to playing a harmonica.

3. The Chinese Vessel Flute (Xun)

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the cutest of them all? Xun is! Xun looks like one of those digital eggs you gotta take care of on a daily basis to make it hatch 😀 It contains at least three finger holes in front and two thumb holes in back. It has a blowing hole on top and can have up to ten smaller finger holes, one for each finger. So this little egg dates all the way back to Stone Age when Chinese people would hunt animals by tying a stone or mud ball to the end of the rope with some of the balls turning out hollow. Subsequently and luckily for us, somebody must have gotten curious and decided to put his mouth on the holes and blow air into it. Now we got xun! The best instrument to perform a heartbreaking tone.

2. The Chinese Oboe (Suona)

When you hear it from now on, you’ll recognize it instantly. The high-pitched, strong sound is made in different sizes to render different keys. It has been dubbed as the loudest Chinese instrument. Suona is hugely important in traditional music as it is mostly used for festival and military purposes. Some regions of China use it in funeral rituals. The double-reed gives the instrument a sound similar to that of the modern oboe. The traditional version has seven finger holes.

1. The Chinese Violin (Erhu)

 The two-stringed violin is loved by everybody. It is played both as a solo instrument and as part of a large orchestra. It is an incredibly versatile work of musical art that allows its sound to transcend genres and be used in Hip Hop, Pop, Jazz, Folk. One of the coolest facts about it is that its soundbox is covered with python skin on the playing end. And that very python skin is what makes its sound so unique and instantly recognizable. For those worried about the reptile, from January 1, 2005, new regulations require erhu sellers to have a certificate from the State Forestry Administration, which certifies that the Erhu python skin is not made with wild pythons, but from farm-raised pythons. Pretty neat, huh?

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