Chinese culture is rich with music in all its beautiful forms, and its traditional Chinese string instruments have for years created sounds enjoyed by so many.
For thousands of years, China has preserved its musical customs by handing the conventions down from one generation to the next.
The musical instruments, despite them retaining ancient features and functions, create sounds that are difficult to reproduce or surpass using modern counterparts.
Here is a list of my favorite Chinese string instruments that truly sound stunning.
8 Traditional Chinese String Instruments You Should Know
The 2,000-year-old Guzheng is commonly referred to by the Chinese as a Zheng. A number of the first variants were made of bamboo frames and silk strings.
The Guzheng has undergone significant revisions throughout those years, and some were due to the cultural interactions among the other Asian nations.
The best example is the number of the instruments’ strings, which gradually increased from the original five to thirteen up to twenty-one in modern times.
The Guzheng is deemed as the progenitor of several Asian stringed instruments like the Mongolian Yatga, the Korean Gayageum, the Vietnamese dan tranh, and the Japanese Koto.
The Guzheng produces compelling melodies and is usually tuned to the pentatonic scale or commonly known as the five-note scale. It has a mainly rectangular body 64 inches in length, with a soundboard, a tail, and a head that houses the tuning pegs. There are 21 bridges and 21 strings across the soundboard.
The Guzheng comes with eight optional fingerpicks that create highly audible sounds. Because of that, most, if not all, Zheng players wear the fingerpicks during performances.
Incidentally, eight fingers are needed to play this Chinese string instrument, usually four on one side.
Want to learn more about this Chinese musical instrument? Check out my article on the Guzheng here!
This stringed instrument became popular in China around the 17th century resulting from extensive trade with the Middle Eastern kingdoms. That fact is highly evident in the other names that Yangqin is known as, Cymbalom or Santur, which indicate their cultural lineage.
From that time on, the Yangqin has developed quite a significant following throughout the country.
The instrument typically has a wooden body with four sides of equal lengths, something akin to a square or a trapezoid. The body consists of four to five bridges with 144 strings.
Playing the Yangqin usually entails hitting the strings with bamboo hammers or beaters. The bamboo beaters have predominantly bamboo materials but have edges covered in either rubber or leather and are held one in each hand as you play.
The Yangqin makes a soft and clear sound, which is very pleasant to the ears.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Ruanqin’ particularly in Taiwan, the Ruan is another member of the plucked instrument group and is also part of the lute family.
It comprises a neck with 24 frets, a wooden body, four strings, four tuning pegs, and a pick for plucking the strings.
The Ruan is one of the most recognizable Chinese string instruments due to its moon-shaped body.
It originally had silk strings, but steel strings replaced them in the 20th century. In the same manner, the original ivory frets were replaced by metal counterparts in the modern versions of the Ruan.
The main dissimilarity between the two variants is that the metal makes a distinct, higher-pitched, and louder sound.
The Ruan also comes in different sizes depending on the sound desired. From the lowest voice to the highest, there are Ruan variants for contrabass, bass, tenor, alto, and soprano.
The Pipa is another remarkable traditional Chinese string instrument with almost two thousand years of history behind it. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, it is also categorized in the plucked instrument group.
The spread of Chinese culture in the nearby Southeast and East Asia regions have contributed to the development of several instruments based on the Pipa.
They include the Japanese biwa, the Korean bipa, and the Vietnamese ‘dan ty ba.’ You can see the Pipa’s influence even in the related instruments’ names.
The Pipa comprises of a wooden body, 12 to 26 frets, four tuning pegs, and four strings. The most prominent feature that renders it immediately recognizable is the pear-shaped body and the several frets running its board.
The Pipa offers an assortment of conventional established techniques for the right and left hands utilized to create various sounds of elegance.
The Liuqin has had several name changes over the years until settling with the contemporary version we know today. A couple of popular ancient names are Tu pipa and Liuyeqin.
The Liuqin comprises of a body shape similar to the Pipa, a neck or board with 24 frets, and four strings. The materials typically utilized in making the Liuqin are red sandalwood, rosewood, and willow wood.
In terms of size, the Liuqin is somewhat smaller than the Pipa or the Ruan, but whatever it lacks in dimension, it makes up for with an incomparable high pitch. The tone emitted by this traditional string can only be described as piercing or shrill.
Despite the high tone, the Liuqin can be played in solo performances and orchestras. Similar to the Ruan, the Liuqin is played with a pick to pluck the strings.
A very common and prevalent representative of the family of plucking instruments, the Sanxian is very different from its lute cousins because it has an extended and fretless fingerboard.
Even more fundamental than the Erhu, it consists of a resonator, three tuning pins, and three strings.
The resonator is formed from the skin of non-poisonous snakes and has a rectangular shape with stretched curved rims making it appear circular.
The Sanxian emits a loud gasping sound, and it comes in different sizes to serve a variety of purposes. Furthermore, the Sanxian is plucked in the same manner as that of the Pipa during a performance.
The simplest among all Chinese string instruments, the Erhu has existed for more than a thousand years. It is a bowed musical instrument with great renown that it is still being used in China today.
The Erhu consists of a wood body, two tuning pegs, two strings, the nut, a resonator, and a bow. The front portion of the resonator, called the soundbox, is covered with python skin.
The elasticity of the python skin enables the Erhu to create its remarkable sound.
Nowadays, some Erhu resonators use synthetic skin as a cover instead of traditional python skin because of modern technology and animal rights advocacy.
Despite the high quality of these synthetic covers, the sound they create is inferior to that of the python skin traditional version.
The bow of the Erhu is usually mounted between the two strings. It is moved horizontally in a crosswise style across the strings. The whole action is not so different from that of the violin or the cello.
This Chinese musical instrument produces a sound similar to that of the violin’s, but the pitch is higher. It is perfect in expressing the mood or feelings of the player/artist, be it somber or glee, making it worthy of solo performances or as part of an ensemble.
The final instrument on my list of traditional Chinese string instruments is called the Guqin, which has been played for about three millennia. It was treasured and prized by emperors, court officials, and scholars.
The most famous Guqin player was Yu Boya, an exceptionally gifted instrumentalist, referred to as “a musician of flowing water and lofty mountains.” At the time, the Guqin was known as Qin, but in the 20th century, the name was changed.
The Guqin typically had a wooden body covered with layers of exotic black lacquer and installed with seven strings made of silk. The instrument appears modest, but it makes a significant number of the most enchanting ancient Chinese melodies.
It was aptly named the “Father of Chinese harmony” by the populace. The Guqin generates a relaxing and calming sound. Not a particularly loud instrument, its sound ranges between two and four octaves.
This Guqin’s remarkable music has earned a profusion of affection and recognition worldwide. That is evident by the inclusion of the sound of water flowing in the Voyager Golden Record.
That particular recording intended to demonstrate the earth’s cultural diversity to potential sentient extraterrestrial beings and was launched into outer space via the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft.
Final Thoughts On Chinese String Instruments
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of my favorite Chinese string instruments…
If traditional Chinese music is something you’re new to exploring, these Chinese musical instruments will set you on a path of revolutionary music exploration.