History of the pipa

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Musicians in a scene from paradise, Yulin Cave 25, Tang Dynasty

There are considerable confusion and disagreements about the origin of pipa. This may be due to the fact that the word pipa was used in ancient texts to describe a variety of plucked chordophones from the Qin to the Tang Dynasty, as well as the differing accounts given in these ancient texts. Traditional Chinese narrative prefers the story of the Chinese princess who was sent to marry a barbarian king during the Han Dynasty, and the pipa was created so she can play music on horseback to soothe her longings.[1][2] Modern scholarship however suggests a non-Chinese origin.[3][4]

The earliest mention of pipa in Chinese texts appeared late in the Han Dynasty around 2nd century CE.[5][6] According to Liu Xi's Eastern Han Dynasty Dictionary of Names, the word pipa may have an onomatopoeic origin (the word being similar to the sounds the instrument makes),[5] although modern scholarship suggests a possible derivation from the Persian word "barbat" (the two theories however are not necessarily mutually exclusive).[4][7] Liu Xi also stated that the instrument called "pipa", though written differently (枇杷 or "piba" 批把) in the earliest texts, originated from amongst the Hu (meaning foreigners or barbarians). Another Han Dynasty text also indicates that, at that time, pipa was a recent arrival,[6] although later 3rd century texts from the Jin Dynasty suggest that pipa existed in China as early as the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE).[8] An instrument called xiantao (弦鼗), made by stretching strings over a small drum with handle, was said to have been played by labourers who constructed the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty.[8][9] This may have given rise to the Qin pipa, an instrument with a straight neck and a round sound box, and evolved into ruan, an instrument named after Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and known for playing similar instrument.[10][11] Yet another term used in ancient text was Qinhanzi (秦漢子), perhaps similar to Qin pipa, but modern opinions differ on its precise form.[12][13][14]

The pear-shaped pipa was likely to have been introduced to China from Central Asia, Gandhara, and/or India.[2] Pear-shaped lutes have been depicted in Kusana sculptures from the 1st century AD.[3] Pipa from the Han Dynasty is referred to as Han pipa, however, depictions of the pear-shaped pipas in China only appeared after the Han Dynasty during the Jin Dynasty in the late 4th to early 5th century.[15] There are therefore differing opinions about the form of the Han Dynasty pipa. Pipa acquired a number of Chinese symbolisms during the Han Dyansty - the instrument length of three feet five inches represents the three realms (heaven, earth, and man) and the five elements, while the four strings represent the four seasons.[6]

Depictions of the pear-shaped pipas appeared in abundance from the Southern and Northern Dynasties onwards, and pipas from this time to the Tang Dynasty were given various names, such as Hu pipa (胡琵琶), bent-neck pipa (曲項琵琶) and Kuchean pipa (龜茲琵琶), some of these terms however may refer to the same pipa. Apart from the four-stringed pipa, other instruments introduced include the five-stringed, straight-necked, wuxian pipa (五弦琵琶), a six-stringed version, as well as the two-stringed hulei (忽雷). From the 3rd century onwards, through the Sui and Tang Dynasty, the pear-shaped pipas became increasingly popular in China. By the Song Dynasty the word pipa was used to refer exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument.

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Front of a Tang Dynasty five-stringed pipa
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Back of a Tang Dynasty five-stringed pipa

The pipa reached a height of popularity during the Tang Dynasty, and was a principal musical instrument in the imperial court. During this time Persian and Kuchan performers and teachers were in demand in the capital, Chang'an (which had a large Persian community).[16] Many delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. It had close association with Buddhism and often appeared in mural and sculptural representations of musicians in Buddhist contexts. For example, masses of pipa-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. The four and five-stringed pipas were especially popular during the Tang Dynasty, and these instruments were introduced into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam. The five-stringed pipa however had fallen from use by the Song Dynasty, although attempts have been made to revive this instrument in the early 21st century with a modernized five-string pipa modeled on the Tang Dynasty instrument.[17]

Pipa fell from favour in the imperial court during the Song Dynasty. During the Ming period, the plectrum was replaced by fingernails, while the horizontal playing position became the vertical (or near-vertical) position by the Qing Dynasty. The early instrument had 4 frets (相) on the neck, but during the early Ming Dynasty extra bamboo frets (品) were affixed onto the soundboard, increasing the range of the instrument. The number of frets gradually increased to 10, 14 or 16 during the Qing Dynasty, then to 19, 24, 29, and 30 in the 20th century. The 4 wedge-shaped frets on the neck became 6 during the 20th century. The 14- or 16-fret pipa had frets arranged in approximately equivalent to the western tone and semitone, starting at the nut, the intervals were T-S-S-S-T-S-S-S-T-T-3/4-3/4-T-T-3/4-3/4, (some frets produced a 3/4 tone or "neutral tone"). In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of frets was increased to 24, based on the 12 tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones. The traditional 16-fret pipa is becoming less common, although it is still used in some regional styles such as the pipa in the southern genre of nanguan/nanyin. During the 1950s, the use of metal strings in place of the traditional silk ones also resulted in a change in the sound of the pipa which became brighter and stronger.[2]

Pipa in Chinese literature

Early literary tradition in China, for example in a 3rd-century description by Fu Xuan, Ode to Pipa,[1][18] associates the Han pipa with the northern frontier, Princess Liu Xijun, and Wang Zhaojun, who were married to nomad rulers of the Wusun and Xiongnu peoples in what is now Mongolia and northern Xinjiang respectively. Wang Zhaojun in particular was frequently referenced in later literary works, as well as in music pieces such as "Zhaojun's Lament" (昭君怨), and in paintings where she was often depicted holding a pipa.

There are many references to pipa in Tang literary works, for example, in A Music Conservatory Miscellany Duan Anjie related many anecdotes associated with pipa.[19] The pipa is mentioned frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry, where it is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone, with poems dedicated to well-known players describing their performances.[20][21][22] A famous poem by Bai Juyi's Pipa xing (琵琶行), describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River:[23]


The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

During the Song Dynasty, many of the literati and poets wrote Ci verses, a form of poetry meant to be sung and accompanied by instruments such as pipa. They included Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi, and Su Shi.

Further information


  1. 1.0 1.1 Song Shu 《宋書·樂志一》 Book of Song quoting earlier work by Fu Xuan (傅玄), Ode to Pipa (琵琶賦). Original text: 琵琶,傅玄《琵琶賦》曰: 漢遣烏孫公主嫁昆彌,念其行路思慕,故使工人裁箏、築,為馬上之樂。欲從方俗語,故名曰琵琶,取其易傳於外國也。 Translation: Pipa - Fu Xuan's "Ode to Pipa" says: "The Han Emperor sent the Wusun princess to marry Kunmi, and being mindful of her thoughts and longings on her journey, instructed craftsmen to modify the Chinese zither Zheng and zhu to make an instrument tailored for playing on horseback. Therefore the common use of the old term "pipa" came about because it was transmitted to a foreign country." (Note that this passage contains a number of assertions whose veracity has been questioned by scholars.)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 The pipa: How a barbarian lute became a national symbol
  3. 3.0 3.1 The Origin of the Short Lute Laurence Picken, 1955
  4. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named myers
  5. 5.0 5.1 Chinese Text Project - 《釋名·釋樂器》 Shiming by Liu Xi (劉熙)]. Original text: 枇杷,本出於胡中,馬上所鼓也。推手前曰枇,引手卻曰杷。象其鼓時,因以為名也。 Translation: Pipa, originated from amongst the Hu people, who played the instrument on horseback. Striking outward with the hand is called "pi", plucking inward is called "pa", sounds like when it is played, hence the name. (Note that this ancient way of writing pipa (枇杷) also means "loquat".)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 應劭 -《風俗通義·聲音》 Fengsu Tongyi (Common Meanings in Customs) by Ying Shao. Original text: 批把: 謹按: 此近世樂家所作,不知誰也。以手批把,因以為名。長三尺五寸,法天地人與五行,四弦象四時。 Translation: Pipa, made by recent musicians, but maker unknown. Played "pi" and "pa" with the hand, it was thus named. Length of three feet six inches represents the Heaven, Earth, and Man, and the five elements, and the four strings represent the four seasons. (Note that this length of three feet five inches is equivalent to today's length of approximately two feet and seven inches or 0.8 meter.)
  7. Kishibe's diffusionism theory on the Iranian Barbat and Chino-Japanese Pi' Pa'
  8. 8.0 8.1 《琵琶錄》 Records of Pipa by Duan Anjie (段安節)] citing Du Zhi of Jin Dynasty. Original text: 樂錄雲,琵琶本出於弦鼗。而杜摯以為秦之末世,苦於長城之役。百姓弦鼗而鼓之 Translation: According to Yuelu, pipa originated from xiantao. Du Zhi thought that towards the end of Qin Dynasty, people who suffered as forced labourers on the Great Wall, played it using strings on a drum with handle. (Note that for the word xiantao, xian means string, tao means pellet drum, one common form of this drum is a flat round drum with a handle, a form that has some resemblance to Ruan.)
  9. 《舊唐書·音樂二》 Jiu Tangshu Book of Tang. Original text: 琵琶,四弦,漢樂也。初,秦長城之役,有鞀而鼓之者。 Translation: Pipa, four strings, comes from Han Dynasty music. In the beginning, forced labourers on the Qin Dynasty's Great Wall played it using a drum with handle.
  10. The music of pipa
  11. 杜佑 《通典》 Tongdian by Du You. Original text: 阮咸,亦秦琵琶也,而項長過於今制,列十有三柱。武太后時,蜀人蒯朗於古墓中得之,晉竹林七賢圖阮咸所彈與此類同,因謂之阮咸。 Translation: Ruan Xian, also called Qin pipa, although its neck was longer than today's instrument. It has 13 frets. During Empress Wu period, Kuailang from Sichuan found one in an ancient tomb. Ruan Xian of The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove from the Jin Dynasty was pictured playing this same kind of instrument, it was therefore named after Ruan Xian.
  12. 《舊唐書·音樂二》 Jiu Tangshu Book of Tang. Original text: 今《清樂》奏琵琶,俗謂之「秦漢子」,圓體修頸而小,疑是弦鞀之遺制。其他皆充上銳下,曲項,形制稍大,疑此是漢制。兼似兩制者,謂之「秦漢」,蓋謂通用秦、漢之法。 Translation: Today's "Qingyue" performance pipa, commonly called the Qinhanzi, has a round body with a small neck, and is suspected to be descended from Xiantao. The others are all shaped full on top and pointed at the bottom, neck bent, rather large, and suspected to be of Han Dynasty origin. Being composite of two different constructions, it's called "Qinhan", as it is thought to use both Qin and Han methods. (Note that the description of the pear-shaped pipa as being "full on top and pointed at the bottom", an orientation that is inverted compared to modern instrument, and refers to the way pipa was often held in ancient times).
  13. John Myers (1992). "Chapter 1: A General history of the Pipa". The way of the pipa: structure and imagery in Chinese lute music. Kent State University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-87338-455-5. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=avjpd2zHZSgC&pg=PA10&lpg=PA10&f=false#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  14. 杜佑 《通典》 Tongdian by Du You citing Fu Xuan of Jin Dynasty. Original text: 傅玄云:「體圓柄直,柱有十二。」 Translation: Fu Xuan said: "The body is round and the handle straight, and has twelve frets."
  15. Albert E. Dien (2007). Six Dynasties Civilization. Yale University Press. pp. 342–348. ISBN 978-0-300-07404-8.
  16. See also The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics, by Edward H. Schafer; University of California Press, 1963.
  17. Cheng Yu : 5 string pipa
  18. 杜佑 《通典》 Tongdian by Du You. A longer quote of Fu Xuan here.
  19. Duan Anjie - A Music Conservatory Miscellany (Yuefu zalu 樂府雜錄)
  20. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Cao_Bao
  21. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named shancai
  22. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named pipage
  23. 琵琶行 The Pipa Song by Bai Juyi, translation here.

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