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General information

In China, music instruments are classified according to the material, not according to the generated sound or the construction method like in the West. Traditionally, there exist eight different types of instruments. Already during the late Warring States period, but especially during Han Dynasty, the theory of the Five Phases or Elements (wuxing 五行) and correlation of beings and appearances was very popular. The correlation also includes music instruments. Bamboo flutes are used when the spring begine, summer is the time of string instruments (silk), bronze bells are the instruments of the autumn, and in wintertime, drums are sounding.

The strings of these instruments are made of silk, not of hair or gut like in the West, so that we must assume that at least a part of these music instruments originated in China. Especially the zithers qin 琴 (qin is also a general word for string instruments), se 瑟 and zheng 箏, are of Chinese origin, and there are many proofs for their existence in early Zhou China. Mythical tales explain the origin of these instruments as inventions of the Yellow Emperor or of his ministers. The huge long zheng or guzheng 古箏 zither, comprising 20 to 25 strings, is still very popular today and was transmitted to Japan as koto and to Korea as Kayagum (although the proud Koreans state that it is a native invention of the state of Kaya). The word qin serves to describe all different kinds of zithers, like the trapeziform dulcimer yangqin 洋琴, that came to China from Persia probably during the Tang Dynasty. The lutes came to China already during the Han Dynasty, but especially during the time of north-south division when the cultural and economical relations with the Inner Asian people were very intense. One of the first string instruments coming to China from the West was the lute pipa 琵琶 (see the history of the pipa in the encyclopedia Tongzhi). Its smaller brother is the liuqin 柳琴 "willow lute ", and there is a cousin named "moon guitar" yueqin 月琴. These lutes are not handled like in the West, but are held vertically on the knees. The pipa was even traded to Japan with the name biwa, and there is a late Yuan theatre play named "The Lute" (Pipaji 琵琶記) . The pipa lute is quite similar to the Western lute, but it has only four strings and a very flat corpus. The moon guitar has a big round resonance body - hence its name - and a short neck, stabilizing three to four strings. The resonance body is flat at the back. A bigger type of this lute or guitar is the ruanxian 阮弦, with a resonance body that is also flat like that of the yueqin, but deeper, and it is the only Chinese string instrument with holes in the resonance corpus. Both pipa and yueqin resonance bodies show no holes like the Western violins, lutes or guitars.

A different type of plucked string instrument is the long neck guitar sanxian 三弦 with three strings (that is also just its name) and a very small resonance body, often covered with a snake skin. Its Japanese counterpart is the shamisen 三味線.

The most popular bowed string music instrument or fiddle is the erhu 二胡 with two strings. It is very similar to the sanxian and has an extremely small corpus, similar to a little drum with a leather resonator. The thin and long neck ends in two pegs that are standing seriell, not obstinate. There is also a four string type of this fiddle with two parallel resonance strings. The sanxian and erhu are instruments employed by professional musicians and storytellers on the street, and in the Chinese opera.

Instruments within the family of Silk instruments

Banhu, Cizhonghu, Daguangxian, Dihu, Diyingehu, Duxianqin, Erhu, Erxian, Gaohu, Gehu, Guqin, Guzheng, Hu hu, Huluhu, Huqin, Jiaohu, Jing erhu, Jinghu, Konghou, Maguhu, Morin khuur, Pipa, Tiqin, Tuhu, Yehu, Zhonghu, Zhuihu

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