Top 15 Chinese Ancient Instruments You Might Hear

According to recent archaeological findings, ancient Chinese music was much more developed and sophisticated than is generally believed. During the Shang Dynasty, music had already been an important element in traditional ritualistic ceremonies, such as during a traditional Chinese funeral procession. It reached one of its greatest peaks during the Zhou Dynasty, featuring a great abundance of percussion instruments, and several wind instruments, but only a few zither-type string instruments.

All the bowed string instruments and most of the plucked string instruments first came to China from Central Asia after the Han dynasty. The Tang dynasty saw the first wave of musical influence from Central Asia, which was a very important epoch in the evolution of Chinese music. However, it was during the Song Dynasty that Chinese music reached its maturity.

Traditional Chinese musical instruments were classified into eight groups according to their materials: bronze, stone, silk and bamboo, gourd, earthenware, hide and wood, many of which have been lost or are obsolete today. Like modern music instruments, traditional Chinese instruments are generally grouped according to the way they are played: bowed strings, plucked strings, woodwinds and percussion.

Erhu – Queen of Chinese Folk Orchestra

Producing one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds in Chinese music, the erhu is one of the most popular Chinese bowed-string instruments with a history of more than 1,000 years.

Hailed as a Chinese violin, the erhu is quite different from a western fiddle. There is a vertical post with a fingerboard that crosses the sides of a resonator at its base. This resonator, made of either wood or bamboo, is covered with a piece of stretched python skin. The erhu bow is placed between its two strings called the inner and outer strings. Traditionally the two strings are made of silk, but metallic strings are more popular now. 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, with the sound produced by the vibration of the strings.

The range of erhu spans over three octaves and the tune produced shares some qualities with the violin, although it produces a more nasal tone which is gentle but firm. The erhu resembles a human voice and can imitate many natural sounds, such as birds and horses. It is a very expressive instrument, most known for playing melancholy tunes, but also for its joyful melodies.

The erhu is almost always a must in national orchestras. In fact, the erhu plays the same role as the violin in Western orchestras. The erhu is extremely popular in China today as a medium for both traditional and contemporary music and plays an important role in both solo and orchestral performances.

Guqin – Representative Instrument of Chinese Music Culture

Guqin is also called the seven-stringed qin. The body is a long and narrow sound box made of wood. Generally speaking, it is 130 centimeters long,20 centimeters wide and about 5 centimeters thick. The surface is generally made of paulownia wood or China fir, and has seven strings stretched along it. Black is the common color for guqin. Sometimes brown or red ones can also be seen. On the edges are 13 inlaid jade/gold markers. Catalpa wood is used for the base, and there are two holes, one big and one small (called the “phoenix pool” and “dragon pond”, respectively) to emit the sound.

Because it embodied the traditional cultural values of clarity, fineness, simplicity and far-sightedness, guqin, along with chess, calligraphy and painting, headed the list of four subjects scholars trained themselves in. Throughout history, philosophers and artists such as Confucius, Cai Yong and Ji Kang were all masters of the instrument. Old records contain a large number of treatises on the guqin, and thousands of pieces of music for this instrument have been preserved.

In recent times, a dozen or so masters of guqin have emerged in China. They have mastered the strong points of the various schools of this instrument and grasped the interpretation of a large number of pieces of guqin music, manifesting not only their musical skill but also their deep esthetic appreciation.

Dizi – Bamboo Flute

Dizi is native to China with a very long history. It became popular as early as the Warring States Period. Two flute instruments were discovered in the relics excavated in Tomb No.3 of Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan Province.

This transverse bamboo flute has a blowing hole, a stop hole and six finger holes. Bamboo can be found in many places in China and it is very easy to make a bamboo flute. Therefore, the bamboo flute is a very popular musical instrument in the country.

There are two basic kinds of dizi – bangdi and qudi. Bangdi, popular in northern China, got its name because it is used to accompany clapper-type operas. It is 40 centimeters long and has a strong and piping tone, suitable for expressing robust and lively emotions. Qudi, popular in southern China, is also named sudi for its origin in Suzhou city. It is often used to accompany Kunqu Opera. Sudi is about 70 centimeters long and its tone is pure and mellow, making it suitable for expressing delicate and understated moods.

A large number of techniques are used when playing these wind instruments, such as tapping, tremolo, legato, flower tongue, augment, glide, trill, and overtone. Famous dizi tunes include Joyous Meeting, The Partridge Soars, The Bird in the Shade, Five Clappers and A Trip to Suzhou.

Pipa – an Expressive Instrument

The earliest form of pipa known appeared in the Qin Dynasty. It had a long neck, leather surface and circular sound box, and was held upright. Around the time the Qin was succeeded by the Han Dynasty, this instrument underwent a number of modifications and it evolved into the ruan, three-string, yueqin, etc. All these forms of the pipa had the common characteristics of a straight neck and circular sound box.

Two major changes which took place in the course of its evolution were the practice of holding the instrument upright instead of horizontally while playing it and the use of 5 fingers to pluck the strings, instead of using a plectrum. The long-time history endowed pipa with a rich collection of scores and a mature performing technique. In the 20th century, through the unremitting efforts of a large number of performing artists and composers, the number of techniques and compositions developed quickly, with the result that the pipa is now one of China’s most important national instruments for solo, accompaniment and ensemble recital.

Qing 磬 – Oldest Percussion Instrument

Qing (musical stone) was a kind of stone or jade percussion instrument in ancient China. It was hung on a shelf and played with a wooden hammer. It was not only a kind of musical instrument but also a symbol of power and status.

Historical records show that qing originated from stone tools used in daily life by Chinese ancestors. During their laboring, they found that these tools could produce pleasant sounds and therefore used them as musical instruments for entertainment.

Archeological findings show that qing came into being in the Xia Dynasty, 4300 years ago. By the Zhou Dynasty, a set of qing, pending from a rack and each with a different tone, emerged and these qing series were a native Chinese invention. The whole rack is called Bianqing.

Xun – One of the Oldest Music Instruments in China

The only earthen musical instrument is a kind of ocarina called xun, which was a very important wind instrument in ancient China. It can produce sound with a timbre similar to that of the human voice and is suitable for performing some lamenting aria. People in ancient times used the instrument to imitate bird sounds and ensnare them.

The oldest xun that has been discovered in China up to now was made about six thousand years ago. For instance, a conical xun was discovered in the Hemudu of Hangzhou Bay in Zhejiang Province. The xun without holes and the one-hole xun were found in the Yangshao Culture site in Banpo Village in Xi’an and xun was also discovered in Wanrong County of Shanxi Province, Yumen Huoshao Gou of Gansu Province and Huixian County in Henan Province.

Yangqin – Adapted from a Foreign Instrument

Yangqin, the strike-stringed musical instrument, was originated in west Asia and introduced to Europe in the 11th century. It was said to have been introduced to China from Europe in the late Ming Dynasty. It has been combined into Chinese national music for more than 300 years and has become an important folk musical instrument.

To improve the traditional yangqin, Chinese musicians have tried very hard to make changes to its music scales, increase its harmony, augment its loudness and deepness, and improve its timbre. Moreover, many professional performing techniques have been developed to lift up its expressions. Thus the instrument has been a dominant character in a modern Chinese ensembles as well as a powerful solo instrument for performing Chinese national pieces.

Zhuihu – an Instrument That Can Speak and Sing

Zhuihu, a bowed string instrument, also known as Zhuiqin or Zhuizi, is altered from sanxian (a three-stringed musical instrument), and can be used to perform solo and tutti. Since Zhuihu has a wide diapason, a soft sound and a relatively high sound volume, performers can use it to imitate the voice of humans and animals.

There is a legend about the origin of Zhuihu. In the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Kangxi forbade all opera performances in the Forbidden City and artists had to earn a living on the street. One day, an artist’s sanxian was bitten by mice and the covering leather of the sound box got a hole in it. In order not to miss the performance, the artist had to use a piece of paulownia wood to replace the leather and used a bow from huqin (two-stringed Chinese violin) to play the sanxian. This musical instrument which could not only play music but also imitate the human voice was later called Zhuihu.

Liuqin – Small Version of Pipa

Liuqin, with four strings that sound similar to a mandolin, is played with a piece of a plectrum and is used to accompany other instruments for folk songs and local opera.

The liuyeqin, abbreviated to the liuqin, got its name from the willow-leaf-shaped sound box. It is also called tu pipa( unrefined pipa) because of its appearance as a small pipa. It came into use in the music of the local operas, and narrative singing (storytelling music) in north Jiangsu, south Shandong and Anhui provinces.

The folk type is made of willow wood, with 2 or 3 strings and 7 frets. The performer plays it with a slender bamboo tube on the forefinger as a plectrum. The professional type is made of red sandalwood or rosewood, and the performer plays it with a plastic pick (the same as a guitar pick).In the modern type the front sides are made of paulownia wood and the reverse side, of red sandal. The four strings are steel wires. The frets, increased from 7 to as many as 24, are arranged in half-step intervals. The plectrum is made of a horn. The tone quality is clear, bright and delicate.

Konghou – Chinese Harp

Konghou, also called Kanhou, is an ancient plucked stringed instrument in China. There are mainly three kinds of konghou: one is played lying flat, one is played upright and another one is the phoenix-headed konghou. As early as the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, there appeared the rudiment of konghou played lying flat in the Chu Kingdom in southern China. Konghou was originally used in Yayue (court music) and was used in Qingshangyue (a music genre) in the Han Dynasty. It was used in Yanyue (music played in court banquets) in the Sui Dynasty, and gradually prevailed among the ordinary people and in places inhabited by ethnic minorities.

Konghou played upright appeared in the Eastern Han Dynasty and got popular in the Sui and Tang Dynasties. It was generally played in rites and ceremonies. The phoenix-headed Konghou was introduced from India to the Central Plains of China in the Eastern Jin Dynasty and was prevalent in the Sui and Tang Dynasties.

Konghou, with its sweet timbre and wide diapason, can be used to play not only cantus but also chords and has many advantages in both solo and tutti performances. It was an indispensable instrument in China’s ancient royal courts. From basso-relievo in the Yungang Grottoes of Datong and Dunhuang murals, we can see persons playing Konghou. This shows that Konghou playing was very popular in China a long time ago.

Bianzhong – Gem of Ancient Chinese Art

The set of bells, set of chimes and other instruments excavated from the tomb of Zeng Houyi, a Warring States duke, are the largest-scale ancient percussion instruments found so far.

The Zeng Houyi bells are a three-tiered set that has 65 refined bronze bells. There were inscriptions of seal characters and his name on each bell.

The musical range of the Zeng Houyi bells, which can carry the main melody as well as the harmony, was five octaves, next only to the modern piano. Modern scholars inferred that the set of bells could not only play melody but also play in a musical ensemble.

All the musical instruments excavated from the Zeng Houyi tomb show superb craftsmanship and function surprisingly well. The bells have established themselves as one of the wonders of traditional Chinese music.

Bone Flute – Earliest Musical Instrument of China

There are various kinds of musical instruments in the world, including Chinese musical instruments, western musical instruments, special instruments, wind instruments, stringed instruments and so on. Among them, the earliest musical instrument is the bone flute. However, in the 1980s, China did discover bone flutes of 8,000 to 9,000 years old. Excavations in 1986 and 1987 at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu Village, Wuyang County, located in central Henan Province, China, have yielded 6 complete bone flutes. Fragments of approximately 30 other flutes were also discovered. Three seven-hole dizi are now kept in the Beijing Museum, Henan Museum and Henan Institute of Cultural Relics. The flutes may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated, multi-note musical instruments.

Harvest Drum – A Special Instrument

Harvest drum, or peace drum, is popular among regions of Northeast China, Inner Mongolia, Hebei and Anhui provinces. It’s a kind of feature instrument used mainly by the Han and Manchu people. It is said that the drum came into being in the Tang Dynasty and was named a harvest drum in the Ming Dynasty.

According to folk legends, the harvest drum was a tool used by Manchu hunters. Hunters were beating drums when they pursued an animal. And they kept beating drums to express their pleasure when they got back with their prey.

Harvest drums have many different features. Those used by Manchu are oval-shaped. The ones used by Han people are round, oblate or peach-shaped. The drum in Mongolia is only oblate-shaped. People like dancing accompanied by harvest drum playing, especially when they celebrate festivals.


The Suona, also called the Laba, is a double-reed woodwind instrument. It can produce particularly loud and high-pitched sounds and is widely used in Chinese traditional music ensembles, especially in northern China. It is played solo or many times together with the Sheng, drums, and other instruments in wedding and funeral ceremonies.

Guzheng – Chinese zither

The Guzheng is a Chinese plucked zither. It is made of 18-23 or more strings and movable bridges. People believe that it was invented during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The performer plucks the strings at the right portion with the right hand, and the left-hand presses the strings on the left side of the bridge to produce pitch ornamentation and vibrato. The skilled player can create sounds that evoke the sense of a waterfall, thunder, and even scenic countryside.

Leave a Comment