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Pipa – A Wonderful Sound From The Heaven

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Written by Titania Nguyen
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Music is an essential part of the culture, and each country has unique traditional instruments representing its identity. One such instrument is the Pipa, widely regarded as one of China’s most important stringed instruments. It is a pear-shaped, four-stringed instrument that has been around for over 2000 years. Let’s explore the history and evolution of the Pipa, its role in ancient Chinese artistry, and its contribution to classical and contemporary Chinese music.

A Part of the traditional Chinese instruments

The Pipa (Chinese: 琵琶 |pípá| – “pee-paa”) is a traditional Chinese musical instrument. It is also known as the Chinese lute or Chinese guitar. Its distinctive onomatopoeic name is derived from two basic pluck techniques: ‘pí’ (琵), meaning strike outwards, and ‘pá’ (琶), meaning strum inwards. Pipa has over 2000 years of history, developing from pentatonic to full scales. This musical instrument has been an integral part of Chinese music. Pipa has four strings and a pear-shaped body. The frets on this Chinese instrument are similar to those on a guitar. Each fret has a different number of letters.

Pipa first appeared in China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), and peaked in popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Pipa is an incredibly versatile instrument. It can be used as a solo instrument or performed with a small ensemble or large orchestra. As a result, it is one of the most often used instruments in traditional Chinese folk music.

“King” of The Chinese Musical Instruments

At its height of favor some thirteen hundred years ago, the Pipa was a regular at the Tang Dynasty court. The most difficult to master, the Pipa has many playing techniques and uses for all ten fingers. Using its unique, soul-stirring tone and sound effects, the Pipa can express incredible depth in music, from delicate melodies to exciting epic songs of the battlefield. It is thus considered the king among ancient Chinese string instruments.

History of the Pipa

The Pipa is a beautiful string instrument of Chinese culture. In the Tang Dynasty, its popularity in Chinese culture surged, becoming an important part of folk music. Despite its origins appearing very early in history (in the second century BC), the Tang Dynasty saw it at the height of its influence. It was usually used for everything from imperial performances to folk operas.

The Pipa was usually mentioned throughout Chinese history. Other pear-shaped body instruments besides the four-stringed Pipa include the Ruan, Qin Pipa, Hu Pipa, Quxiang Pipa, etc.

Origin of the name

The name of the Pipa, consisting of two syllables, ‘pí’ (琵) and ‘pá’ (琶), is an onomatopoeic representation of two plucking techniques used to play this instrument.

Though some recent Pipa documents have speculated that the name might have derived from the Persian lute, Barbat, there are several indications that this may be wrong. This is due to the difficulty in recognizing any similarity between the pronunciation of barbat and pipa.

For Chinese people, it is natural to use everyday language to describe similar sounds made by nature or created by humanity. This led to the creation of characters intelligently following certain principles; for example, making sure the characters chosen for an object can accurately represent its image, with pronunciation far from randomly given. The Chinese characters used to name an “object” usually depict the “image” of the thing as well as convey its meaning (in a self-explanatory manner). So, the name Pipa (琵琶) comes from the ancient way of saying “forward and backward plucking”.

Some documents suggest that the term “Pipa” was commonly used for plucked stringed instruments in ancient times. However, that is not the case. China also has several other plucked stringed instruments with their own names, such as Ruan, Yueqin, Liuqin, Sanxian, etc. These instruments and Pipa are also part of the Lute family.

Several Versions in The Same Family of Pipa

Qinhanzi (qin Pipa – 秦琵琶):  a four-stringed lute with a skin-covered circular body, a straight neck, and 12 frets. It had an original from a rattle drum during Shihuangdi’s reign (238–210 BC). The body was composed of wood and had 12 frets during Han Wudi (141–87 BC).

Ruan (Ruanxian – 阮咸): named after the musician Ruan Xian, one of Bamboo Grove’s Seven Sages. It has a long neck and thirteen frets. The Ruan is held vertically and plucked with the fingers during the performance. A version of this Chinese lute is the famous yueqin, a short-necked lute.

Quxiang Pipa (曲項琵琶): the direct predecessor of the modern Pipa. This musical instrument traveled from Persia along the Silk Road to western China in the fourth century AD. It had a curved neck, four strings, four frets, and a pear-shaped wooden body with two crescent-shaped sound holes. The Pipa player usually held it sideways and played it with a plectrum during the performance.

A carving depiction of a Pipa player playing the Quxiang Pipa was discovered in Yulin caves (photo: Wikipedia).
A carving depiction of a Pipa player playing the Quxiang Pipa was discovered in Yulin caves (photo: Wikipedia).

Throughout the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Quxiang Pipa became the king of Chinese musical instruments and has been the dominant kind ever since. It was used as a solo instrument by virtuosos and in folk bands and orchestras for royal entertainment. During this time, the instrument’s holding position was changed from horizontal to standing, the plectrum was replaced with fingernails, and the number of frets on the body was increased.

Structure of Pipa

Structure of Pipa.
Structure of Chinese lute.

The Chinese Pipa (modern Pipa) has a pear-shaped wooden body and four strings. It has also profoundly symbolized ancient Chinese beliefs. Its size of three feet and five inches reflects the three realms—Heaven, the earth, and man—and the five elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, while its four strings correspond to one of the four seasons.

The Pipa is constructed completely out of wood; the front is made from a Chinese parasol tree, while the back is usually made from mahogany or sandalwood. Pipa’s modern strings are made out of nylon or steel, but in ancient times they used beef tendon or silk strings.

The Chinese lute is an incredibly versatile instrument. It has a highly expressive sound that can range from vibrant and lively to quiet and tranquil, and its tones are also incredibly diverse. High notes are bright, middle notes are gentle, and low tones are thick. All these notes together create a stunningly wide variety of sounds that can express everything from intense battle cries to the peaceful sound of nature on a moonlit night. Hence, the Pipa lends itself to conveying both epic grandeur and deep serenity.

Chinese Pipa Playing Technique

The Pipa is a Chinese string instrument with a unique range of expressions, making it capable of creating various musical styles. It can utilize playing techniques like Western string instruments, and its wooden body allows for drumming and twisting of the strings to create a cymbal-like sound. This fusion of all these musical techniques creates memorable, enchanting melodies and reappears in thrilling emotions and narratives.

One of the most versatile instruments, Pipa can make various changes in sound. Over the centuries, over 60 different techniques have been developed. The Pipa playing skill is distinguished by exceptional finger dexterity and virtuosic programming effects. Some techniques, such as Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, tremolo, strumming, etc., allow Pipa players to create unique and exciting sound effects. For example, striking the Pipa’s wooden body in performance produces a sound similar to percussion instruments, twisting strings to create a cymbal-like effect, etc. That makes it one of the most special and challenging antique instruments.

Pipa’s playing technique has various changes over time. It was initially held horizontally, like a guitar. Pipa players use a sizeable triangular plectrum to pluck the twisted silk strings. As playing the instrument developed over time, musicians began using their fingertips instead of the plectrum. This allowed them to reach higher levels of excellence when playing Pipa.

Pipa in Ancient Chinese Artistry


The Pipa is an important Chinese musical instrument. It has existed for over 2,000 years. Stories about the Pipa and its sound have made their way into many of China’s famous literary works.

The story of Wang Zhaojun

Lady Wang Zhaojun and her Pipa (Photo: Shenyun.com)

Wang Zhaojun’s journey to the Xiongnu Empire has been memorialized in Chinese history. Wang Zhaojun (王昭君) is one of the “Four Great Beauties” of ancient China. Emperor Yuan delivered her to marry the Xiongnu Empire’s Chanyu Huhanye to improve relations with the Han dynasty through marriage.

On her journey, she took only a qin (Chinese lute) and rode on a yellow horse to symbolize her noble identity. When she rode her horse northward, sorrow overwhelmed the scene. In the face of these feelings, Wang Zhaojun played a sorrowful melody on her Pipa. Her music moved even the wild geese, who stopped flapping their wings to listen to this beautiful Chinese lute music and fell to the ground.

The poem “Pipa Xing”

Bai Juyi was a famous Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty. He wrote many renowned works, including “Pipa Xing” (琵琶行: “Song of the Pipa” or “Ballad of the Lute”). It is a poem composed of 616 Chinese characters that captured the imagery of a pipa performance and this Chinese lute music.

This poem tells the story of a famous pipa player and the writer’s sympathy with her life. The poem is an exploration of life’s sorrows, as well as the beauty of music and art. It captures the sadness of a departed love through vivid descriptions and metaphors while expressing admiration for the musician’s skill.

大絃嘈嘈如急雨 Thick strings clatter like splattering rain,

小絃切切如私語 Fine strings murmur like whispered words,

嘈嘈切切錯雜彈 Clattering and murmuring, meshing jumbled sounds,

大珠小珠落玉盤 Like pearls, big and small, falling on a platter of jade.

"Pipa xing" drawing in a Ming Dynasty painting by Guo Xu

Fine Arts

Pipa can be found in more than just literature. It is also featured in many Chinese paintings and sculptures, providing insight into how it was used in the past. For example, Mogao Caves and Yulin Caves in western China have an ancient collection of mural artwork dubbed a cultural treasure of the Silk Road.

The Pipa’s Contribution to Classical Chinese Music

Pipa is traditionally referred to as the “king” of Chinese instruments. It has long been used to compose and play such pieces as folk songs, opera, poetry, and literature. Over time, playing the Pipa has evolved with new playing techniques developed through generations of pipa players.

Different regions of China have their own style of playing Pipa, and numerous schools have been developed. During the Qing dynasty, two major schools of playing emerged—the Northern and Southern schools. These two schools gave rise to the five main schools associated with the solo tradition afterward. The name of each of the five distinct playing styles after their place of origin. Those are the Wuxi school (無錫派), Pudong school (浦東派), Pinghu school (平湖派), Chongming school (崇明派) and Shanghai (Wang) school (汪派). The range of playing styles creates a library of compositions that shows both versatility and emotion. Playing this complex instrument brings these pieces to life with skill and feeling.

Some famous historical compositions used by the Pipa instrument

  1. 十面埋伏 – Ambush on Ten Sides
  2. 夕陽簫鼓/春江花月夜 – Flute and Drum at Sunset / Flowery Moonlit River in Spring
  3. 陽春白雪 – White Snow in Spring Sunlight
  4. 龍船 – Dragon Boat
  5. 大浪淘沙 – Big Waves Crashing on Sand
  6. 昭君出塞 – Zhaojun Outside the Frontier
  7. 霸王卸甲 – The Warlord Takes Off His Armour
  8. 高山流水 – High Mountains Flowing Water
  9. 月兒高 – Moon on High
  10. 龜茲舞曲 – Dance along the old Silk Road
  11. 九連鈺 – Nine Jade Chains
  12. 彝族舞曲 – Dance of the Yi People

One piece of Chinese classical pipa music titled “Ambush on Ten Sides” lies below:

Traditional Chinese Pipa music: “Ambush on Ten Sides”

This piece portrays the decisive battle between the forces of Zhou and Han in 202 B.C. at Gaixia (southeast of today’s Linbi County, Anhui Province). This piece provides a general overview of combat. The Han army set up a ten-sided ambush formation, destroying the Zhou army and compelling Xiang Yu to commit suicide near the Wujiang River’s bank. It depicts the furious and dramatic battle scenes and the dismal and sorrowful scenes of the vanquished Xiang Yu in the style of a musical narrative and concludes with the victor’s triumph. In this composition, a wide range of Pipa performance approaches is used to create a majestic and impassioned tale that is sharp in the aesthetic picture, exalting in melody, and ultimately exhilarating.

Pipa in Contemporary Music

Pipa is a very versatile instrument. First used in traditional Chinese music, but it has now become a part of other genres. This instrument can be performed as a solo instrument or in orchestras. It is known for having a unique sound that boosts other instruments and creates new experiences for listeners. The world is becoming more open to cultural integration. From classical music to modern genres like pop, rock, punk, and even EDM, the Pipa can also make a unique sound in these various styles.

The Pipa is still used in contemporary music, and its popularity has spread beyond China’s borders. In recent years, many musicians have started experimenting with combining traditional Chinese instruments like the Pipa with Western classical symphony instruments to create a unique sound. Shen Yun is one of the most notable examples of this fusion.

A Unique Combination Of Ancient Chinese Musical Instruments & Western Classical Symphony

The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra is a group of musicians specializing in playing traditional Chinese instruments alongside Western classical symphony instruments. They have performed in many countries worldwide, including the United States, Canada, etc. The Pipa is one of the key instruments used in their performances, and its unique sound helps to create a beautiful and harmonious blend of Eastern and Western music.

Chinese musical instruments have become a important part of Shen Yun Orchestra (Photo: Shenyun.com).
Chinese musical instruments have become an important part of the Shen Yun Orchestra (Photo: Shenyun.com).

Shen Yun’s music is an impressive blend of the East and West. The Eastern focuses on expressing inner feelings, and the Western emphasizes arrangement and harmony. This musical fusion transports audiences back in time to explore China’s rich culture and history. Their performances often feature elaborate costumes, stunning visuals, and a combination of music and dance. Bringing in traditional Chinese instruments like the Pipa has infused its own subtle flavors into the symphony, creating a truly unparalleled experience for the audience.

The Pipa is a beautiful and unique instrument that has been part of Chinese culture for centuries. Its history and contribution to ancient Chinese artistry and classical music are significant, and its role in contemporary Chinese music is just as important. Through the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra and other contemporary musicians, the Pipa has gained favor worldwide, and its unique sound continues to capture people’s hearts everywhere. Moving forward, it’s clear that the Pipa will remain an essential part of Chinese culture and a vital instrument in the world of music.

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