Ancient Chinese Music Instruments and Related Stories

Table of Contents

 A General Account

Percussion Instruments







  Kong Hou




 Wind Instruments





Bowing Instruments

  Er Hu

  Jing Hu

  Ban Hu


Plucking Instruments







  Yang Qin



The writing is for music lovers, and particularly, for those who wish to get acquainted with ancient Chinese music and instruments. This writing begins with a brief account of the development of Chinese ancient musical instruments, and then it goes into a little detail of the four categories of plucking, wind, bowing and percussion instruments. Within each category, the writer chose a few that were most popular to elaborate on things like how they came into being, what they look like, how they were played, stories, if any, relating to these instruments. The writer also attached a list of music played by these instruments, and CDs of the music are also available from the distributors of this series of books.

A General Account

The development of Chinese ancient musical instruments is divided into four phases, they are:


I.           The Remote Antiquity Period (approximately 6000 B.C.—1711B.C.)

According to relics excavated from underground, “Bone Flute”—made from animal bones discovered at a place called Wuyang—was the earliest Chinese musical instrument; a kind of plucking instrument called “Sè” used in this period was mentioned in classical works, but there has been no archaeological findings can validate such a statement yet. In this period, instruments were used during hunting, singing and dancing.


II.       Prior Qin Period (711 B.C.—256 B.C.)

This period marks one of the heights of the development of musical instruments, during which time a system of classification of instruments was formulated in the Zhou Dynasty, the system is based on eight material with which the instrument was made, and is therefore called “Eight Sounds” (“Bā Yīn” in Chinese phonetic Alphabet or “Pa Yin” in Wade System). The eight materials are: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, pottery, leather, and wood. “Gǔ Qín or Ku Ch’in” appeared in this period. It is quite similar to zither, a string instrument, mostly for recital. Percussion instruments, such as chime bells, were used most often.


III.    The Period of Qin, Han, Sui and Tang Dynasties (221 B.C.—960)

This period reached the zenith of the development of Chinese ancient musical instruments. Many plucked instruments appeared. One Gu Qin score composed by a person named Qiu Ming (494-590) emerged—the score of The Quiet Orchid, which is believed to be the earliest music notations ever found in China, which played an important role in preserving Gu Qin music. Pipa was the most popular instrument in Tang Dynasty. Music played at imperial courts is representative in this period. Bowing instruments made an appearance in society.


IV. The Period of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties (960—1840)

This period is marked with a huge development of bowing instruments, which enhanced the growing of opera and old Chinese rap. Different schools of Gu Qin playing also appeared. Dulcimer came into China from Persia. During Yuan Dynasty, a kind of pipe instrument—“Sǔo Nà”—some people called it Chinese clarinet or Chinese horn—came into being. During this period court music declined, instead folk music bloomed.

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