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Music In The Age of Discovery

The Chinese Lute: Pipa and Beyond

Peter Kun Frary


Both the European lute and Chinese pipa (琵琶), a four-string plucked lute, descend from Persian and Central Asian prototypes, e.g., barbat and ‘ūd (oud). These prototype lutes spread both east and west along trade routes but appeared in China centuries before it did in Europe, gaining popularity during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534).

Tejaprabha Buddha, 897AD | British Museum | Detail from a 9th century painting showing a Chinese Venus playing pipa with a plectrum in ‘ūd or guitar style.

The pipa has enjoyed nearly 2000 years of continuous popularity and an unbroken legacy of performers, teachers and composers. In contrast to the nearly vertical position of contemporary players, ancient pipa performers held the instrument horizontally like an ‘ūd or guitar, plucking the silk strings with a rice scooper shaped plectrum (pick). The pipa's closest relative, the Japanese biwa, is still played with a large plectrum in gagaku ensembles.

Female Pipa Musician | Late 7th century Chinese ceramic | Metropolitan Museum of Art | The pipa player is depicted using plectrum technique.

Initially considered to be a foreign instrument of questionable reputation, the pipa was quickly assimilated and became standard instrumentation in yayue ( 雅樂 court music) and yanyue (燕樂 banquet music), Chinese ensembles considered to be the ancestor of Japanese gagaku.

Chinese Court Music (4:03) | Pipa used in a Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Court orchestra piece.

The pipa achieved intense popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and was a principal instrument in the imperial court. Like the European lute, the pipa's success was partially due to its versatility: highly portable and may be played as a solo instrument for intimate gatherings or as part of an orchestra during music and dance performances.

Tang Dynasty Palace Concert | 9th century silk painting depicting palace musicians. Note the central position of the pipa. | National Palace Museum

Pipa, c. 1600 | Museum of Fine Arts | This well preserved pipa was build during the latter part of Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is made of wood and ivory and strung with silk strings tuned A-D-E-A.

Solo Pipa

During Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), pipa players began using their fingernails to pluck the strings and gradually moved the instrument to a more upright position. Early instruments had 4 frets on the neck, but Ming Dynasty pipa had additional bamboo frets affixed onto the soundboard, increasing the upper pitch range. The number of frets continued to increase: modern instruments have as many as 30 frets. Also, the soft twisted silk strings of earlier times gave way to louder nylon-wound steel strings, too strong for human fingernails, so plastic finger picks are used by most modern players.

The pipa boasts solo repertoire from ancient to modern times and is well known as a solo instrument outside of China. Solo pipa repertoire is often virtuosic and programmatic, evoking images of nature or battle. The pipa uses many of the same left-hand techniques as the guitar: vibrato, portamento, tremolo, glissando, natural harmonics, artificial harmonics and string bending. Listen to pipa virtuoso, Wu Man, talk about the pipa's history, technique and repertoire:

Wu Man Discusses Playing the Pipa (4:03)

White Snow in Spring (4:25) | Wu Man, solo pipa


The zhongruan (中阮) is a Chinese plucked string instrument of the lute family and a relative of the pipa. Like the pipa, the zhongruan has an ancient legacy extending across two millennia to the Qin dynasty (秦), c. 200 BC.

Zhongruan on Stage | Su-Min and Su-Hui of MUSA_SG | Photo courtesy MUSA_SG

The zhongruan has a guitar like neck with 24 frets and, like the pipa, 4 strings. Traditionally, strings were made of silk but modern instruments mostly use nylon strings with a metal core similar to pipa strings. Besides the round body, the zhongruan differs from the pipa by producing a darker and lower pitched sound (tenor range). Zhongruan is typically played with a plectrum but may be plucked finger style like a pipa. Listen to Su-Min, zhongruan, and Su-Hui, guzheng (Chinese zither) play a traditional style duet entitled The Drunkard or Wine Madness (酒狂):

The Drunkard (酒狂) (4:05) | Zhongruan and guzheng duet preformed by Su-Min (zhongruan) and Su-Hui (guzheng).


pipa, plectrum, yayue, yanyue, zhongruan

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved