Historical development of the pipa, a traditional Chinese music instrument

The pipa is played vertically with five fingers of the right handThe pipa (pronounced "pee-paa") is a four-stringed lute, one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments with over 2000 years of history. The term pipa () consists of two Chinese characters symbolizing two playing techniques (known as "Tan" and "Tiao" today) while their pronunciations p'i and p'a are imitations of the sounds produced accordingly. The latter fact is however not often mentioned in the literatures about pipa (see [note 2])

The historical development of the pipa has been a progressive process from its very beginning with few major fusions. The earliest Chinese written texts about the pipa dated back at least to the second century BC. For instance, Xi Liu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) described in his book, The Definition of Terms - On Musical Instruments, that the name of the instrument pipa originally referred to two finger techniques. The two Chinese characters p'i and p'a stood originally for the two movements, i.e. plucking the strings forwards and backwards, respectively. It is commonly known now that the term "pipa" used ot be the generic name for all pluck-string instruments of the ancient times. For instance, in the Qin Dynasty (222-207 BC), there had been a kind of plucked-instrument, known as xiantao, with a straight neck and a round sound-body played horizontally, which is considered one of the predecessors of the pipa. In the preface to his verse Ode to Pipa, Xuan Fu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) wrote: "...the pipa appeared in the late Qin period. When the people suffered from being forced to build the Great Wall, they played the instrument to express their resentment". By the Han Dynasty (206 BC -- 220 AD), the instrument developed into its form of four strings and twelve frets, plucked with fingernails and known as pipa or qin-pipa [1]. In the Western Jin Dynasty (256-316), the qin-pipa was named after the famous scholar, one of "the seven sages of the Bamboo Forest", Ruan Xian, who was a great master on this instrument. (Note that Ji Kong, grand master of the seven stringed zither qin, was among the seven sages who were friends and often met for music and wine). The instrument has been to this day called the ruan () whereas the name pipa specifically referred to a new version in the same family of instruments, which developed as follows:

[1] pipa (pre-Tang Dynasty)
[2] Tang pipa (straight neck)
[3] Tang pipa (bent neck)
[4] modern pipa

Fig.1: Historical development of the pipa, a Chinese four stringed lute - - an illustration of the time evolution from qin-pipa to the modern pipa through the influence of hu-pipa (See the Note[1] in the right panel for detailed explanation of the major fusion).

Playing the pipa horizontally with a wooden plectrum was introduced during the Northern and Southern Dynasty (420-589 AD)
Playing the pipa horizontally with a wooden plectrum was introduced during the Northern and Southern Dynasty (420-589 AD)

During the Northern and Southern Dynasty(420-589 AD), a similar pluck string instrument, called oud or barbat with a crooked neck and four or five strings was introduced through the Silk Road from Central Asia, known as the Hu Pipa (Hu stands for "foreign" in Chinese), which was played horizontally with a wooden plectrum (see the picture below for the Tang Dynasty pipa player). During the early Tang Dynasty, foreign music became very popular. A fusion of the original Chinese pipa and the "Hu pipa" took place such that the instrument gradually became what the present pipa looks like toward the middle of the Tang Dynasty (see pictures [1]-[4] in following Note 1 in the right panel). Meanwhile the playing method has been developed and repertoire increased. One of the greatest developments was that the left hand became totally free by holding the instrument vertically,

The pipa was played horizontally with a wooden plectrum during the Tang Dynasty (618-907)
 Pipa was played horizontally with a wooden plectrum during the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

i.e. the pipa rests on the thigh of the instrumentalist in an upright position, and was played vertically with five fingers of the right hand instead of horizontally with a plectrum (see the photo at the top of this page). During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the pipa was one of the most popular instruments, and it has maintained its appeal in solo as well as chamber genres ever since.

The Tang pipa [3] was larger than the modern instrument. It usually had four or five strings and fewer frets (compared to the present day pipa). Probably influenced by the Hu pipa, the Tang pipa was often played with a wooden plectrum, a technique still used by its Japanese descendent, the biwa. Since the mid Tang Dynasty, and particularly since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the instrument was gradually developed into the present form of a lute played with fingernails, while the techniques with the plectrum were totally abandoned. The strings of the instrument were made of silk. Musicians used their real nails of the right hand to pluck the strings. An exception to this is the Nanguan pipa which is popular in Fujian Province (South-East China) and Taiwan in a particular kind of traditional music called Nanguan which can be traced back to at least the Song Dynasty. Pipa players in the Nanguan tradition play the pipa horizontally and use a one piece plectrum just like the Tang pipa.

The above picture is from the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD).
Note that the second musician from the right side plays the pipa.

The above is a painting from the "Five Dynasty" (907-960 AD) depicting Tang pipa playing

Another big change (fusion) occurred to the pipa during the first half of the last century: the traditional pipa with silk strings and pentatonic tuning has developed into the modern pipa with steel strings and chromatic tuning (by increasing the number of frets). The modern instrument is half-pear-shaped, with a short, bent neck, and has 30 frets which extend down the neck and onto the soundboard, giving a wide range and a complete chromatic scale. The usual tuning is A - E - D - A (La - Mi - Re - La). Since early last century, steel strings began to be used by some musicians while most still kept using silk strings. Since the 1950s, the making of the pipa has become standardized in measure and the strings are made of steel wrapped with nylon. Thus using the real nail becomes almost impossible. Instead, a little plectrum (or fake nail) is attached to each finger of the right hand. The plectrums are usually made of turtle shell or special plastics.

Notation for the pipa combines symbols for pitch (Kung-ch'e system) with abbreviated characters for special finger techniques. Today, a simplified version of music scores are commonly used in which numbers representing pitches and symbols representing finger techniques are used. Meanwhile, the standard Western music score has been used increasingly because it has advantages in ensemble pieces and in particular for pipa concertos

There was a huge repertoire of pipa music in Chinese history, particularly during the Tang dynasty. But most of the pieces were lost. Fortunately, there are precious pipa pieces handed down from one generation to another by individual artists and scholars. Some pieces have been preserved in Japan and other musical scores were discovered along the Silk Road in Gansu Province, China, around 1900. These musical notations, known as the Dunhuang scores from the Tang Dynasty (7-9th century) triggered great concern and interest within China as well as abroad. However, they remained a mystery until the early 1980s, when the scholar, Prof. Ye Dong from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, successfully "decoded" 25 of the pieces. The beauty and elegance of these pieces has thus first been revealed to the public after having slept for a thousand years.

Pipa music has been loved by Chinese people through the centuries. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) dynasties, various pipa schools with different styles flourished in the South, centered in Wuxi, Suzhou and Shanghai, and the North, centered in Beijing. The development of finger techniques for both hands achieved a high standard by the masters from each school. The present day pipa techniques are mostly the fusion of those different schools. Now the pipa is one of most popular instruments in China. Many of the compositions that make up the traditional repertoire, which were handed down from generation to generation through individual artists and scholars, date back hundreds of years, while others are part of a body of compositions that are dynamic and growing. In more recent times, composers have explored the possibilities for the pipa and other Chinese and Western instruments, even with orchestra. Nowadays, there are a number of celebrated pipa concerti.

The playing technique consists of the right hand fingers plucking the strings and the left hand fingers touching the strings in a variety of ways to create melodies, ornaments and special effects. The fingers that pluck the strings move outwards, just the opposite to guitar techniques. The frets are pretty high, which allows the string to be pushed, twisted, and pressed. There are over 60 different techniques that have been developed through the centuries.

Liu Fang demonstrates some basic pipa techniques. There are about 60 different playing techniques for the pipa.

For more music videos, click here

The pipa's technique is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and virtuosic programmatic effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics, and noises are often combined into extensive tone-poems vividly describing famous battles or other exciting scenes, such as the Ambush (see the demo video #2 below). This type is called "wu qu" (martial style). This example describes the decisive battle fought in the second century BC between Chu (Xiang Yu) and Han (Liu Bang). The instrument is also capable of more lyric effects, in the category of "wen qu" (civil styles) such as the famous tunes "Fei Hua Dian Cui" (Swirling snow decorates the evergreen, see the demo video #1 below) or Sai Shang qu (Songs from the other side of the border). The former uses a scene in nature as metophor to describe human feeling. The latter is said to represent the sorrowful song of a Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) noblewoman, who was compelled for political reasons to marry a barbarian prince. This story appears in several versions connected with the origin of the pipa. There are also a lot of written texts and famous poems about the pipa music played by virtuoso performers in history. For instance, the following comments can be found in the texts from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) describing the intensity of the Ambush played by artists of that time : "... as if thousands of warriors and horses are roaring on the battle field, as if the earth is torn and the sky is falling". In his poem, the Pipa Song, Bai Juyi, one of the leading poets in the Tang Dynasty, described vividly the pipa music performed by an artist: "... The thicker strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain, the thinner ones hummed like a hushed whisper. Together they shaped strands of melody, like larger and smaller pearls falling on a jade plate."

[Note 1: the major fusion] According to the historical records, before the introduction of the Persian Barbat (which was called Hu-pipa by Chinese people), the pipa Chinese musician performed with appeared to be like the pipa in Fig.1[1] sometime referred to as qin-pipa. Then some musicians went to China through the Silk Road (around 5th century), bringing with them a kind of lute-like instrument, the Persian Barbat (or the hu-pipa). The latter didn't become popular until the early Tang Dynasty (around the 7th century) when a group of brilliant musicians were presented to the emperor. They were apparently amazing, as the emperor fell in love with their music immediately. Soon this foreign music became very popular in the Chinese capital Chang'an (today's Xi'an) and the hu-pipa became a fashion. Some Chinese musicians began to modify their instruments to conform more to the shape of the Hu-pipa, producing something that was called the Tang pipa (see Fig. 1 [2] and [3]). At first the neck was kept straight, and then it was bent, while the sound body changed from being round to pear-shaped. The reason for the change may be that people have the tendency to follow fashion (which seems to be true even today). In the old times, the emperors were the biggest fashion stars. What they liked, everybody liked. Moreover, the Hu-pipa doesn't "sing" the Chinese songs the way Chinese people were used to, so the "voice" had to be changed. So were the playing techniques (or rather, they maintained the original finger nail techniques, instead of using a plectrum). Thus the sound body became shallower compared to the "Hu-pipa" in order to create a more crystal-like sound. And the development continued ... Until the middle of last century, the pipa tuning was still pentatonic, the strings were made of silk, and real finger nails were used for plucking the strings. The modern pipa has a complete chromatic scale (obtained by increasing the number of frets); steel strings have replaced the silk ones, and 5 finger plectra (faked nails) are used.

[Note 2: some common confusions] There are sometimes speculations in some recent pipa literatures that the name pipa might have derived from the Persian lute Barbat. This sounds more like a wild speculation than a possibility, because (1) the name pipa appeared in historical documents much earlier than the arrival of the Barbat, (2) the pronunciation of barbat can hardly be associated with that of p'i-p'a, whereas for Chinese people, it is just natural, as in the everyday language, the phonetic use of the words such as "pi-pi-pa-pa" or "pi-li-pa-la" is very common in describing similar sounds from nature or humanly-made noise. (3) the Chinese characters were created intelligently according to some basic principles: for instance, the character(s) used as the name of an "object" should reflect the "image" of the object or/and indicate its meaning (in a self-explanatory way). Meanwhile, the pronunciation is by no means randomly given. It must be related to the object in one way or another.

In the case of pipa, for example, the two characters were written as or in the earliest documents, where the (wood) refers to the material the pipa was made of, and the is a symbol for "the hand/fingers", implying "action" with fingers (thus finger techniques), whereas the two symbols and on the left side of the characters are "borrowed" simply because of their pronunciations. In another words, they stand there in the formation of the two characters for the pipa simply because their pronunciation sounds similar to the two sounds produced by the two finger techniques on the pipa. Later on (around the third century), the written characters for pipa have been standardized as where the upper part of the characters is the common root for the names of the ancient string instruments qin() and se().

There are also arguments based on the fact that most of Chinese instruments have one-syllable names such as qin, se, sheng, yu, zheng, ruan, xiao, xun, etc; whereas the instruments of foreign origin have two syllable names such as erhu, yangqin, suona etc. Needless to say, the origin of instruments are apparent even from the characters used for their names, as they are either self-explanatary ( such as erhu and yangqin) or simply phonetic translation (Suona).

But one cannot conclude that all instruments with two sylables are foreign origin! This statement cannot be true, because written Chinese and spoken Chinese were not the same**. In written language, one character distinguishes from the other quite obviously, even if they have the same pronunciation (In Chinese, there are many characters which have the same pronunciation, but mean different things). In spoken language, people try to avoid using one-syllable words to name a thing, otherwise confusion would be inevitable. What we see in the historical documents are all written language. In the old times (say 2000 years ago) people wrote on bamboo strips or on silk. When they could note a thing with one character, they wouldn't care to use two (economy was a virtue). However, if they found one character was not enough, they would naturally use two or even more. Pipa requires two characters, because it refers to two techniques and two sounds. Moreover, even in written language, not all instruments with two-syllable names were of foreign origin. Examples are plenty, such as “bianzhong” , “paixiao”, "xiantao", "qi-xian-qin", "qin-zheng", etc. They are instruments from ancient China, even older than pipa.

*Chinese writing consists of an individual character or ideogram for every syllable, each character representing a word or idea rather than a sound; thus, problems caused by homonyms in spoken Chinese are not a difficulty in written Chinese. Whereas in every day spoken Chinese, people often avoid using single character to call a thing. Additional characters (which have somilar meaning or offer additional information) are often used to avoid confusion, for instance, the zither qin and zheng is often called guqin, and guzheng in spoken Chinese, where "gu" means ancient. Since the "new culture" movement (starting from the beginning of the last century), Chinese literatures have been more and more linked to spoken language, and many words that were used for every day spoken language have come into common usage for written literature. The above-mentioned guqin and guzheng are just few examples.


Demo #1: Wen qu (civil style or lyrical style)
"Fei Hua Dian Cui" or Swirling snow decorates the evergreen. (see The Soul of the Pipa Vol. I).

Demo #2: Wu qu (martial style)
"Shi Mian Mai Fu", or the Ambush (sometimes also "the ambush from all sides", see The Soul of the Pipa Vol. II)

Liu Fang concert live in St. Petersburg & the reportage from Russian TV

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