Saturday, September 6, 2008


The ''pipa'' is a plucked string instrument. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body. It has been played for nearly two thousand years in China, and belongs to the plucked category of instruments . Several related instruments in and Southeast Asia are derived from the ''pipa''; these include the Japanese ''biwa'', the Vietnamese ''&'', and the Korean ''bipa''. The Korean instrument is the only one of the three that is no longer used. Attempts to revive the instrument have failed, although examples survive in museums.

Playing and performance

The name "pípá" is made up of two Chinese syllables, "pí" and "pá" . These are the two most common ways of playing this instrument. "Pí" is to push the fingers of the right hand from right to left, thus more than one finger can be used at a time striking multiple notes, and "pá" is to pull the thumb of the right hand from left to right, in the opposite direction. The strings were originally played using a large plectrum in the Tang Dynasty, then gradually replaced by the fingernails of the right hand. Since the revolutions in Chinese instrument making during the 20th century, the softer twisted silk strings of earlier times have been exchanged for nylon-wound steel strings, which are far too strong for human fingernails, so false nails are now used, constructed of plastic or tortoise-shell, and affixed to the fingertips with the player's choice of elastic tape.

Evolution and construction

Prototypes of the ''pipa'' already existed in China in the Qin Dynasty . At that time, there were two types of ''pipa''. One was straight-necked, with a round sound box constructed from lacquered Paulownia wood, and two faces mounted with leather. The other was believed to be inspired by the primitive forms of '''', ''konghou'', and ''''. It also has a straight neck, a round sound box, and also four strings, along with twelve standards of notes. This model was later developed into the instrument known today as the ruan. The modern ''pipa'' is closer to the instrument which originated in Persia/Middle-East and was introduced into China beginning in the late .

By the Tang era, the ''pipa'' had become popular in the imperial court. It had a crooked neck, 4 or 5 silk strings, and 5 or 6 frets, and was played with a plectrum in a horizontal position. As the ages went by, the crooked neck was replaced by a straight one, the number of frets increased to between 14 or 16, and to 17, 24, 29, or 30 in the 20th century. The 14- or 16-fret ''pipa'' had frets arranged in approximately equivalent to the western tone and semitone, starting at the nut, the intervals were T-S-S-S-T-S-S-S-T-T-3/4-3/4-T-T-3/4-3/4, . In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of frets was increased to 24, based on the 12 tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones. Since then the number of frets has been extended to 29 or 30. The traditional 16-fret ''pipa'' is becoming less common, although it is still used in some regional styles such as the ''pipa'' in the southern genre of ''nanguan''/nanyin. The plectrum was replaced by fingernails and the horizontal playing position was replaced by the vertical position. During this time, the five-stringed ''pipa'' became lost, although in the early 21st century it was revived by the Beijing-born, London-resident ''pipa'' performer , who performs on a modernized modeled on the Tang dynasty instrument, which she researched and commissioned to be made.

The ''pipa'' became a favourite in the Tang Dynasty, during which time and Kuchan performers and teachers were in demand in the capital, Chang'an . Many delicately carved ''pipa''s with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. Masses of ''pipa''-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang.

The ''pipa'' is referred to frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry, where it is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone. Bai Juyi's famous "" describes a chance encounter with a female ''pipa'' player on the Yangtze River:

:大絃嘈嘈如急雨 : The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
:小絃切切如私語 : The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
:嘈嘈切切錯雜彈 : Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
:大珠小珠落玉盤 : As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

The instrument was imported into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam.


There are numerous ''pipa'' pieces in the common repertoire which can be split into four distinctive styles: 「文」 wen , 「武」 wu , 「大」 da , and 「小」 xiao .

Famous pieces include
*''Ambushed from Ten Sides''
*''Flute and Drum at Sunset''
*''White Snow in Spring Sunlight''
*''Dragon Boat''
*''Dance of the Yi People''
*''Big Waves Pushing the Sand''
*''Zhaojun Outside the Frontier''
*''King Takes Off His Armour''
*''Green Waist'' .
*''Moonlit River in Spring'' .

On top of these traditional melodies, new pieces are constantly being composed, most of which follow a more Western structure.

Use in contemporary classical music

In the late 20th century, largely through the efforts of Wu Man, Min Xiao-Fen, and other performers, Chinese and Western began to create new works for the ''pipa'' . Most prominent among these are Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, , Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam, and Carl Stone.


In the 20th century, two of the most prominent ''pipa'' players were Sun Yude and Li Tingsong . Both were pupils of Wang Yuting , and both were active in establishing and promoting ''guoyue'' , a combination of traditional regional musics and Western musical practices. Sun performed in the United States, Asia, and Europe, and in 1956 became deputy director of the ''Shanghai minzu yuetuan'' . As well as being one of the leading ''pipa'' players of his generation, Li held many academic positions and also carried out research on ''pipa'' scales and temperament. Wei Zhongle played many instruments, including the ''guqin''. In the early 1950s, he founded the traditional instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Lin Shicheng , born in Shanghai, began learning music under his father and was taught by Shen Haochu , a leading player in the Pudong school style of ''pipa'' playing. He also qualified as a doctor of Chinese medicine. In 1956, after working for some years in Shanghai, Lin accepted a position at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu Dehai also born in Shanghai, was a student of Lin Shicheng and in 1961 graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu also studied with other musicians and has developed a style that combines elements from several different schools.

Prominent students of Lin Shicheng include Liu Guilian , Wu Man and Gao Hong . Wu, who is probably the best known ''pipa'' player internationally, received the first-ever master's degree in ''pipa'' and won China's first National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments. She lives in , California and works extensively with Chinese, cross-cultural, new music, and jazz groups. Shanghai-born Liu Guilian graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and became the director of the Shanghai Pipa Society, and a member of the Chinese Musicians Association and Chinese National Orchestral Society, before immigrating to Canada. She now performs with Red Chamber and the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. Gao Hong graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and was the first to do a joint tour with Lin Shicheng in North America. They recorded the critically-acclaimed CD ''Hunting Eagles Catching Swans'' together.

Other contemporary players who have introduced the ''pipa'' to North America, Europe, or Japan include Min Xiao-Fen, , Yang Wei , , , , Qiu Xia He, Liu Fang, , , , and Ma Jie .

Prominent ''pipa'' players in China include Yu Jia , Wu Yu Xia , Zhang Qiang , Fang JinLung , and Fan Wei .

Use in other genres

The ''pipa'' has also been used in rock music; the California-based band featured it in their 2001 song "Aqueous Transmission," as played by the group's guitarist, Mike Einziger. The Shanghai progressive/folk-rock band Cold Fairyland, which was formed in 2001, also use ''pipa'' , sometimes multi-tracking it in their recordings.

Electric pipa

An electric pipa is a plucked string instrument which modifies a traditional Chinese lute called a "pipa" by adding electric guitar-style magnetic pickups which allow the instrument to be amplified through an instrument amplifier or PA system.


*Lin, Shicheng, and Gao, Hong . ''''. IFTPA .



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