The history of the ''se'' extends back to early Chinese history. It is one of the most important stringed instruments to be created in China, other than guqin and guzheng. Surviving specimens have been excavated from places such as the Hubei and Hunan provinces, and the Jiangnan region of China. Other places include Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong, and Liaoning. In Hubei, the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng was a treasure trove of ancient Chinese instruments, including a complete set of ''bianzhong'' , ''se'', ''guqin'' , stone chimes, and a drum. His musical entourage of 21 girls and women were also buried with him. The state of Zeng was a client state to the state of .
According to legend, Fuxi created the ''se''. It is also believed that by the Xia dynasty the se already came into being. It is said that the word for music, ''yue'', is composed of the characters ''si'' for silk and ''mu'' for wood, and that it is a representation of the instrument.
There are also many mentions in Chinese literature, such as ''Shijing'' and ''Lunyu''. The ''se'' could have been used to entertain guests, as well as for ritual performance and hunting rituals.
A similar instrument called ''seul'', derived from the ''se'', is still used in the Confucian ritual music of South Korea, which is performed twice per year at the Munmyo Shrine in Seoul. In Vietnam, the instrument was called ''sắt'' and used in a limited context along with the ''cầm'' .
The ''se'''s strings were made of twisted silk, in varying thicknesses. According to ''Lüshi Chunqiu'' on the number of strings that the ''se'' has: "A five stringed se, then became a fifteen stringed se. When came to power, he added eight strings, so it became twenty-three." Another view suggests that the ''se'' started out with 50 strings. The ''Shiban'' later changes it to 25. "A big se has 50 strings, a middle se has 25." It also says that Fuxi created the 50 stringed ''se'', called ''Sha'' whilst the Yellow Emperor reduced it to 25. There also is a "small se" that has half of the strings, 13 strings . But archeological evidence has also unearthed ''se'' with 25, 24, 23, or 19 strings. The string number differs from place to place. The length is also different.
Unearthed ''se'' have similar construction, namely a flat long sound-board made of wood. The surface board of the ''se'' is slightly curved, and has three end bridges and one bridge at the head, plus four wooden posts for the strings to wrap around . The posts also have patternation or decoration. The tail-end of the instrument has a long " 冂 " shaped opening for the strings to pass through. To string the instrument, one needs to tie a butterfly knot at the head of the string, strung through a bamboo rod, over the bridge at the head and over the main body of the instrument and over into the tail-end bridge into the instrument, out of the sound hole at the bottom of the instrument, over the tail-end and wrapped around the posts in four or three groups.
Although both are ancient zithers, one should note that the ''guqin'' and the ''se'' are different instruments in their own right.
There are very few players of the ''se'', which is considered an extinct instrument. The only notable ''se'' player in the 20th century was Wu Jinglüe, who was primarily a ''guqin'' player. There are also very few surviving examples of musical tablature for the instrument, a majority existing in '''' in which the ''se'' was used to provide accompaniment for the ''qin''.
Recently, there has been a revived interest in the ''se'', with some musicians studying it. There are also a few factories that make a modern ''se'' using nylon-wrapped metal strings, though the instrument needs to be properly researched using modern mediums for it to be fully acceptable as a playable instrument for general musical purposes.