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The pipa ( ) is a four-stringed Chinesemarker instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments (弹拨乐器/彈撥樂器). Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12–26. Although, like its smaller sibling, the Chinese liuqin, it may look like a lute, in fact neither pipa nor liuqin has an actual neck, as the soundboard body spans the entire strings to the head of the instrument, making them handheld zithers.

The pipa appeared in the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BCE) and was developed during the Han Dynasty. It is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for nearly two thousand years in China. Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa; these include the Japanesemarker biwa, the Vietnamesemarker đàn tỳ bà, and the Koreanmarker 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" (琵) and "pá" (琶). 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

A Tang Dynasty five-stringed pipa
Prototypes of the pipa already existed in China in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC206 BC). 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 zheng, konghou, and zou. 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 (where it was called barbat) and was introduced into China beginning in the late Jin Dynasty (265–420 A.D.).

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, (some frets produced a 3/4 tone or "neutral tone"). 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 (or near-vertical) position. During this time, the five-stringed pipa became lost, although in the early 21st century it was revived by the Chinese-born, London-resident pipa performer Cheng Yu, who performs on a modernized five-string pipa modeled on the Tang dynasty instrument, which she researched and commissioned to be made.
Back of the Tang Dynasty five-stringed pipa
The pipa became a favourite in the Tang Dynasty, during which time Persian and Kuchanmarker performers and teachers were in demand in the capital, Chang'anmarker (which had a large Persian community). Many delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. Masses of pipa-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Cavesmarker near Dunhuangmarker.

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 "Pipa Xing" (Pipa Play) describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze Rivermarker:

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.
A standard modern pipa with white ox horn for neck and pegs

Note that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers never touch the actual body--distinctively different from western fretted instruments. This allows for a greater control over timbre and intonation than their western counterparts, but makes chordal playing more difficult.


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

Famous pieces include

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 contemporary composers began to create new works for the pipa (both solo and in combination with chamber ensembles and orchestra). Most prominent among these are Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam, and Carl Stone.


In the 20th century, two of the most prominent pipa players were Sun Yude (孙裕德; 1904-1981) and Li Tingsong (李庭松; 1906-1976). Both were pupils of Wang Yuting (1872–1951), and both were active in establishing and promoting guoyue (国乐; literally "national music"), 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 (上海民族乐团; Shanghai Folk Orchestra). 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 (卫仲乐; 1908 or 1909-1998) played many instruments, including the guqin. In the early 1950s, he founded the traditional instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Lin Shicheng (林石城; 1922-2006), born in Shanghai, began learning music under his father and was taught by Shen Haochu (沈浩初; 1899–1953), a leading player in the Pudong (浦东) 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 (刘德海; b. 1937) 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 (刘桂莲, b. 1961), Wu Man (吴蛮, b. 1963) and Gao Hong (高虹, b. 1964). 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 San Diegomarker, Californiamarker 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, Zhou Yi (周懿), Yang Wei (楊惟), Guan Yadong(管亚东), Tang Liangxing (湯良興), Jiang Ting, Qiu Xia He, Liu Fang (劉芳), Yang Jing(楊靜), Yang Jing(楊靖),Ting Ting (Zong Tingting), Cheng Yu, Ma Jie (马捷), and Changlu Wu(吳长璐).

Prominent pipa players in China include Yu Jia (俞嘉), Wu Yu Xia (吳玉霞), Zhang Qiang (張強), Fang JinLung (方錦龍), and Fan Wei (樊薇).

Use in other genres

The pipa has also been used in rock music; the California-based band Incubus 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 (played by Lin Di), sometimes multi-tracking it in their recordings. Australian dark rock band The Eternal use the pipa in their song 'Blood' as played by singer / guitarist Mark Kelson on their album 'Kartika'.

Electric pipa

An electric pipa
An electric pipa
The electric pipa was developed in the late 20th century by adding electric guitar-style magnetic pickups to a regular acoustic pipa, allowing the instrument to be amplified through an instrument amplifier or PA system.

See also


Further reading

  • New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London, 2001).

External links

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