Yangqin: King of Strings and Tunes

ByMeng Jiaxin September 3, 2022

Many people would agree the piano is the "king of musical instruments." However, they might not have noticed yangqin, the traditional, Chinese folk-musical instrument, whose crystal-clear sounds might remind you of a gurgling stream of water flowing past a small village. With its broad musical range, created from its 144 strings, yangqin can be used to play nearly all types of music. No wonder many Chinese (including musicians and makers of musical instruments) call yangqin the "king of strings and tunes." In 2008, Sichuan (in Southwest China)'s art of playing the Yangqin was added to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage.

"It is widely recognized that the piano is a variant instrument of China's yangqin, one major difference being that the hammers and strings of the piano are placed inside the instrument body instead of outside like the yangqin," says Xu Xuedong, a professor with Minzu University of China (in Beijing), who is a yangqin virtuoso and composer. "Consequently, the yangqin is also known as the 'Chinese piano'."

Today, the yangqin and its foreign "counterparts" are called by different names in various countries, but it is generally known by its English name hammered dulcimer. Xu adds, "The yangqin is the only musical instrument that has similar versions of it being played in more than 60 countries."

Though they all trace their early roots back to the region of Iran, the shape, structure, and playing methods of each member of the hammered dulcimer family significantly differ from country to country. For instance, the yangqin is much larger than the santur in India, but much smaller than the hammered dulcimer in Romania. With reforms to adapt to Chinese culture, the yangqin has gradually evolved into an independent Chinese instrument, markedly distinct from those hammered dulcimers outside China. The yangqin is not only popular in China, but also widely played by people in East and Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.


Integrating into Native Culture

According to historical records, during the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573-1620) in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the yangqin first came into China via the Maritime Silk Road. It arrived in Guangdong Province (in South China), and then spread to other regions, including Guangxi, Sichuan and Hunan.

When it came to the late Ming Dynasty, the rise of Chinese folk opera art along with the increasing popularity of Chinese novels bolstered a rapid integration of the yangqin with local folk instruments, giving birth to a new form of orchestra and adding a new charm to Chinese folk art. By late Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the yangqin had become an essential part of nearly all Chinese folk operas for various ethnic groups across the country. 

Yangqin has undergone several major changes, throughout its development history (in China). The original yangqin was played with wooden hammers.Chinese people opt for bamboo hammers because bamboo exhibits better natural elasticity. "Bamboo is bouncy. Bamboo hammers bounce back easier once they strike the board," says Xu. He also believes that the reason why Chinese people in the past chose bamboo hammers rather than wood hammers was that bamboo represented the spirit of Chinese literati. There is much truth to this statement as in Chinese culture, bamboo is the personification of a number of admirable traits, for example an unyielding spirit. Different choices of striking material mark a key difference between Chinese yangqin and Western hammered dulcimers.


Test for Tuners

During the 400 years since the yangqin was brought to China, few modifications had been made to the modulation mechanism of the musical instrument, until in the 1960s, more than 10 years after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. The ancient yangqin only had a range of two and a half octaves. But in the early 1970s, the modulating yangqin with four sets of frets was invented, increasing its music range to four and half octaves. Now some yangqin can span five and a half octaves.

Owing to its broadest spectrum and highest number of strings (among all existing Chinese musical instruments), the yangqin has the most complicated modulation mechanism. "A person who can tune a piano may not be able to tune a yangqin, as the yangqin has so many strings, which often get loose," says Xu. 


A 'Conductor' Who Can Go Solo

"Its broad musical range and up-down hammering movements are the key features contributing to its incredible compatibility with various forms of opera performances," Xu explains. With its broad musical range of 144 strings, yangqin can fit nearly all types of music. Both hands move up and down in the air, making it easier to be seen and followed by other orchestra players. Thus, in an orchestra performance, yangqin naturally serves the role of controlling and maintaining the rhythm and the pace of a song as well as directing the whole band while rendering the music piece.

Though the yangqin is usually used to accompany other instruments like erhu (a classical Chinese stringed instrument), not serving as a leading role on the stage, yangqin performers never complain but enjoy their supporting role. "Besides, when performing together, I can learn from other instrument performers about their understanding of the music and their methods of controlling rhythm and melody, " says Xu. "As Confucius put it, 'When three are walking together, I am sure to find teachers among them'."

Today, a yangqin band, consisting of low-, mid- and high-pitch yangqin, has emerged. Xu is very glad to see this historic breakthrough. "The yangqin family has expanded. As a result, viewers may enjoy various tunes played by the yangqin as a solo instrument," says Xu.


Still Popular in the Modern Era

China has the largest population of yangqin players, larger than that of all other countries combined. "It is estimated that, in China, there are 50,000 professional yangqin performers and 400,000 people who are learning to play the musical instrument," says Xu.

In 2012, the first yangqin festival was held in Hangzhou (capital of East China's Zhejiang Province), featuring competitions, concerts, and expert seminars, with 550 participants from China and other countries. The number of participants grew steadily each year from 550 in 2012 to 800, 1,300, and over 2,000 in 2014, 2016, and 2018 respectively. In China, yangqin has been included in the music courses of elementary schools, middle schools and higher education institutions. Today, over 100 universities in China have majors in yangqin, including doctorate degrees.

China is also taking an active part in enhancing communication and exchanges about musical instruments with other countries, which are home to hammered dulcimers. China hosted the 8th and 15th World Yangqin Congress in 2005 and 2019, respectively. The event was intended to promote hammered dulcimer music worldwide.


In 2001, the China Ethnic Orchestra Society was established, and 5,000 yangqin players registered as members of the society. In 2004, under the guidance of the society, a team of yangqin experts began compiling a large collection of yangqin songs. "It was a big project ... We reviewed thousands of old records and books, which contained old yangqin music scores, from the late Qing Dynasty to the modern era," recalls Xu. A total of 1,100 pieces of yangqin music were eventually found, and 106 pieces of those were included in the collection. "We hope those beautiful tunes can be written down and passed on to future generations," Xu adds.


Photos Supplied by VCG

(Source: China Today/Women of China English Monthly July 2022 issue)


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