The Most Popular Chinese Musical Instruments

Chinese Musical Instruments

Chinese musical instruments were traditionally grouped into eight categories known as bayin (八音). The eight categories are: silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd and skin. There are other instruments which may not fit these groups. This is one of the first musical groupings ever devised.


Ancient Chinese believed that music could purify people’s minds. More than 3,000 years ago, ancient China had some 70 types of musical instruments. The royal family and aristocrats had their own orchestra. For them, music was also a way to display their power, position and taste distinguished from common people. However, as the music was never limited to the upper social class, the musical trend gradually turned from solemnity to entertaining. Huge and complex instruments like the bronze chimes gave way to more lively and easy-play wind and reed instruments. The Tang Dynasty, one of the strongest and most prosperous empires in Chinese history, was a golden age for musical development. Many of the Tang emperors were musicians or composers themselves. With frequent cultural exchanges with other cultures, a large number of exotic instruments were introduced, altered and finally adopted into the family of Chinese traditional instruments. Chinese traditional musical instruments can be mainly classified into three categories, string, wind, and percussion.

10 Famous Chinese Music Instruments

Chinese musical instruments can trace its history to several thousand years ago. Each of them produces a different and unique sound and effect. These musical instruments not only entertain people but also play an important part in traditional Chinese culture. Now let us have a look at 10 famous Chinese music instruments:

1. Erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle )  二胡
The Erhu (or Chinese violin) is a kind of two-stringed bowed musical instrument. Its history can  be dated back to Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. Erhu can be used as a solo performance as well as in small musical groups and large orchestras. It is one of the most popular bowed string instruments used by many ethnic groups in China.

The Moon over a Fountain(二泉映月), Horse Racing(赛马), Jackdaw Playing in the Water(寒鸦戏水), The Moon over the Han Palace(汉宫水月), Celebrating the Spring Festival(闹春)

2. Guzheng (Chinese Zither) 古筝
The Guzheng is a Chinese plucked zither. It is made of 18-23 or more strings and movable bridges. People believe that it has been invented during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  The performer pluck the strings at the right portion with right hand, and left hand presses the string on the left side of the bridge to produce pitch ornamentation and vibrato. The skilled player can create sounds that can evoke the sense of waterfall, thunder, and even the scenic countryside.

High Mountain and Running Water(高山流水), Fishing Boat Sings the Evening(渔舟唱晚), Jackdaw Playing in the Water(寒鸦戏水), Fighting the Typhoon(战台风), The Moon over the Han Palace(汉宫秋月)

3. Dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) 笛子
The Dizi (or Bamboo Flute) is a Chinese style flute. Dizi is made of bamboo, the body has six finger-holes, one blow-hole, and an extra hole between them covered by a thin membrane of reed. Dizi is a classical Chinese musical instrument widely used many genres of Chinese music. It is also very popular among the common Chinese people as it is easier to make and  play than other music instruments.

Guangling Verse(广陵散), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese on the Sandbank(平沙落雁), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Orchid(幽兰)

4. Suona 唢呐
The Suona, also called Laba, is double-reed woodwind instrument. It can produce particularly loud and high-pitched sound and is widely used in Chinese traditional music ensembles especially in northern China. It is can be played solo or many times together with Sheng, drums, and other instruments in wedding and funeral ceremonies.

Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix(百鸟朝凰), A Flower(一枝花), Beating Down the Dates(打枣), The Happy Family(全家福), Shandong Bass Drum(山东大鼓)

5. Big Drum 大鼓
Big Drum is usually a stretched hide over a hollow vessel. Player use two bamboo or wood sticks to beat the drum. From ancient to modern times, Big Drum has always been a folk musical instrument liked by people around the country. It is widely used in the occasions of celebration, military, entertainment and festival, etc.

6. Xiao 箫
The Xiao is a Chinese vertical flute with blow-hole at one end. Xiao is usually made of dark brown bamboo and can produce graceful and mellow sound suitable for both solo playing and chamber music ensembles. It is believed that the earliest Xiao was used by the Qiang people of Southwest China during the Han Dynasty (206B.C. -220A .D).

The autumn Moon Over the calm Lake(平湖秋月), Autumn Yearning at the Dressing Table(妆台秋思), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese over the Clam Sands(平沙落雁)

7. Hulusi 葫芦丝
The Hulusi is a free reed wind solo instrument that is very popular among the Dai and the Yi minorities in southwest Yunnan provinces. It is made of three bamboo pipes and a gourd chest; the center pipe has finger holes and the outer two are drone pipes. Hulusi has very pure, clarinet-like sound and is ideal for expressing soft and tender feelings.

Moonlight under of Phoenix Tail Bamboo(月光下的凤尾竹), A Beautiful Place, Lusheng Love Song(芦笙恋歌), Peacocks and Phoenix Tail Bamboo(金孔雀和凤尾竹), Deep in Bamboo Forest(竹林深处)

8. Pipa (Chinese lute) 琵琶
The Pipa is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument. It has 16 frets and a pear-shaped wooden body. It is able to express various emotions such as portraying battles and great tension or expressing tones on sad songs or love ballads. Pipa has a long history in China and is believed to have existed about two thousand years ago in China.

The House of Flying Daggers(十面埋伏), King Chu Doffs His Armor(霸王卸甲), Fortress Song(塞上曲), Zhaojun Departs the Frontier(昭君出塞), Gold and Sand(大浪淘沙)

9. Sheng 
The Sheng is a mouth-blown free reed instrument. It is usually made of 17 bamboo pipes set in a small wind-chest. Its history can be traced back to 1100 BC. This mouth-blown instrument has a delightful, lyrical sound and it is traditionally played as an accompaniment to Suona or Dizi.

Dance of the Yao People(瑶族舞曲), A Happy Song on Yi People(彝寨欢歌), Steppe Cavalry(草原骑兵), Winter Hunting(冬猎), Su Wu the Shepherd(苏武牧羊)

10. Guqin 古琴
The Guqin is a plucked seven-string zither. It has a history of some 3000 years. In ancient China, it has been favored by scholars as an instrument of elevating spirit. It is often regarded by the Chinese as “the father of Chinese music”, however, only a small number of people can play the instrument, because musical education of Guqin has never really reached the general public.

Guangling Verse(广陵散), Moon on Guan Mountain(关山月), Wild Geese on the Sandbank(平沙落雁), Plum-blossom in Three Movements(梅花三弄), Orchid(幽兰)