East Asia

In East Asia, instruments were introduced in China from Central Asia and India through the trading route of the ancient silk road during the tang Dynasty (202 B.C.E. to  220 C.E.) and most especially at the height of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  These instruments, which included the quxiang pipa, a bent-necked lute,  were adopted as objects to be used in rituals as well as considered as cultural artifacts.  In China, after the warring states, ancient instruments changed and developed due to the constant exchanges in cultural objects between China and the other countries.  For a while,  from the Han to the Tang dynasty, all plucked lutes of different shapes and sizes were called pipa (pi means to play forward and pa, backwards)  It was during the Tang dynasty when the ruangxian, now called ruan, evolved from its designation as a pipa, a lute with a long straight neck. The yueqin is similarly round, known as the moon guitar, a lute with a hollow wooden body which gives it the nickname moon guitar. It has a short fretted neck with two courses of two strings.  Another lute is the hexagonal-shaped qinqin with a slender fretted neck and three strings, which was especially popular in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau.


Another plucked string that originated in Persia through India is the quanxiang pipa, a lute “with a short curved neck and a pear-shaped  soundbox”. This became the modern pipa. (Wu Ben)  The modern pipa, a four-stringed lute with 23 bamboo frets, was introduced to China between the Han and Sui dynasties through the central Asian trading route.  The pipa was also used in Buddhism in the performance of narrative singing in order to express doctrinal messages to the non-literate people.  In the Tang court, however, the pipa was used in grand performances for instrumentalists, dancers and singers.  In pre-twentieth century music, pipa playing was used in at least three settings: 1) as an accompaniment to narrative songs, 2) for the regional chamber music like the Fujian Nankuan, 3) for solo playing which can be traced to the area of Shanghai, where the tuning of the pipa developed into the 12 chromatic tones, and the silk strings were replaced with steel and the players began to wear fingernail plectra.

The sanxian (three strings) is believed to have come from Persian and Arabic instruments like the plucked lutes setar, dutar, and tambur which were all brought in the area of Xinjiang province, becoming popular in the modern times as an ensemble instrument that accompanied narrative songs and opera productions.  The zheng on the other hand dates back to the warring states and had become a fixture in the imperial court of the Tang dynasty in playing for royal banquets and to accompany narrative songs, while the ancient qin remained the instrument of the artistocracy.

Later, almost all these instruments were exported from China to Korea and Japan before the end of the twelfth century, when the Koreans musicians learned to play the pipa after they had been sent to the Chinese Sui court.  And during the Unified Shilla dynasty, Tang musical instruments were brought to Korea, together with Buddhist chants.

In Japan likewise, the Buddhist chant syômyô and a good portion of the gagaku court music practice was brought from China and Korea during the 7th and to 9th centuries.  An eight century kayagum, Korea’s 12-string zither may be found in Nara, Japan together with other instruments from the Tang dynasty.  Important Japanese instruments like the syamisen (a 3-string lute), the biwa (4-stringed lute with pear-shaped body), and the koto (13-stringed zither), as well as wind and percussion instruments were brought to Japan from China and Korea by emissaries or visitors.

What is interesting is that all these instruments, no matter how they are all related to each other, later were indigenized according to the social needs, performance techniques as well as aesthetics of each country and people.

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