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The history of Chinese music, the Chinese Orchestra and its variety of instruments

Updated on March 20, 2013
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Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.

The modern Chinese Orchestra
The modern Chinese Orchestra | Source

The Raffles Alumni Chinese Orchestra

Every culture brings with it a wealth of traditions and cultural norms. And of course, each civilization brings with its development unique and beautiful musical practices. One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Chinese have played music since its birth. Through the formation, progress and eventual falling of each of the many dynasties that ruled China, music resiliently remained as a mesmerizing art form. It still does so today. So how has the music of China developed through many, many centuries? This writer will take you through its history, why it was a vital part of China’s culture and introduce you to the eye-opening instruments of the Chinese Orchestra.

The Zhou Dynasty (1046-221 B.C)

The longest lasting of the many dynasties which ruled China, the Zhou period was one when the civilization truly flourished. It was when iron was introduced to China and there was a growth of bronze ware making. This was when the Chinese written script began to evolve.

Music in China, during this time, was a crystallization for many dynasties to follow. The foundations for ceremonial music, education in music, music for court rituals and instrumental music were laid during this time.

Terracotta Warriors made by the first emperor of China, Qin Shih Huang, to guard his tomb.
Terracotta Warriors made by the first emperor of China, Qin Shih Huang, to guard his tomb. | Source

The Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - AD 220)

Though a relatively short dynastic period, the birth and growth of the QIn dynasty was marked by important events that would mould China’s history. Its tyrannical ruler, QIn Shih Huang, ordered the burying of many scholars and the burning of their books to erase all traces of older rulers and dynasties like the Zhou. Though he was tyrannical, he introduced measures important to China, such as the standardization of weights, measures, currency, and most importantly, language, which has developed in to the Mandarin being spoken today by the Chinese who verbally embrace many dialects as well.

Music in China at this time was marked by many cross cultural influences. The zheng zither was introduced during this period, and so were a variety of transverse (side blown) flutes, vessel flutes, panpipes and other instruments derived from regional and foreign sources. The zither, the four holed di flute, the jiao oboe and the pipa lute grew in popularity.

Statues of  Zhang Fei, Liu Bei and Guanyu, famous warlords and generals.
Statues of Zhang Fei, Liu Bei and Guanyu, famous warlords and generals. | Source

The Three Kingdom (Warring States) era (220-280 B.C.) , he Jin ( 265 - 420 A.D. and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.)

China was no longer unified during this period and ruled by contending kingdoms and states. Even the dates of rule overlap because of the mergers and subsequent divisions in rule. This era in China’s history was famous, of course, for warlords and generals who fought bravely in battle, such as Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Cao Cao and famous advisors like Zhuge Liang, known for his tactical brilliance. The brave men fought for the restoration of the former Han Dynasty.

Musically, the period was known for the assimilation of music across regions, the expansion of Han music into the Southern China and the development of new tonal systems.


The Sui (581 - 618 A.D.) Tang (618-907 A.D.) and the Five Dynasties (907 - 960 A.D.)

China was reunified in the Sui Dynasty, and experienced political, cultural and economic growth during the Tang period. This era was marked by trade, political marriages and visits. The literary arts, namely poetry, became popular during this time.

Music took on cosmopolitan sophistication, with the arrival of foreign musicians in court to provide musical instruction. Thousands of musicians were employed for performing daily duties. The banquet tradition known as yanyue was practiced. It was known for being elegant and refined. It was cosmopolitan and included the music of neighboring nations like Sarmarkand, Bukhara, India and Korea.

Chinese opera being performed.
Chinese opera being performed. | Source

The Northern Song (960-1127 A.D.) Southern Song and Yuan (1271-1381 A.D.)

This was the period for industrialization and the growth of a newly rich elite. Literacy was brought to a higher level with the printing of books. With the growth of literacy came the expansion of the arts. New literary and poetic forms emerged.

Musically, forms such as narrative music and musical drama (also known as Chinese Opera) came about during this dynasty. These included the drum song ( songs famous for the accompaniment of the stick drum), the narrative song (romantic tales told through narration and song) and the zaju musical drama (told in 4 acts and sung).


The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 A.D.) and Qing dynasty (1644-1912)

This period marked the growth of a highly literate society The arts of chess playing and calligraphy were arts many aspired to learn

Musically, the qin aither was introduced. It was also considered an accomplishment to be able to play this instrument. Several musical anthologies were published, including musical notations such as the Shengqi Mipu (Mysterious and marvelous tabiature) published by Zhu Quan, the 16th son of the Ming Emperor. There was also a growth of outdoor performances and an influx of folk songs. This was also the time when the Peking Opera developed. '

Notably, a small group of scholar gentry were also interested in how music related to mathematics. Most famous among them was Prince Zhu Zaiyu,musicologist, mathematician and astronomer. He was known for the development of the scale of 12 pitches.

The Republic of China era (1912 -1949)

This era was marked by a rising interest in Western music. A number of western trained Chinese musicians returned to perform classical music and composed music based on the western notational system.

The period was marked by the rise of the symphony orchestra. Music was performed to a wide audience in concert halls and on radio.

The rise of the revolutionary song occurred during this time. Revolutionary songs developed in rural areas to educate the rural population on Communist Party goals. One example is the East is Red, a folk song from Northern Shaanxi.

A Chinese Orchestra
A Chinese Orchestra | Source

The ancient Chinese orchestra

The ancient Chinese orchestra

The ancient Chinese Orchestra was made up of percussion instruments and a few zither type instruments like the zheng zither. It reached its peak during the Zhou dynasty. 
The Tang dynasty, as discussed earlier, saw an influx of music from different regions, particularly from Central and South Asia. Musical instruments were categorized in to groups of instruments made of earthenware, gourd, hide, wood, stone, bronze, silk and bamboo.

The modern Chinese Orchestra

The modern Chinese orchestra developed in the vein of its western counterpart, the symphony orchestra, but used Chinese instruments instead of western ones. It typically includes some western instruments like the Cello.

A man playing the yangqin
A man playing the yangqin | Source

The sections of the Chinese Orchestra

The plucked string section

These include the yanqin, luqin, pipa, daruan, sanxian, guzheng and konghou, which are plucked chordophone instruments. These instruments distinguish the Chinese from Western Orchestras because the tunes they create are in a markedly different style. More about these instruments.


The Yangqin is a dulcimer played by mallets rubberized on one end. To create sharper notes, the mallets can be turned over. Some songs would require the player to pluck the instrument.



This is a lute with notes in the soprano or high range. Smaller than the pipa (which I will introduce next), it has two round holes on each side of the body. One can vary the pitch of the instrument by pressing above the liuqin.

A pipa
A pipa | Source


This is the alto range member of the plucked string section, and was associated with teahouses, songstresses and imperial concubines. It has no sound holes, but can produce music as well as other string instruments.

A zhongruan
A zhongruan | Source


Much as the cello would in a symphony orchestra, the zhongruan serves as the tenor in the string section of the Chinese orchestra. Like other string instruments, it can be played with a plectrum or acrylic fingernails though plectrums (plucks) produce a cleaner or louder tone.


This is the bass lute. Tuned lower than the zhongruan, it is played the same way.


The only plucked musical instrument without frets, it has 3 strings and has many variants used among different tribes in China. WIth a strong folk flavor, it is not used as an accompaniment instrument but plays the melody.

A gaohu
A gaohu | Source

The bowed string section

As the name suggests, this section comprises the Huqin series of instruments, namely the erhu, zhonghu and the gaohu, which are played by a bow.


With a smaller soundbox than the erhu, it is used to give a higher pitched sound in chinese orchestras, though not specifically a soprano instrument. The soundbox is held between the knees when played. It is used very often in Cantonese music.



This is a two stringed bowed musical instrument which can be described as a spiked fiddle. Known as the “Chinese violin” it can be used to play both traditional and modern musical accompaniments.

Man playing the zhonghu
Man playing the zhonghu | Source


The zhonghu is the viola of the Chinese orchestra, playing the alto section of the bows. It is bigger than the erhu and lower pitched.

Man blowing the dizi.
Man blowing the dizi. | Source

The Wind section

Here, we have instruments similar to the ones in the symphonic orchestra that we know like the piccolo, flute, oboe and clarinet. The wind section of the Chinese orchestra will include the dizi, sheng and the suona.


This is a Chinese transverse (side-blown) flute. There are varieties of dizi or di, but the most commonly used in orchestras are the bangdi. It produces a clear and bright tone.

A Sheng or bamboo mouth organ
A Sheng or bamboo mouth organ | Source


This is a free-reed bamboo mouth organ. The modern sheng has 21- 37 pipes. Its tone is lucid and bright.

Suonas or the chinese version of the trumpet
Suonas or the chinese version of the trumpet | Source


This is the Chinese orchestra’s answer to the trumpet. Used for playing tunes outdoors, the suona is heard frequently in Chinese musical ensembles. It is commonly used in the folk music of Northern China.

The percussion section

This section can boast of being the oldest section of the Chinese orchestra with the longest history. It is the most important section in Chinese opera because it introduces characters or accentuates movements. their rich timbre allows them to be used in western style compositions.


This is made of thick wedges of hardwood glued together in a circle and wrapped with a metal brand. Bell-shaped, it opens at the bottom. The top is covered by pig or cowhide and has a convex opening known as the guxin or drum heart. It is played with a pair of bamboo sticks.


Now we have the cymbals of the Chinese orchestra. Bo were frequently used in the Sui and Tang dynasties and are played in the same way cymbals are - by striking them together. They come in a variety of styles.

Man playing a luo
Man playing a luo | Source


This is a Chinese gong made of tin bronze and hammered into the shape of a sifter. Its resonating area can be flat or convex. A musical instrument arising from the Han Dynasty, it has many varieties that range in tonal quality.


This is similar in shape to a barrel. It is made of wood, and painted with decorative patterns. Four iron rings allow the drum to be vertically suspended.

There are two types of tanggu. The bigger one produces a lower, sonorous tone and the smaller, sharper and more forceful. It joins the luo and bo in folk festivals.

Chinese Muyu
Chinese Muyu | Source


An instrument in the shape of a fish, it was used to accompany buddhist monks. They vary in types and tonal qualities.



This is a set of bronze bells, played melodically. Some of these bells are between 2000 and 3800 years old, hailing from the Ming Dynasty. They are hung on a wooden frame and struck with a mallet. The number of bells increased throughout the years.


The lion drum

This is the percussion instrument many would be familiar with because it is used in lion dances. They come in two forms, the northern and southern lion drums. Its large size helps it to create a loud, booming resonance. Its head is made of goat skin.

Lady with the yunluo
Lady with the yunluo | Source


These are very small gongs in a set, in 10-12 different pitches, are suspended in a wooden frame. They are all of the same diameter, but vary in thickness. Literally translated, it is also the ‘cloud’ (yun) ‘gong” (luo).


WIth its wide range of instruments traditionally Chinese, these generate a sound unique in traditional Chinese music. The sound of Chinese musical instruments still wins over the hearts of many.


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    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal

      Every year to mark the diplomatic ties between Nepal and China, Chinese artists visit Nepal. I have been watching Chinese acrobatics, opera, films, and dance since I was a child. However, I did not know much about the instruments and the history.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Dianna! Glad to share a bit of Chinese culture...glad you like the music!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Tebo! Thanks for sharing! Glad you like the sharing!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      Such an awesome post, Midget. Very interesting and flavorful. I have always loved learning about other cultures, especially their music. Well done.

    • tebo profile image


      7 years ago from New Zealand

      What a very thorough article you have written. I have learned a lot from reading about the history of Chinese music and about the many and varied instruments used over the years. Voted up and interesting.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Audra. I'm glad you liked it.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Beautiful, awesome, and interesting!!! So well written, organized and beautiful pictures to captivate your audience...BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      mperrotet, thank you! Glad that you liked the hub. Chinese music is such a wonder!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mary. I love music from any culture! Thanks for sharing, and glad you liked it!

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 

      7 years ago from San Antonio, FL

      I had no idea that there were so many unique and interesting instruments used in Chinese music. This was such a beautifully produced and well documented hub - Voted up, useful and interesting - and sharing.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      Amazing! This was so interesting and educational Michelle. You've covered this subject from top to bottom. Including each of the dynasties made it that much more interesting. I loved the music in the video as well.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and shared.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Travmaj! Glad to learn that you had the experience of hearing Naxi music first hand! Thanks for sharing!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi, Lurana! Yes, I have to confess that it did take some time to put the info together as the culture and history is really extensive. Thanks for stopping by!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Glad to share, Janet!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      The combined sound is gorgeous indeed, Martie. Ethereal is how I would put it, and that's what made me share it today. Thanks for coming in!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Mike! Glad you enjoyed the sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Mary! The combined sound would be heard in the video, though it's hard for me to find videos for every one as not all would be available. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, shin rocks! It's fascinating, and then again, so is the music of every culture, which makes me love delving into it, truly!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Carol! These instruments are fascinating!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janine! Oh yes, there are plenty. It's fascinating to be a true Chinese orchestra player! Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I am also truly impressed---this is a big, daunting subject but you have organized into a reader-friendly timeline that summarizes the character of key historical periods and instruments. I learned so much! The orchestral pieces is beautiful too!

    • travmaj profile image


      7 years ago from australia

      This is a totally impressive, so interesting and so well documented and explained. have been to a performance of the ancient traditional Naxi music in Lijiang. So impressive. However, your hub has increased my knowledge one hundred percent. Thank you - voting up and across.

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      7 years ago from Georgia country

      A great hub! I haven't known much about Chinese music until now. Thank you.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Awesome and comprehensive hub about Chinese music and orchestras. So interesting! Beautiful video. I love the sounds of those instruments!

      Voted up and absolutely awesome!

      Thank you, midget :)

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      7 years ago from London

      Fascinating info for a subject I couldn't know less... unfortunately! Thanks for this wonderful presentation on Chinese music! Voted up and shared of course..

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I enjoyed learning all this info about Chinese instruments. I have to say I had not heard of any of them, but you did a fine job in introducing these instruments. You certainly spent some time and effort on this one, as you always do in your articles.

      Have a wonderful day. Voted UP and shared.

    • shin_rocka04 profile image


      7 years ago from Maryland

      I love seeing the influence of the music scene of the far east. This is a great and informative. Voted up and shared.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      I enjoyed following the history of music and all these instruments. Great job and great research as always with your hubs.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Loved learning a bit about the history, plus the many different instruments, too. I truly had no clue that it was this extensive of a history in the music department or that there were so many instruments, as well. Thanks seriously for sharing and educating me a bit this morning, Michelle. Have voted and shared, too!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      On Chinese music, chinese musical instruments and the Chinese Orchestra.


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