Chinese Music Instruments

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 23, 2021

Chinese music has been made since the dawn of Chinese civilization with documents and artifacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC). Today, the music continues a rich traditional heritage in one aspect, while emerging into a more contemporary form at the same time.


Dizi Dizi

The dizi is a Chinese transverse flute. It is also sometimes known as the di (笛) or hengdi (橫笛) and has an assortment including the qudi (曲笛) and bangdi (梆笛).

The dizi is a key Chinese musical instrument and is widely used in many kinds of Chinese folk music, as well as Chinese opera, and the modern Chinese orchestra. Traditionally, the dizi has also been popular among the Chinese common people, and it is simple to make and easy to carry.

Most dizi is made of bamboo, which explains why dizi are sometimes known by simple names such as Chinese bamboo flute. However, "bamboo" is perhaps more of a Chinese instrument classification like "woodwind" in the West. Northern Chinese dizi is made from purple or violet bamboo, while dizi made in Suzhou and Hangzhou are made from white bamboo. Dizi produced in southern Chinese regions such as Chaozhou are often made of very slender, lightweight, light-colored bamboo and are much quieter in tone.

Although bamboo is the common material for the dizi, it is also possible to find dizi made from other kinds of wood, or even from stone. Jade dizi (or yudi, 玉笛) are popular among both collectors interested in their beauty, and professional players. Yet, jade may not be the best material for dizi since, as with metal, jade may not be as tonally responsive as bamboo, which is more resonant.


Bianzhong Bianzhong

Bianzhong is an ancient Chinese musical instrument. The Chinese Bronze bells or Bian Zhong were an important percussion instrument in ancient China. Bronze bells are divided into one or more groups in which there are dozens of big and small bells, each with a different tone.

The ancient instrument was used in royal performances and it was rarely seen among the common folk. The instrument was most commonly played during wars, royal meetings, and sacrifices.


Chiba is one of the oldest Chinese musical woodwind instruments with five to eight finger holes. It is a vertical edge-blown flute and resembles the Japanese Shakuhachi; in fact, it may be difficult to distinguish from it, as "Chiba" is a direct transliteration of the Chinese characters for shakuhachi (尺八). A possible distinction between Shakuhachi and Chiba is that most modern Shakuhachi has an ivory inlay in the mouthpiece and also typically only has five large finger holes.


It is also an old Chinese wind instrument, the most important and the most common in China. The bamboo flute made its appearance in China during 17Ith and 19th centuries BC.

The resonance of this traverse flute is radiant; its diapason is wide and the volume of high sound. This very meaningful instrument can interpret different pieces of music of style and feeling, and occur solo, in polyphony, or all together.

There is a big variety of flutes among which two main types: the qudi (曲笛) and the bangdi (梆笛). The qudi has a voluminous and soft sound and a melodious gradual melody. The bangdi gives a higher and more brilliant sound, and a melody marked by lively rhythms and dramatic character.

Duxianqin (独弦琴)

The duxianqin (独弦琴, "lone string zither") is a Chinese plucked string instrument with only one string. It is played using harmonics, with the string's tension varied by the use of a flexible rod manipulated with the left hand.

Chinese sources describe duxianqin as being an instrument of the Jing (also spelled Gin or Kinh) ethnic group of China, who are ethnic Vietnamese living in China. Sometimes the body of the instrument is made from a large tube of bamboo rather than wood, which is more common in Vietnam.

Erhu (二胡) - Chinese Violin - two-stringed fiddle

Erhu Erhu

The Erhu is a very popular Chinese instrument all over China. It's a two-stringed bowed musical instrument.

The erhu came to China approximately a thousand years ago from the tribal people of the North. The erhu has a sweet round tone and is capable of a high degree of virtuosity. It has been described as a violin or bowed lute.

Erhu is a Chinese stringed instrument that can be played in a solo, as part of an orchestra, or to accompany singers.

Jiahu Bone Flute and Primitive Music

This bone flute is the earliest wind instrument found so far by Chinese archaeologists; it dates back over 8,000 years. It is about 20 cm long and 1 cm in diameter, with 7 evenly distributed sound holes of the same size. And a handful of such flutes have an extra small hole beside the last hole.

Jiahu people already had basic ideas about the tone differences and tried to achieve pitch accuracy. They also had a rudimentary understanding of the relations between sound pitch and pipe length. It's a testament to the remarkably high level of music at that time.


In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra.

The tuning, bowing, fingering and other string techniques are the same as those for the cello. Because the Gehu uses a banjo-like membrane as the soundboard, the resulting sound is however unlike the cello. The instrument's volume and tone quality depend upon the snakeskin parchment that is attached to the body of the instrument. The Diyin Gehu tunes and plays like the double bass, but the tone color differs from that of the double bass.

Guqin (古琴) - 7-stringed zither

The Guqin which history goes back to more than 2000 years was introduced by Japan and Korea during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Its music for the most part developed from folklore and literature. During the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912), most of the guqin had 14 strings and two groups of octaves. Over the years, the number of strings changed, passing from five to 49. Today, guqin with 21 strings is the most common.

The guqin is a unique instrument that needs to be hand-made by specialist craftsmen using special wood, lacquer, and a high degree of skill. Historically, the guqin has been viewed as a symbol of Chinese high culture, but today only a few thousand people can play it, and it is rarely seen in China.

Guzheng (古筝) - 16-26 stringed zither with movable bridges

Guzheng Guzheng

Guzheng, which translates into "ancient zither" in Chinese, is a plucked string instrument.  It looks like a large Western zither and sounds like a concert harp due to its large soundbox.  While the instrument has an ancient Chinese root, it has also gone through numerous changes since its modern revival.

Guzheng is considered as one of the main chamber as well as solo instruments of Chinese traditional music. Since the mid-19th century, the guzheng solo repertoire has been growing and evolving towards increasing technical complexity.

Taogu, Bo Lang Gu drum, a traditional Chinese pellet drum, and toy

It is a small double face drum with a handle and a wooden ball suspended to a thread attached to the edge, on each side, to beat the drum. When shacked, balls from both directions are going to beat the drum, uttering jingle noises.

During Song Dynasty, the drum found its way in ceremonies, music, and commercial activities. It also became a toy for children, enjoying immense popularity, mainly thanks to its sound effect and its entertaining function.

Hulusi Chinese Flute

The instrument's name comes from the Chinese words hulu, meaning "gourd," and si, meaning "silk" (because of the smooth pure, and very like clarinet or oboe sound it makes). Though obviously related to Chinese music it becomes a very popular instrument in many countries.

It's an end-blown free reed wind instrument. The Hulusi or Gourd flute is one of the instruments with a more distinct "Chinese" sound.

Pipa (琵琶) - pear-shaped fretted lute with 4 or 5 strings

Pipa Pipa (Right)

The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, this instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. Another Chinese four-string plucked lute is the liuqin, which looks like a smaller version of the pipa.

The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China.


Sanxian: also known as “harp”, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument; it has a very long handle and three strings. The sound is untamed. Used solo, in ensemble, or accompaniment, it is widely used in folk music, opera music, and rap music.


The sheng is an instrument of the mouth-organs family and harmonicas. It consists of a tank out of wooden, with a mouthpiece, and bamboo pipes of various sizes. The instrument appeared in China more than 3000 years ago. He is the ancestor of the Western harmonicas, which date only from the nineteenth century.


Suona consists of a cylindrical wood pipe, bored of 8 holes, a mouthpiece with simple or double reed, and a copper bell.

Because of its powerful sonority, the suona is used as a soloist instrument, insets, and during processions and spectacles.

Chinese Drum

Although its exact origin is still unknown, the drum occupies a prominent place in Chinese culture. According to the ancient literature, it might as old as Chinese history itself.

Xylophone Jiaye

The Xylophone Jiaye is an old musical instrument of Korean nationality; exists in the autonomous department of Yanbian, Jilin province, which is situated in the northeast region of China.


The Yueqin is a traditional Chinese string instrument. It is a lute with a round, hollow wooden body which nickname is moon guitar.

According to legend, the instrument was invented in China during the Qing dynasty. It is an important instrument in the Beijing opera orchestra, often taking the role of the main melodic instrument in the string section.

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