Traditional Chinese string instruments come from both the classical and folk traditions of Chinese music. The distinction being that long ago classical music was never performed in public in order to distinguish it as a higher form for the elite since performing artists were considered among the lowest social status. However, no matter the music style, the instruments have been revered through time as having the ability to move audiences and produce beautiful pieces of art.
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The erhu is a two-stringed fiddle, also known as a Chinese violin. Its origin can be traced to the Tang dynasty (which ruled between A.D. 618 and 907), and during the Song dynasty (A.D. 960 and 1279) it was among the most popular instruments at imperial banquets. Over time, it also became commonly used in operas, and after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, its popularity has skyrocketed into becoming one of the most common instruments in China. The neck, strings, pegs, bridge, resonator, qianjin and bow make up the erhu. Mostly made of wood, one end of the sound box is covered with snake skin, which is said to give it its distinctive sound as the instrument most closely similar to the human voice.
The guqin is a member of the zither family, and it is a plucked string instrument. Sometimes referred to by the Chinese as the "father of Chinese music," the guqin was the instrument of choice for many scholars of ancient China. This instrument has changed little over time; the modern version of seven strings has endured as the most popular version for approximately 2,000 years. When played, the performer plucks the strings to create sounds that range four octaves.
The pipa is a four-stringed lute with a pear-shaped body. This instrument dates to the second century B.C. and is relatively unchanged in design. The neck contains 30 frets, and the range can span 3.5 octaves. Most often, the pipa is played upright, and the fingers pluck the strings to create melodies. Rolls, slaps and harmonics are combined when playing for dramatic effect, such as when accompanying the stories of famous battles.
The konghou first appeared around 770 B.C. and is similar to a Western harp. It was originally used in court music, which meant it was never played for the larger public, but by the Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25 to 220) it became more common among the common people. The earliest versions of this instrument lay flat while played, but the more recent ones are played upright. The sound quality is mellow and graceful, and more modern versions began being produced around the 1950s.
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