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What is the pipa?

The pipa, which some people call the Chinese lute, is a plucking instrument that can date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). It has a common ancestor with the European lute and the guitar being the Oud. While Eastern Han Dynasty (25 CE – 220 CE) scholar Liu Xi explains in his Dictionary of Names that the name pipa has an onomatopoeic origin - “pi” and “pa” refer to the sounds produced by plucking forward and backward respectively, enthomusicologist John Myers suggests in his book The Way of the Pipa that the name is a possible derivation from the Persian word “barbud.”

In ancient China, the name pipa was a generic term for all straight-necked plucking instruments that was played being held on laps.  The curve-necked pipa was later introduced during Southern and Northern Dynasty (420 CE – 589 CE) to China through the Silkroad and eventually took over the name of the instrument. It was one of the most prominent court and urban instruments during the Tang Dynasty (618 CE - 907 CE).  The pipa evolves as time passes. It is now fretted based on the twelve-tone equal temperament and is usually tuned to (from lowest to highest strings) A2, D3, E3, A3.

Notes by Wan Yeung

Sandalwood Pipa with Raden

A five-string pipa that traveled from China to Japan during Tang Dynasty (618 CE - 907 CE). Now stored at Shôsô-in Repository in Nara, Japan.