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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 a downstroke and an upstroke respectively, enthomusicologist John Myers suggests in his book The Way of the Pipa  (1992) that the name is a derivation from “barbud,” the Sassanid lute.

In ancient China, the name pipa was a generic term for all straight-necked plucking instruments that was played being held on laps.  While scholars have not confirmed the exact time when the curve-necked pipa was introduced to China, most of them agree that it arrived in China between the Han dynasty and the Southern and Northern dynasty (420 CE – 589 CE) through the Silkroad (Li 2007; Sotomura 2010;  Zhao 2003). The curve-nected pipa eventually took over the name of the instrument and became one of the most prominent court and urban instruments during the Tang Dynasty (618 CE - 907 CE).  

The pipa has undergone changes since the twentieth century so that it can play chromatic music, have a larger pitch range, and play at a louder volume. A quick comparison between the modern pipa and the Ming pipa in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows that the modern pipa has more frets. Before the 1920s, the most common form of pipa had only four xiangs (wooden frets) and twelve pins (bamboo frets). Musician and educator Cheng Wujia (1901 – 1985) was one of the first to modernize the pipa. By 1928, he developed a pipa with six xiangs and eighteen pins, arranged based on twelve-tone equal temperament (Jia 2007). Such a change expanded the range of the instrument and allows pipa musicians to play in all Western diatonic scales. In addition to the frets, the modern pipa also has a larger body with thinner wood (Jia 2007). This change to the body, together with the use of nylon-wrapped steel strings instead of silk strings, amplifies the volume of the instrument. This feature of a louder sound prepares the pipa for playing in concert hall, which was yet another Western tradition introduced to China, and many other East Asian countries. The most common tuning nowadays is A2, D3, E3, and A3 (from the lowest to the highest strings) .

Notes by Wan Yeung


Jia Yi 賈怡, 2007. “’Xihua’ Waixing, Chuantong Linghun: Ping Cheng Wujia Shierpingjunlu Liuxiang Shibapin Pipa Gaige”“西,傳靈: 評程午加十二平均律六相十八品琵琶改 (“Westernized” Look and Traditional Soul: On Cheng Wujia’s Six Xiangs and Eighteen Pins Pipa reform Based on Twelve-tone Equal Temperament). Hundred Schools in Art 96 (3). Jiangsu, China: Jiangsu Culture and Arts Research Institute.

Li, Jinsong 李勁松, 2007. “Dui Wude Yanbiandao Pipa de Wenhua Chanshi” 對烏德演變到琵琶的文化闡釋” (The Cultural Interpretation of the Transformation of the Oud to the Pipa). Hundred Schools in Art 97 (4). Jiangsu, China: Jiangsu Culture and Arts Research Institute.

Myers, John. 1992. The Way of the Pipa: Structure and Imagery in Chinese Lute Music. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Sotomura, Ataru. 2010. “Tangdai Pipa Zakao” 唐代琵琶雜考” (Tang Pipa Examined).  Translated by Li Fei. Edited by Zhao Weiping. In Yinyue Yishu 音樂藝術 Journal of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (2). Shanghai, China: The Shanghai Conservatory of Music. 59-70.

Zhao, Weiping 趙維平. 2003. “Sichouzhilu Shang de Pipa Yueqishi” 絲綢之路上的琵琶樂器史” (A Historical Account of Pipa Found along the Silk Route). Musicology in China (4). Beijing: Chinese National Academy of Arts. 34-48.

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.