The pipa,

a four-stringed lute with a pear-shaped body and a short neck, is one of the most important classical Chinese instruments.

Around the 4th century AD, the pipa spread from Arabian countries along the Silk Road to Central China. By the 7th century, it had become very popular and was played at the courts of emperors and noblemen as well as for religious purposes. Figure 1 shows pottery figurines of a musical ensemble with a pipa player on the left, excavated from a Sui dynasty (AD 581-618) tomb in Hubei province. 

pottery figurines of musicians

The important role of the pipa in ancient Chinese music can also be derived from the famous Tang-dynasty (7-10th century AD) painting “The Night Revels of Han Xizai” by Gu Hongzhong which vividly depicts life at the court of Han Xizai, probably a minister of emperor Li Yu (Figure 2). Han Xizai, his guests and servants are fascinated by the play of the pipa musician on the left.

Tang dynasty painting

The pipa was also used in religious Buddhist rituals in Tang dynasty as her sounds was believed to fend off demons and evil spirits. Ancient wall paintings in the famous Mogao grottoes near Dunhuang in Gansu province contain numerous depictions of playing or dancing pipa musicians (Figure 3 lower left).

 

 

 

 

 

Mogao grottoe buddhist cave painting

The instrument was originally constructed with only four frets and silk strings (left picture in Figure 4) so its tonal range and possibilities were limited. Today, the pipa usually has 5 bridges and 24 frets (right picture in Figure 4). It is held upright and played with all 5 fingers of the right hand. High-density tone sequences can be played particularly well. One hundred ninety-six strokes per minute are possible. 

The name “pipa” is made up of two Chinese syllables, “pí” (琵) and “pá” (琶), meaning forward-plucking and backward-plucking. These are the most common ways of playing the instrument, but there are many variations. The left hand can drum the strings or play vibrato and pizzicato, thus creating an extraordinary broad spectrum of sounds. For this reason, the pipa is also called “the queen of the plucked instruments”. A famous Tang Dynasty poem compares the sound of the pipa with “pearls falling onto a jade platter”.

pipa evolution

 

The pipa has been played for nearly two thousand years in China and continues to be one of the most popular instruments in traditional Chinese music today.