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Hear the Pipa, Taste Chinese Folk Music


The pipa (pronounced "pee-paa") is a four-stringed lute, one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments with over 2000 years of history. The term pipa consists of two Chinese characters symbolizing two playing techniques while their pronunciations p'i and p'a are imitations of the sounds produced accordingly.

The earliest Chinese written texts about the pipa dated back at least to the second century BC. During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the pipa became one of the most popular instruments, and it has maintained its appeal in solo as well as chamber genres ever since. The pipa is referred to frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry, where it is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone. In his famous work Pipa Xing, poet Bai Juyi described a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River:

The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

Since the mid Tang Dynasty, and particularly since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the instrument was gradually developed into the present form of a lute played with fingernails, while the techniques with the plectrum were totally abandoned. The strings of the instrument were made of silk. Musicians used their real nails of the right hand to pluck the strings.

Pipa music has been loved by Chinese people through the centuries. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) dynasties, various pipa schools with different styles flourished in the South, centered in Wuxi, Suzhou and Shanghai, and the North, centered in Beijing. The development of finger techniques for both hands achieved a high standard by the masters from each school.

The present day pipa techniques are mostly the fusion of those different schools. Now the pipa is one of most popular instruments in China. Many of the compositions that make up the traditional repertoire, which were handed down from generation to generation through individual artists and scholars, date back hundreds of years, while others are part of a body of compositions that are dynamic and growing. In more recent times, composers have explored the possibilities for the pipa and other Chinese and Western instruments, even with orchestra. Nowadays, there are a number of celebrated pipa concerts.

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