Name: Sanxian.
Type: Lute > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Pa Yin: Silk 絲.
Country: China.
Region: Asia Far East.

Description: The sanxian (Chinese: 三弦, whose name appears as sanxian but it is pronounced “senhsien”, the literal translation means “three strings”) is a Chinese lute having only three strings and a long fretless neck. It is also popularly called the the “xian-zi”. The sanxian is used in nanguan and Jiangnan sizhu ensembles, as well as many other folk and classical ensembles. The Japanese & Okinawan shamisen, Mongolian Shanz, and Vietnamese Đàn tam are considered direct descendants of the sanxian.

History: Similar instruments may have been present in China as early as the Qin dynasty as qin pipa (pipa was used as a generic term in ancient China for many other forms of plucked chordophones) or xiantao (弦鼗). Some thought that the instrument may have been re-introduced into China together with other instruments such as huqin by the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty [1271–1368], however, an image of a sanxian-like instrument was found in a stone sculpture dating from the Southern Song period (1217–79). The first record of the name “sanxian” may be found in a Ming dynasty text. The instrument was transmitted to other East Asian countries, for example to Japan where it is called a shamisen.

Variety: Development took place in the 20th century which resulted in differing sizes of sanxian including a four stringed version was also developed. The northern sanxian is generally larger, at about 122 cm [48 in] in length, while southern versions of the instrument are usually about 95 cm [37 in] in length.

SanxianTuningsScale Lengths
SmallA-d-a95 cm [37 in]
Smalld-a-d95 cm [37 in]
LargeG-d-g122 cm [48 in]

Citations: Citations: Stanley Sadie ~ New Grove Dictionary Of Music, Page 293; A. C. Moule, A list of the Musical and Other sound-producing instruments of the Chinese. Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, xxxix [Shanghai, 1908] 116, Hayashi Enzo; Dongya yuei kao [Investigation of East Asian Musical Instruments [Beijing, 1962 229ff – Alan R. Thrasher. John Meyers: The way of the pipa structure and imagery in Chinese lute music. 1992 Kent State University Press. pp. 5–7. ISBN 9780873384551 Sanxian. EasonMusic. 楊慎《昇庵外集》「今次三弦,始於元時」。Sanxian.