Type: Aerophones > Free > Reeds > Gourds.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 412.132
Bayin: 匏 Gourd.
Region: Far East Asia.
Descriptions: It is one of the oldest Chinese instruments, with images depicting its kind dating back to 1100 BCE. And there are actual instruments from the Han era that have been preserved today. Traditionally, the sheng has been used as an accompaniment instrument for solo suona or dizi performances. It is one of the main instruments in kunqu and some other forms of Chinese opera.
Traditional small ensembles also make use of the sheng, such as the wind and percussion ensembles in northern China. In the modern large Chinese orchestra, it is used for both melody and accompaniment. The sheng is now mainly identified with the Han culture [presently the dominant culture] of China, but can be found in a number of similar forms within some of China’s minority cultures.
Origins: Its age is unknown, but it can be seen in pictographs dating from 1200 BC with a gourd wind chamber, and looks very similar to the current southern Chinese and northern Thai naw. The sheng was traditionally used in court music, and there are many depictions of the ancient sheng, known then as yu, on the wall paintings of the Dunghuang caves from the 7th and 8th Centuries.
It was during this period that the sheng traveled to many of the courts of Asia and according to some references, possibly even Persia in the 10th century. It is documented that it didn’t reach Europe until 1777 with Pere Amiot and its influence was so strong that it resulted in the invention of the reed organ, concertina, harmonica and accordion.
Development: Development took hold during the early 20th century onwards for improving the design of sheng. That enhanced its sound and volume as well as increasing its range. Early changes were made by Zheng Jinwen [鄭覲文, 1872–1935] who increased the number of pipes to 32, expanding its range and allowing it to play harmony and chords.
The air chamber and size of the pipes were also enlarged, changing the tone colour of the instrument. Later various changes were also introduced by players such as Weng Zhenfa [翁鎮發] and particularly Hu Tianquan [胡天泉], with different variants of the instrument produced.