Type: Lute > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Pa Yin: Silk 絲.
Region: Asia Far East.
Description: The sanxian (Chinese: 三弦, literally “three strings”) is a Chinese lute having only three strings and a long fretless neck. 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: It is made in several sizes for different purposes and in the late 20th century 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.