Name: Pipa.
Type: Chordophones > Composites > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321.6
Bayin: SÍ 絲 Silk.
Tuning: A D E A
Country: China.
Region: Far East Asia.

Description: The pipa [in Chinese: 琵琶 pipa] is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument. In the Chinese classification system this instrument is listed under the “silk” category. Having a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26.

Another Chinese four-string plucked lute is the liuqin, which looks like a smaller version of the pipa. The pear-shaped instrument may have existed in China as early as the Han dynasty. Although historically the term pipa was once used to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones. Its usage since the Song dynasty refers exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument.

History: In the Chinese narrative, the pipa is associated with Princess Liu Xijun and Wang Zhaojun of the Han Dynasty. Although the form of pipa they played in that period is unlikely to be pear-shaped as they are now usually depicted. Other early known players of pipa include General Xie Shang [謝尚] from the Jin Dynasty who was described to have performed it with his leg raised.

The introduction of pipa from Central Asia also brought with it virtuoso performers from that region, for example Sujiva [蘇祇婆, Sujipo] from the Kingdom of Kucha during the Northern Zhou Dynasty, Kang Kunlun [康崑崙] from Kangju, and Pei Luoer [裴洛兒] from Shule.

Development: Pei Luoer was known for pioneering finger-playing techniques. The heptatonic scale was used for a time afterwards in the imperial court due to Sujiva’s influence; until it was later abandoned. These players had considerable influence on the development of pipa playing in China. Of particular fame were the family of pipa players founded by Cao Poluomen [曹婆羅門] and who were active for many generations from the Northern Wei to Tang Dynasty.

Repertoire: Pipa has been played solo, or as part of a large ensemble or small group since the early times. Few pieces for pipa survived from the early periods, some however are preserved in Japan as part of togaku [Tang music] tradition. In the early 20th century, twenty-five pieces were found amongst 10th-century manuscripts in the Mogao caves near Dunghuang, most of these pieces however may have originated from the Tang Dynasty.

The scores were written in tablature form with no information on tuning given, there are therefore uncertainties in the reconstruction of the music as well as deciphering other symbols in the score. Three Ming Dynasty pieces were discovered in the High River Flows East [高河江東, Gaohe Jiangdong] collection dating from 1528 which are very similar to those performed today, such as “The Moon on High” [月兒高, Yue-er Gao]. During the Qing Dynasty, scores for pipa were collected in Thirteen Pieces for Strings.

Schools: There are a number of different traditions with different styles of playing the pipa in various regions of China. Some of these traditions developed into their own respective schools. In the narrative traditions where the pipa is used as an accompaniment to narrative singing, there are the Suzhou tanci [蘇州彈詞] Sichuan qingyin [四川清音] and Northern quyi [北方曲藝] genres.

Pipa is also an important component of regional chamber ensemble traditions such as Jiangnan sizhu, Teochew string music and Nanguan ensemble. In Nanguan music, the pipa is still held in the near-horizontal position or guitar-fashion in the ancient manner instead of the vertical position normally used for solo playing in the present day.

There were originally two major schools of pipa during the Qing Dynasty — the Northern [Zhili, 直隸派] and Southern [Zhejiang, 浙江派] schools and from these emerged the five main schools associated with the solo tradition. Each school is associated with one or more collections of pipa music and named after its place of origin.


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