Type: Chordophones > Lutes
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.312.6
Bayin: 絲 Silk.
Region: Asia Far East.
Description: The sanxian [in 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. The term ‘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: The xiao sanxian or [small sanxian] is found in the Jiangnan area of Central China. Xiao is not a precise term but the instrument may measure from 80 cm and 100 cm. 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. During the 20th century a four stringed instrument was developed.
Citations: Bibliography: 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 E. Meyers – The way of the pipa, structure and imagery in Chinese lute music – Kent State University Press, 1992 – 155 pages, Kent State University Press. pp. 5–7 ISBN 9780873384551 楊慎《昇庵外集》「今次三弦，始於元時」/ Yang Shen’s “Sheng Sheng Collection” “This time Sanxian, started in Yuanshi.” ; Websites: Sanxian / Met Museum article ;