Type: Lute > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Pa Yin: Silk 絲.
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: 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: 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.