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Ten facts about the pipa

The modern day pipa has gone through many transformations since being introduced during the Han dynasty and Koryŏ period. The instrument was integrated into three distinct cultures. It can be made of several different materials. The pipa has even been physically positioned in separate ways. The evolving models of the instrument to its changing popular usage show that the pipa has a long and rich history.

1. The modern pipa is called the quaxing pipa (“pipa with a crooked neck”) in China, and was introduced from India in 346-53 CE. However, it is said to have originated in ancient Persia.

2. According to Han dynasty sources, the origins of the name “pipa” refer to how the instrument is played. “Pi” meant “to play forward” and “pa” means “to play backward”. However, as no other types of sources reference this etymology; scholars suspect that the instrument more likely originated outside China, and that its name references a foreign language term.

3. Modern pipas are made out of several types of materials. Their soundboards are made out of wutong wood, their frets and turning pegs are made of ivory, buffalo horns or wood, and their lower frets are made from bamboo.

Image Credit: Musical Cultural performance by Ms Pei Ju Tsai with the Pipa, a Chinese traditional string instrument by IAEA Imagebank, CC BY-SA 2.0  via Flickr.

4. The quxiang pipa was used during the Sui and Tang dynasties for entertainment and was often paired with singing and dancing or accompanied by an ensemble.

5. There is a smaller instrument similar to the quxiang pipa called the wuxian pipa (“5-string pipa”), which was introduced to China from India during the 4th century BCE, but it gradually disappeared after the Tang dynasty.

6. Traditional forms of the pipa are still played in Fujian and northern Shaanxi despite the increasing popularity of factory-made forms.

7. After the Tang dynasty, the pipa was used more for narrative singing and regional opera and its playing position switched from being vertical to horizontal.

8. The number of frets on the pipa increased from about 4 to around 14-16 frets after the Tang dynasty. This traditional pipa has a range of approximately 3 octaves.

9. In the 1920’s and 30’s, musicians experimented with 24-fret pipas in equal temperament, a version that gained popularity in the 1950’s and persists today.

10. The more frets a pipa has, the greater its control of pitch.

Featured image: “Paintings on north wall of Xu Xianxiu Tomb”.  Photo by Ancient Chinese Tomb Painter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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