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The pipa (Chinese: 琵琶; pinyin: pípá, [pʰǐpʰǎ]) is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has 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 pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa; these include the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa. The Korean instrument is the only one of the three that is no longer used; examples survive in museums, but attempts to revive that instrument failed.
There are considerable confusion and disagreements about the origin of pipa. This may be due to the fact that the word pipa was used in ancient texts to describe a variety of plucked chordophones from the Qin to the Tang Dynasty, as well as the differing accounts given in these ancient texts. Traditional Chinese narrative prefers the story of the Chinese princess who was sent to marry a barbarian king during the Han Dynasty, and the pipa was created so she can play music on horseback to soothe her longings. Modern scholarship however suggests a non-Chinese origin.
The earliest mention of pipa in Chinese texts appeared late in the Han Dynasty around 2nd century CE. According to Liu Xi's Eastern Han Dynasty Dictionary of Names, the word pipa may have an onomatopoeic origin (the word being similar to the sounds the instrument makes), although modern scholarship suggests a possible derivation from the Persian word "barbat" (the two theories however are not necessarily mutually exclusive). Liu Xi also stated that the instrument called "pipa", though written differently (枇杷 or "piba" 批把) in the earliest texts, originated from amongst the Hu (meaning foreigners or barbarians). Another Han Dynasty text also indicates that, at that time, pipa was a recent arrival, although later 3rd-century texts from the Jin Dynasty suggest that pipa existed in China as early as the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). An instrument called xiantao (弦鼗), made by stretching strings over a small drum with handle, was said to have been played by labourers who constructed the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty. This may have given rise to the Qin pipa, an instrument with a straight neck and a round sound box, and evolved into ruan, an instrument named after Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and known for playing similar instrument. Yet another term used in ancient text was Qinhanzi (秦漢子), perhaps similar to Qin pipa, but modern opinions differ on its precise form.
The pear-shaped pipa was likely to have been introduced to China from Central Asia, Gandhara, and/or India. Pear-shaped lutes have been depicted in Kusana sculptures from the 1st century AD. Pipa from the Han Dynasty is referred to as Han pipa, however, depictions of the pear-shaped pipas in China only appeared after the Han Dynasty during the Jin Dynasty in the late 4th to early 5th century. There are therefore differing opinions about the form of the Han Dynasty pipa. Pipa acquired a number of Chinese symbolisms during the Han Dyansty - the instrument length of three feet five inches represents the three realms (heaven, earth, and man) and the five elements, while the four strings represent the four seasons.
Depictions of the pear-shaped pipas appeared in abundance from the Southern and Northern Dynasties onwards, and pipas from this time to the Tang Dynasty were given various names, such as Hu pipa (胡琵琶), bent-neck pipa (曲項琵琶) and Kuchean pipa (龜茲琵琶), some of these terms however may refer to the same pipa. Apart from the four-stringed pipa, other instruments introduced include the five-stringed, straight-necked, wuxian pipa (五弦琵琶), a six-stringed version, as well as the two-stringed hulei (忽雷). From the 3rd century onwards, through the Sui and Tang Dynasty, the pear-shaped pipas became increasingly popular in China. By the Song Dynasty the word pipa was used to refer exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument.
The pipa reached a height of popularity during the Tang Dynasty, and was a principal musical instrument in the imperial court. During this time Persian and Kuchan performers and teachers were in demand in the capital, Chang'an (which had a large Persian community). Some delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period, with particularly fine examples preserved in the Shosoin Museum in Japan. It had close association with Buddhism and often appeared in mural and sculptural representations of musicians in Buddhist contexts. For example, masses of pipa-playing Buddhist semi-deities are depicted in the wall paintings of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. The four and five-stringed pipas were especially popular during the Tang Dynasty, and these instruments were introduced into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam. The five-stringed pipa however had fallen from use by the Song Dynasty, although attempts have been made to revive this instrument in the early 21st century with a modernized five-string pipa modeled on the Tang Dynasty instrument.
Pipa fell from favour in the imperial court during the Song Dynasty. During the Ming period, the plectrum was replaced by fingernails, while the horizontal playing position became the vertical (or near-vertical) position by the Qing Dynasty. The early instrument had 4 frets (相) on the neck, but during the early Ming Dynasty extra bamboo frets (品) were affixed onto the soundboard, increasing the range of the instrument. The number of frets gradually increased to 10, 14 or 16 during the Qing Dynasty, then to 19, 24, 29, and 30 in the 20th century. The 4 wedge-shaped frets on the neck became 6 during the 20th century. The 14- or 16-fret pipa had frets arranged in approximately equivalent to the western tone and semitone, starting at the nut, the intervals were T-S-S-S-T-S-S-S-T-T-3/4-3/4-T-T-3/4-3/4, (some frets produced a 3/4 tone or "neutral tone"). In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of frets was increased to 24, based on the 12 tone equal temperament scale, with all the intervals being semitones. The traditional 16-fret pipa is becoming less common, although it is still used in some regional styles such as the pipa in the southern genre of nanguan/nanyin. During the 1950s, the use of metal strings in place of the traditional silk ones also resulted in a change in the sound of the pipa which became brighter and stronger.
Early literary tradition in China, for example in a 3rd-century description by Fu Xuan, Ode to Pipa, associates the Han pipa with the northern frontier, Princess Liu Xijun, and Wang Zhaojun, who were married to nomad rulers of the Wusun and Xiongnu peoples in what is now Mongolia and northern Xinjiang respectively. Wang Zhaojun in particular was frequently referenced in later literary works, as well as in music pieces such as Zhaojun's Lament (昭君怨), and in paintings where she was often depicted holding a pipa.
There are many references to pipa in Tang literary works, for example, in A Music Conservatory Miscellany Duan Anjie related many anecdotes associated with pipa. The pipa is mentioned frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry, where it is often praised for its refinement and delicacy of tone, with poems dedicated to well-known players describing their performances. A famous poem by Bai Juyi's Pipa xing (琵琶行), describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River:
The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
Another excerpt of figurative descriptions of a pipa music may be found in an eulogy for a pipa player, Lament for Shancai:
On the plectrum, figure of a golden phoenix with flowers in its beak,
During the Song Dynasty, many of the literati and poets wrote Ci verses, a form of poetry meant to be sung and accompanied by instruments such as pipa. They included Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi, and Su Shi. During the Yuan Dynasty, the playwright Gao Ming wrote a play for nanxi opera called Pipa ji (琵琶記, or "Story of the Pipa"), a tale about an abandoned wife who set out to find her husband, surviving by playing the pipa. It is one of the most enduring work in Chinese theatre, and one that became a model for Ming Dynasty drama as it was a favorite opera of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.
The name "pípá" is made up of two Chinese syllables, "pí" (琵) and "pá" (琶). These, according to the Han Dynasty text by Liu Xi, refer to the way the instrument is played - "pí" is to strike with the right hand from right to left, and "pá" is to pluck in the opposite direction. The strings were played using a large plectrum in the Tang Dynasty, a technique still used now for the Japanese biwa. The plectrum was then gradually replaced by the fingernails of the right hand, although finger-playing techniques existed as early as Tang. The most basic technique, tantiao (彈挑), involves just the index finger and thumb (tan is striking with the index finger, tiao with the thumb). The fingers normally strike the strings of pipa in the opposite direction to the way a guitar is usually played, i.e. the fingers and thumb flick outward, unlike the guitar where the fingers and thumb normally pluck inward towards the palm of the hand. Plucking in the opposite direction to tan and tiao are called mo (抹) and gou (勾) respectively. When two strings are plucked at the same time with the index finger and thumb (i.e. the finger and thumb separate in one action), it is called fen (分), the reverse motion is called zhi (摭). A rapid strum with four fingers is called sao (掃), and rapid strumming in the reverse direction is called fu (拂). A distinctive sound of pipa is the tremolo produced by the lunzhi (輪指) technique which involves all the fingers and thumb of the right hand. It is however possible to produce the tremolo with just one or more fingers.
The left hand techniques are important for the expressiveness of pipa music. Left-hand techniques that produce vibrato, portamento, glissando, pizzicato, harmonics or artificial harmonics found in violin or guitar are also be found in pipa. String-bending for example may be used to produce a glissando or portamento. Note however that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers and strings never touch the fingerboard in between the frets, this is different from many Western fretted instruments and allows for dramatic vibrato and other pitch changing effects to be produced by downward pressure to stretch the string, as with the Indian sitar, rather than a sideways action to bend the string, as on a guitar.
In addition, there are a number of techniques that produce sound effects rather than musical notes, for example, striking the board of the pipa for a percussive sound, or strings-twisting while playing that produces a cymbal-like effect.
The strings are usually tuned to A-D-E-A, although there are various other ways of tuning. Since the revolutions in Chinese instrument-making during the 20th century, the softer twisted silk strings of earlier times have been exchanged for nylon-wound steel strings, which are far too strong for human fingernails, so false nails are now used, constructed of plastic or tortoise-shell, and affixed to the fingertips with the player's choice of elastic tape.
The pipa is held in a vertical or near-vertical position during performance, although in the early periods the instrument was held in the horizontal position, or near-horizontal with the neck pointing slightly downwards. Through time, the neck was raised gradually and by the Qing Dynasty the instrument was played upright.
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 were 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 Dunhuang, most of these pieces however may have originated from the Tang Dynasty. Three Ming Dynasty pieces were discovered in the Gaohe Jiangdong (高河江東) collection dating from 1528 which are very similar to those performed today, such as "The Moon on High" (月兒高). During the Qing Dynasty, scores for pipa were collected in Thirteen Pieces for Strings. During the Qing Dynasty there originally two major schools of pipa — the Northern and Southern schools, and music scores for these two traditions were collected and published in the first mass-produced edition of solo pieces for pipa, now commonly known as the Hua Collection (華氏譜). The collection was edited by Hua Qiuping (華秋萍, 1784-1859) and published in 1818 in three volumes. The first volume contains 13 pieces from the Northern school, the second and third volumes contain 54 pieces from the Southern school. Famous pieces such as "Ambushed from Ten Sides", "The Warlord Takes Off His Armour", and "Flute and Drum at Sunset" were first described in this collection. The earliest-known piece in the collection may be "Eagle Seizing Swan" (海青挐天鵝) which was mentioned in a Yuan Dynasty text. Other collections from the Qing Dynasty were compiled by Li Fangyuan (李芳園) and Ju Shilin (鞠士林), each representing different schools, and many of the pieces currently popular were described in these Qing collections. Further important collections were published in the 20th century.
The pipa pieces in the common repertoire can be categorized as wen (文, civil) or wu (武, martial), and da (大, large or suite) or xiao (小, small). The wen style is more lyrical and slower in tempo, with softer dynamic and subtler colour, and such pieces typically describe love, sorrow, and scenes of nature. Pieces in the Wu style are generally more rhythmic and faster, and often depict scenes of battles and are played in a vigorous fashion employing a variety of techniques and sound effects. The wu style was associated more with the Northern school while the wen style was more the Southern school. The da and xiao categories refer to the size of the piece - xiao pieces are small pieces normally containing only one section, while da pieces are large and usually contain multiple sections. The traditional pieces however often have a standard metrical length of 68 measures or beat.
Famous solo pieces now performed include:
|Traditional Chinese||Simplified Chinese||Pinyin||English (translation)|
|十面埋伏||十面埋伏||Shí Mìan Maífú||Ambushed from Ten Sides|
|夕陽簫鼓||夕阳箫鼓||Xīyáng Xīao Gǔ||Flute and Drum at Sunset|
|陽春白雪||阳春白雪||Yángchūn Baíxuě||White Snow in Spring Sunlight|
|彝族舞曲||彝族舞曲||Yìzú Wúqǔ||Dance of the Yi People|
|大浪淘沙||大浪淘沙||Dàlàng Táo Shā||Big Waves Pushing the Sand|
|昭君出塞||昭君出塞||Zhàojūn Chū Saì||Zhaojun Outside the Frontier|
|霸王卸甲||霸王卸甲||Bàwáng Xiè Jiǎ||The Warlord Takes Off His Armour|
|春江花月夜||春江花月夜||Chūnjiāng Huā Yuèyè||Moonlit River in Spring|
Most of the above are traditional compositions dating to the Qing Dynasty or early 20th century, new pieces however are constantly being composed, and most of them follow a more Western structure. Examples of popular modern works composed after 1950s are "Dance of the Yi People" and "Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland" (草原英雄小姐妹). Non-traditional themes may be used in these new compositions and some may reflect the political landscape and demands at the time of composition, for example "Dance of the Yi People" which is based on traditional melodies of the Yi people, may be seen as part of the drive for national unity, while "Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland" extols the virtue of those who served as model of exemplary behaviour in the People's commune.
There are a number of different traditions with different styles of playing pipa in various regions of China, some of which then developed into 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 -
These schools of the solo tradition emerged by students learning playing the pipa from a master, and each school has it own style, performance aesthetics, notation system, and may differ in their playing techniques. Different schools have different repertoire in their music collection, and even though these schools share many of the same pieces in their repertoire, a same piece of music from the different schools may differ in their content. For example, a piece like "The Warlord Takes off His Armour" is made up of many sections, some of them metered and some with free meter, and greater freedom in interpretation is possible in the free meter sections. Different schools however can have sections added or removed, and may differ in the number of sections with free meter. The music collections from the 19th century also used the gongche notation which provides only a skeletal melody and approximate rhythms with some playing instructions given (such as tremolo or string-bending), and how this basic framework can become fully fleshed out during performance may only be learnt by the students from the master. The same piece of music can therefore differ significantly when performed by students of different schools, with striking differences in interpretation, phrasing, tempo, dynamics, playing techniques, and ornamentations.
In more recent times, many pipa players, especially the younger ones, no longer identify themselves with any specific school. Modern notation systems, new compositions as well as recordings are now widely available and it is no longer crucial for a pipa players to learn from the master of any particular school to know how to play a score.
Early known players of pipa include General Xie Shang (謝尚) from the Jin Dynasty who was described to have performed playing it on tiptoe. The introduction of pipa from Central Asia also brought with it virtuoso performers from that region, for example Sujiva (蘇祇婆) 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. Pei Luoer was known for pioneering finger-playing techniques, while Sujiva was noted for the "Seven modes and seven tones", a musical modal theory from India. (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.
Texts from Tang Dynasty mentioned many renowned pipa players such as He Huaizhi (賀懷智), Lei Haiqing (雷海清), Li Guaner (李管兒), and Pei Xingnu (裴興奴). Duan Anjie described the duel between the famous pipa player Kang Kunlun and the monk Duan Shanben (段善本) who was disguised as a girl, and told the story of Yang Zhi (楊志) who learned how to play the pipa secretly by listening to his aunt playing at night. Celebrated performers of the Tang Dynasty included three generations of the Cao family — Cao Bao (曹保), Cao Shancai (曹善才) and Cao Gang (曹剛), whose performances were noted in literary works.
During the Song Dynasty, players mentioned in literary texts include Du Bin (杜彬). From the Ming Dynasty, famous pipa players include Zhong Xiuzhi (鍾秀之), Zhang Xiong (張雄, known for his playing of "Eagle Seizing Swan"), the blind Li Jinlou (李近樓), and Tang Yingzeng (湯應曾) who was known to have played a piece that may be an early version of "Ambushed from Ten Sides".
In Qing Dynasty, apart from those of the various schools previously mentioned, there was Chen Zijing (陳子敬), a student of Ju Shilin and known as a noted player during late Qing Dynasty.
In the 20th century, two of the most prominent pipa players were Sun Yude (孙裕德; 1904–1981) and Li Tingsong (李庭松; 1906–1976). Both were pupils of Wang Yuting (1872–1951), and both were active in establishing and promoting guoyue ("national music"), a combination of traditional regional musics and Western musical practices. Sun performed in the United States, Asia, and Europe, and in 1956 became deputy director of the Shanghai minzu yuetuan (Shanghai Folk Orchestra). As well as being one of the leading pipa players of his generation, Li held many academic positions and also carried out research on pipa scales and temperament. Wei Zhongle (卫仲乐; 1908 or 1909–1998) played many instruments, including the guqin. In the early 1950s, he founded the traditional instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Players from the Wang and Pudong schools were the most active in performance and recording during the 20th century, less active was the Pinghu school whose players include Fan Boyan (樊伯炎). Other noted players of the early 20th century include Liu Tianhua, a student of Shen Zhaozhou of the Chongming school and who increased the number of frets on the pipa and changed to an equal-tempered tuning, and the blind player Abing from Wuxi.
Lin Shicheng (林石城; 1922–2006), born in Shanghai, began learning music under his father and was taught by Shen Haochu (沈浩初; 1899–1953), a leading player in the Pudong school style of pipa playing. He also qualified as a doctor of Chinese medicine. In 1956, after working for some years in Shanghai, Lin accepted a position at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu Dehai (born 1937) also born in Shanghai, was a student of Lin Shicheng and in 1961 graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu also studied with other musicians and has developed a style that combines elements from several different schools.
Prominent students of Lin Shicheng include Liu Guilian (刘桂莲, born 1961), Wu Man (born 1963) and Gao Hong (born 1964). Wu, who is probably the best known pipa player internationally, received the first-ever master's degree in pipa and won China's first National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments. She lives in San Diego, California and works extensively with Chinese, cross-cultural, new music, and jazz groups. Shanghai-born Liu Guilian graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and became the director of the Shanghai Pipa Society, and a member of the Chinese Musicians Association and Chinese National Orchestral Society, before immigrating to Canada. She now performs with Red Chamber and the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. Gao Hong graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and was the first to do a joint tour with Lin Shicheng in North America. They recorded the critically acclaimed CD "Eagle Seizing Swan" together.
Other prominent contemporary pipa players who work internationally include Min Xiao-Fen, Zhou Yi, Qiu Xia He, Liu Fang, Cheng Yu, Jie Ma, Yang Jing (楊靜), Guan Yadong (管亚东), Jiang Ting (蔣婷), Tang Liangxing (湯良興), and Lui Pui-Yuen (呂培原). Some other notable pipa players in China include Yu Jia (俞嘉), Wu Yu Xia (吳玉霞), and Fang Jinlung (方錦龍).
In the late 20th century, largely through the efforts of Wu Man, Min Xiao-Fen, and other performers, Chinese and Western contemporary composers began to create new works for the pipa (both solo and in combination with chamber ensembles and orchestra). Most prominent among these are Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam, and Carl Stone.
The pipa has also been used in rock music; the California-based band Incubus featured one, borrowed from legendary guitarist Steve Vai, in their 2001 song "Aqueous Transmission," as played by the group's guitarist, Mike Einziger. The Shanghai progressive/folk-rock band Cold Fairyland, which was formed in 2001, also use pipa (played by Lin Di), sometimes multi-tracking it in their recordings. Australian dark rock band The Eternal use the pipa in their song 'Blood' as played by singer / guitarist Mark Kelson on their album 'Kartika'.
The electric pipa was developed in the late 20th century by adding electric guitar-style magnetic pickups to a regular acoustic pipa, allowing the instrument to be amplified through an instrument amplifier or PA system.
Sandstone carving, showing the typical way a pipa was held when played with plectrum in the early period. Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD).
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