The plucked string instruments can be classified through the positions in which they are played: horizontally (e.g. guzheng and yangqin) or vertically (e.g. pipa and ruan). They can be played by wearing artificial nails, by using plectrums or their strings can be stroked by means of thin sticks.
The pipa, often referred to as “Chinese lute” is a pear-shaped, four-stringed plucked instrument, whose prototype was imported from Central Asia to China about 2000 years ago, during the Western Han Dynasty (I – III century AD). In ancient time, the pipa was played horizontally with a large plectrum and the either four or five strings were made of silk. In the course of time, the pipa started to be played vertically, with the fingernails. Most pipa now use four steel strings and are still played with the fingernails though small plectrums made of plastic or turtle-shell are often taped to the fingers. The pipa frequently appears as a solo, as well as a ensemble and orchestral instrument.
The liuyeqin, also known as liuqin, is a small plucked instrument with four steel strings and, unlike the modern pipa, is played horizontally by use of a plectrum. The name liuyeqin is derived from its form, resembling a nicely shaped willow leaf (liu meaning “willow” and ye “leaf”). The liuyeqin originated from the bigger pipa during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD). At that time, the liuqin had probably only two or three strings; the modern version of the instrument, with four strings, could establish itself only recently, in the 1950s.
The sanxian (literary "three strings") is a fretless three-string, long-necked instrument with a snakeskin membrane stretched over its resonator. It is usually played by means of a plectrum, but it can be plucked also with the fingernails. The sanxian comes in three sizes: large, medium and small. It normally doesn’t appear in a large orchestra, but is commonly used for accompaniment (mainly for storytelling and narrative songs) and in small ensembles. The sanxian has a rich tonal quality and a wide range, thanks to its long neck.
The yangqin (which originally meant "foreign stringed instrument") was introduced to China during the late Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD) by traders from the Middle-East. The earliest type of yangqin had two rows of bridges atop the trapezoidal box, each supporting eight to twelve courses (two strings per course). Since the middle of the 20th century, the yangqin has been further developed by adding more rows and strings in order to increase its volume, pitch, range and chromatic capability. Sustaining pedals and special tuning devices are also installed to the new models. The box rests upon a folding stand, which is now often fitted with wheels for purposes of transportation. The instrument's strings are struck with two lightweight bamboo beaters (hammers) with rubber tips. A professional musician often carries several sets of beaters, each of which draw a slightly different tone from the instrument. Yangqin’s sound is bright, resonant and crisp. The instrument is used in large orchestras, smaller ensembles or for solo performances.
Versions: gaoyinruan 高音阮, xiaoruan 小阮, zhongruan 中阮, daruan 大阮, diyinruan 低音阮
The ruan owes its popularization and its name to Ruan Xian 阮咸, one of the eccentric Western Jin (265 - 317 AD) intellectuals known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Ruan mastered this instrument to perfection. A famous wall mural of the Seven Sages discovered on a tomb shows him playing it. The ruan has a straight stem, a round sound box and 24 frets. Unlike the pipa, it is played with a plectrum held in the left hand. The sound of the ruan is extremely warm and capturing. Nowadays, there are five common sizes of ruan- soprano, alto, tenor, bass and double bass. It is usually played in orchestras or ensembles, but has also been used for solos in recent years.
A predecessor of the modern guzheng is believed to have existed before the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 AD). As time passed, strings have gradually been added to the original twelve-stringed instrument; since the 1960s the standard guzheng has no less than 21 to 26 strings, which are nowadays mainly made of steel. Unlike the guqin, each string of the guzheng is suspended over the upper soundboard by a single adjustable bridge, which serves as a device for fine-tuning. The performer plucks the strings with his right-hand fingernails (either real or plastic), while his left-hand fingers apply pressure to the strings to execute vibratos, glissandos, and other embellishments. Its timbre can be resplendent or mild, in any case intense and elegant. The guzheng is played for solo, ensemble and orchestral performances.
The guqin, a seven-stringed zither, has a long history and is possibly China’s most iconic instrument. It was popular in a five-stringed form already during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 477 BC), back then simply known as the qin ("stringed instrument"). The modern guqin (gu means “old” or “ancient”) consists of a long, narrow upper wooden board that is stuck together with a lower board while the surface is lacquered. There are 13 small dots traditionally made of deer's horn (called hui 灰) inlaid on the outside of the upper boards, which mark the positions of the musical notes and their harmonics. Seven strings are stretched on the upper board, starting from the thickest one on the outside to the thinnest on the inside. Throughout Chinese history, the guqin has been the favored instrument of scholars and philosophers, thus generally becoming the essential attribute of the cultivated man. Because of its low volume, the guqin has never been used in large ensembles, nor is it used in an orchestra at present. The profound and subtle sound of the guqin can be better enjoyed during meditation or casual conversation.
A string instrument played horizontally and named konghou (uncertain etymology) already existed during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC- 477 BC). A vertical version was probably introduced from Central Asia during the Western Han Dynasty (III sec. BC – I cent. AD) and became popular in court music during the Tang Dynasty (VII – X cent. AD). Thereafter, and especially in the Ming Dynasty (XVI – XII cent. AD), it fell into disuse and people gradually even forgot what it looked like. In the 1950s, the Chinese began a project to reconstruct the vertical konghou, referring to historical documents and ancient paintings (such as the cave murals of Dunhuang), and also borrowing elements from the structure of the Western harp. The konghou was finally revived in the 1980s. The instrument now resembles a Western concert harp. At the same time it shares many characteristics with the guzheng. Unlike the concert harp, the strings are folded over to make two rows. In this way, the player is enabled to use advanced playing techniques such as vibrato and bending tones. Paired strings on opposite sides of the instrument are tuned to the same note. In many Chinese orchestras the Western concert harp is still preferred over the konghou, and proficient konghou players are extremely rare.
From the Western orchestra, the Chinese orchestra borrows the harp.