In Chinese music, the category of the winds includes a large variety of instruments, made of different materials (bamboo, wood, clay, etc.) and very diverse tone quality. According to the technique and the means used to blow air into their body, they can be divided into three types: instruments played by blowing air directly into the body (e.g. dizi, xiao); instruments played by blowing air into a double-reed placed on one end of the body (e.g. guanzi, suona); instruments played by blowing air into the body to vibrate the reeds inside them, producing sounds (e.g. sheng, bawu).
Versions: qudi 曲笛, bangdi 梆笛, xindi 新笛
The dizi, in English often called Chinese bamboo flute, is believed to have its origin in Central Asia and was introduced to China during the early Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 25 AD). The dizi has an embouchure, six open finger-holes and a seventh hole covered with a membrane called dimo 笛膜 , made from an almost tissue-like shaving of reed (made from the inner skin of bamboo cells). Fine wrinkles are evolved in the centre of the dimo to create a distinctive and penetrating buzzy timbre with a slightly nasal quality. The dizi comes in various sizes designed for different keys. There are three commonly used types of dizi : the qudi 曲笛 , the bangdi 梆笛 and the xindi 新笛 . The qudi and the bangdi are traditional traverse flutes, used respectively in the Kun Opera of southern and in the bangzi 梆子 (wood clapper) opera of northern China. The xindi is the fully chromatic version of the dizi, developed in the middle of the 20th century, as demanded by new musical developments and compositions. The dizi appears as a solo instrument, as well as in small ensembles and large Chinese orchestras.
Check out the performance of Dizi Master Jiang Guoji!
The xiao (in ancient time called shudi, “vertical di”) is a vertically-played flute made of bamboo. Normally, the xiao has four or five finger holes in the front and one in the back, while the body is long and narrow, though also different types can be found. Similar flutes made of bone have been excavated dating back to the period from 6000 - 5000 BC, which makes the xiao one of the oldest Chinese instruments. The xiao has an incredibly gentle and sweet sound, and in its early history was used in rituals together with the guqin. Nowadays, it is mainly used in smaller ensembles and less frequently in orchestras.
After a period of common use in ancient times, the xun lost importance. It was not until the 1980s, that this small clay instrument was revived. The xun is shaped like an egg and it is hollow inside. Its body is normally carved with floral pattern. It has a blowhole and six or seven finger holes, and a range of only one octave. Nevertheless, its tone quality is vibrant and charming. The xun is normally played in small ensembles.
Versions: gaoyin suona 高音唢呐, zhongyin suona 中音唢呐, cizhongyin suona 次中音唢呐, diyin suona 低音唢呐
The suona is an ancient wind instrument with many variants in the whole Asian continent. It is constituted by a conical wooden body and a detachable metal bell; the sound is produced by blowing into a metal bocal to which a small double reed is affixed. Like other Chinese traditional instruments, the suona originated in the Middle-East, was popular in Central Asia by the Western Jin Dynasty (265 - 317 AD) and was introduced into China between the XII and XIV centuries (i.e. in the Song or Yuan Dynasty). It is widely used in both artistic performances and religious ceremonies. It has an impressive volume and strident tone quality that make it especially appropriate for ensembles performing outdoors, for example during festivals and parades. In large Chinese orchestras the suona comes in many versions, which include the soprano, alto, tenor and bass suona.
The guanzi is a double-reeded instrument developed during the Tang Dynasty (VII – X cent. AD), after the music of Central Asia was introduced in China. At that time, the guanzi was frequently used in the court orchestras and made of bamboo. From the Ming Dynasty onwards, it was made from red sandalwood instead. Its tone quality is deep and nasal. It is commonly used in folk music with percussion instruments, and comes in a variety of sizes.
Versions: gaoyin sheng 高音笙, zhongyin sheng 中音笙, diyin sheng 低音笙
The sheng is a mouth organ made of many reeded sounding pipes. Recorded in documents dating back to the VIII century BC, it is certainly one of the most ancient Chinese instruments. The sheng is played through blowing and inhaling alternately and a player can produce a continuous sound without pause. Nowadays, two different types of sheng exist: the traditional sheng and the keyed sheng, which was only developed in the 1950s. While on a traditional sheng, the holes on the finger pipes are pressed directly by the player's fingers, on a keyed sheng, the holes are opened and closed by means of keys or levers. Without keys, the great number of pipes, and the size of the larger instruments makes it impractical for operation by hand. Traditional shengs are very common in the folk music of China and South Asia. Keys shengs are used in large Chinese orchestra, where they mostly have an accompaniment role, although solo sheng, like the remarkable On A Quiet Night, are less and less rare.
The hulusi (which means "gourd silk", referring to the instrument's silky tone) or huluxiao 葫芦箫 ("gourd vertical flute") is an end-blown free reed pipe with gourd wind-chest. Single pipe specimens are rare, most hulusi have a melody pipe and one to two drone pipes. Each pipe has a triangular free reed made of brass. The hulusi is most commonly associated with the Dai minority (who call it bilangdao 筚朗叨), but it is also found under other names amongst other minority groups of Southern China such as the De'ang, Wa and others. The drone pipe has a finger hole, which allows it to be stopped. Advanced configurations have keyed finger holes similar to a clarinet or oboe, which can greatly extend the range of the hulusi to several octaves, and a slide-whistle like mechanism that can tune the hulusi to a desired pitch. The sound of the hulusi is hauntingly beautiful, but fairly soft, and as a result is seldom played in ensembles. The Dai men would play it to express their love to women, while other minorities often played the hulusi in the fields when taking a break from planting or harvesting.
The bawu, like the dizi, is a traverse flute made of bamboo. While with the dizi produces a sound when you blow through an open hole, with the bawu the sound is produced by blowing through a metallic piece (reed). The bawu has eight holes and can produce only eight to eleven notes. Its timbre is thick and nasal. It is a very popular instrument among the ethnic minorities of southwestern China, like the Yi, Dai, Hani and Miao. In the large Chinese orchestra the bawu is normally absent.