Musical Instruments

The instruments accompanying the many regional styles of traditional Chinese opera may vary considerably, depending on the particular theatrical form. Most ensembles consist of bowed or plucked strings, woodwind and percussion instruments. In China, however, Cantonese opera performances — particularly from the 1930s through the 1960s — have often featured a blend of traditional Chinese and western musical instruments, including electric and slide guitars, violins, saxophones and conga drums. This eclectic combination reflects a long history of trade with western nations and the flow of Chinese workers to and from Europe, North America, Cuba and Central America during the twentieth century.

Cantonese Opera Ensembles

The following traditional instruments often accompany contemporary Cantonese opera. Within the past three decades, the size of these musical ensembles has grown from at least ten to more than 50 musicians.

Gaohu: A bowed instrument, or "spike fiddle" with a characteristic high-pitch, developed in the 1920s by composer Lu Wencheng. Although this was once used only as a feature instrument in Cantonese opera, it is now featured in many Chinese orchestras, along with the slightly larger erhu.

Drum, bell, high gong, and low gong (0 to 10 seconds), fiddle (2) and sanxian (10 to 38 seconds) - The Buddha's Journey to Seek His Mother (Fe zu xun mu)

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Erhu: An expressive, two-stringed spike fiddle with a long neck and snakeskin sound box, used both as a solo instrument and in various types of ensembles. The erhu has been used by musicians in China for at least 1,000 years.

Pipa: A pear-shaped Chinese lute with four strings. It has 32 frets and is plucked with a plectrum, or pick. The pipa appeared in written history more than 2,000 years ago, and is one of the oldest stringed instruments still in use. It has an extraordinary range of sound and can either be played as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble.

Gong and cymbal (0 to 9 seconds), flute, fiddle, and sanxian (10 to 29 seconds), sanxian (29 to 32 seconds) - The Beauty's Frolics (Mei ren shua le)

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Sanxian: This plucked instrument is called a "three-stringed banjo" in Western translations. It has a very long neck without any frets and a distinctive snakeskin sound box. It often accompanies kunqu operas and is especially popular in northern China.

Gong and drum (0 to 4 seconds), suona (5 to 32 seconds) - Madam Qian's Search for Her Husband (Qian shi xun fu)

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Yangqin: Possibly originating in the Middle East, this is a form of hammered dulcimer played with bamboo beaters (sticks). It has a very wide melodic range.

Dizi: The dizi, or di, is a transverse bamboo flute, usually with six or more finger holes and a bright, lively sound; a tone hole covered with a rice paper gives the instrument its distinct "buzzing" sound. This flute is featured in many genres of traditional Chinese music.

Suona: Shaped somewhat like an oboe, this well-known double-reed instrument has an expressive, penetrating sound; it accompanies local theatre events, weddings, funerals, military parades and other outdoor ceremonial processions. Like the yangqin, it likely originated in the Middle East.


Ban: A wooden hand clapper used to maintain rhythm and to punctuate key moments in a performance. This and other percussive instruments play an important role in emphasizing the mood and pace of operatic storylines.

Bo: One of several forms of cymbals that produce a loud, sharp sound.

Ti-Tzu (a transverse flute)
Ti-Tzu (a transverse flute), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 72-1305, IMG0012
Sanxian (a plucked lute)
Sanxian (a plucked lute), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 75-953, IMG0028
Erhu (a fiddle)
Erhu (a fiddle), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 84-264, IMG0076

Other Traditional Instruments

The following instruments are played in a variety of regional opera traditions throughout China.

Yueqin: Sometimes known as the "moon guitar", this instrument has four strings, a short neck with frets, and a round wooden sound box. It is especially important for Beijing opera, performing most of the main melodic lines.

Sheng: This ancient reed flute with fixed, vertical pipes is likely the ancestor of the western harmonica, the reed organ, and the accordion. It is featured in Chinese pictographs dating from 1200 B.C. Sometimes accompanying the dizi, it typically is heard in kunqu and other styles of opera.

Danpigu: Featured in Bejing Opera and other theatrical genres, this is a small wooden drum with a single skin cowhide drumhead, hit with a wooden stick. It has a crisp, high pitch, and is one of several percussion instruments played by the conductor.

Daluo: A large gong featured in Beijing and other opera orchestras.

Darbar (a cymbal)
Darbar (a cymbal), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 75-945, IMG0031
Bangu (a frame drum)
Bangu (a frame drum), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 72-966, IMG006
Lo (a gong)
Lo (a gong), Photo © CMC, Musical instrument collection, 75-964, IMG0051

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