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Pipa: The Chinese Lute

by Claude Samard Polikar

Whenever I travel abroad, I try to find an unusual/ethnic string instrument I could play, adjusting my guitar technique to the specificity of an unfamiliar instrument. Some are easier than others and only require a few adjustments like for the arabic lute or the cuban tres. Others are more challenging, like the chinese Pipa also called the Chinese lute, an instrument that plays a significant part in Chinese music.

The modern pipa is 40 inches (102 cm) long. The strings are tuned to A, d, e, a, low to high and the range is three octaves plus four pitches. Once made of silk, strings are now usually made of nylon-wrapped steel. Players use their fingers adorned with artificial nails, to pluck the strings. The contemporary pipa’s direct ancestor is the quxiang (“curved-neck”) pipa, which traveled from Persia by way of the Silk Route and reached western China by the 4th century AD. This type of instrument was introduced to Asian countries such as Korea where it is known as the Bipa, in Japan as the Biwa and in Vietnam as the Tyba. The Pipa is held upright on the player’s thigh. Techniques combine both nails and flesh contact, producing a wide range of tones. Pipa players use various ornamentation techniques, such as slides, tremolos, vibrato, harmonics and finger techniques, to add expression and nuance to the music. The pipa shares some playing techniques with the guzheng (a Chinese zither), such as the use of tremolo and glissando, which enhances its expressive capabilities. When I said the Pipa could be a challenge for guitar players… it can be played with a guitar pick and held like a guitar, but then you would miss the essence of the pipa and it would sound a little like a banjo. The transition from guitar to pipa is not exactly easy, but if you’re tempted, prepare yourself to spend enough time to master the instrument’s specific techniques!

wu man
Wu Man playing the pipa

In traditional Chinese music it is played by men and women alike. It is essential to Chinese music in every genre such as silk and bamboo ensembles, the Peking Opera, or in regional folk music.

In more modern times, the pipa has been used in cross-cultural collaborations, blending with Western classical music, jazz, and other styles. This has led to unique fusions and spread the instrument’s sound to broader audiences. Contemporary compositions for the pipa have expanded its repertoire beyond traditional boundaries.

Pipa played with celtic guitar
The pipa has found its way into film scores and popular music, contributing to a diverse range of musical genres. Its distinctive sound is sometimes used to evoke a sense of Chinese cultural identity like as for the erhu, the Chinese violin.

The pentatonic scale, quite common in Chinese or Celtic music and in lots of western traditional folk music, added to the fact that the sound of the pipa is not too far from the sound of the banjo, helps the pipa to blend very well with other string instruments like the acoustic folk guitar (Martin Simpson and Wu Man). The pipa can easily be paired with the african kora (Lui Fang and Ballade Sissoko) or with Central Asian instruments like the sarod. There have been some experimental rock and electro experiments with electrified pipas. More recently you’ll even find a 5-string version.

The most notable Pipa players are Wu Man, Gao Hong, Min Xiao Fen, Yang Jin, Liu Guilian and Lui Fang.

So even if the pipa has a deep-rooted history in Chinese music it continues to evolve, adapting to more contemporary musical contexts. Its unique timbre and expressive capabilities make it a versatile instrument, contributing to a wide array of musical styles and genres.