Pípá (琵琶): Chinese Folk Music Instrument

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Tuesday, 22 September 2009
琵琶 (pípá) Pipa is a Chinese folk instrument, often called the Chinese lute.
The pipa has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets (between 12–26). Although it may be colloquially known as a lute because it looks a bit like one, in fact, the instrument does not have an actual neck. Instead, the soundboard body spans the entire strings to the head of the instrument.

Nearly two thousand years old, the pipa is one of the most popular Chinese folk instruments. The pipa appeared in the Qin Dynasty and developed by the Han Dynasty. There is even statues in the terracotta army of pipa players.

The name "pípá" is made up of two Chinese syllables, "pí" (琵) and "pá" (琶). These are the two most common ways of playing this instrument. "Pí" is to push the fingers of the right hand from right to left, thus more than one finger can be used at a time striking multiple notes, and "pá" is to pull the thumb of the right hand from left to right, in the opposite direction.

Originally played using a large plectrum in the Tang Dynasty, the pipa gradually began to be played with the fingernails of the right hand. 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 elastic tape.

One of the most notable pipa players of modern times is Liu Feng (刘芳), a virtuoso musician, the video below gives you an idea of quite how varied and exciting this instrument is. Tuneful and rhythmical it is more versatile in playing style than western lutes would have been played.

The first video is a famous pipa piece called 十面埋伏 (Shí Mìan Maí Fú) "Ambushed from Ten Sides"

天山之春 (Tiānshān zhī chūn) "The Spring on the Tianshan Mountain" again performed by Liu Feng, and accompaniment on some traditional Chinese drums.

This is a famous poem from the Tang Dynasty about the Pipa. Bai Juyi's "Pipa Xing" (Pipa Play) describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River:

大絃嘈嘈如急雨 : The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
小絃切切如私語 : The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
嘈嘈切切錯雜彈 : Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
大珠小珠落玉盤 : As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

In contempary rock music, Incubus have featured the pipa in their 2001 song "Aqueous Transmission,".

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