Hong Shao shows how to pluck and strum the pipa, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. She performs “Bring Me a Rose,” then explains how and why she learned to play. The segment concludes with the performance of “Flower Festival.”
The pipa is a four-stringed lute. This instrument was introduced to China from Central Asia by way of the Silk Road during the 4th century. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes that connected markets in Asia, Europe, and Northern Africa. It was called the Silk Road because silk from China was one of the major trade goods. Stringed instruments are called “silk instruments” in Chinese music because originally the strings were made from silk.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the pipa was held in a horizontal position and the strings were plucked with a large pick called a plectrum. But by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was played while held upright and the musician plucked the strings with his or her fingernails. When the change was made to nylon-wound steel strings in the 1950s, the timbre of the instrument became brighter and stronger. The steel strings are too strong for human fingernails to pluck, so musicians today use artificial fingernails.
Another change over time was an increase in the number of frets, from four in antiquity to 20-30 frets today. This gives the instrument a wider range in the pitches it can make (up to three and a half octaves). The frets are arranged chromatically. In other words, each fret produces a pitch that is a half tone above or below the pitch produced by the next fret. The frets on all Chinese lutes are higher than the frets on Western instruments like the guitar, so the musician’s fingers never touch the fingerboard between frets, allowing great control over the tone and timbre.
Another difference between playing a pipa and playing a guitar is in the direction in which the strings are struck. When playing a guitar, the fingers and thumb usually pluck inward toward the palm of the hand. When playing the pipa, they pluck outward. The name pipa describes the way the instrument is played. “Pi” means to strike with the right hand from left to right, and “pa” means to pluck in the opposite direction.