The pipa: How a barbarian lute became a national symbol
‘Playing the pipa behind the back’ is a special kind of Chinese gongfu that expresses flying in heaven at Dunhuang. [See image of pipa player from Mogao caves at Dunhuang]
The road to industrialization with Chinese characteristics was taken by Mao Zedong after imitating the Soviets for 8 years, when he threw away the crutch and stood independently. The most unique aspect of that was the reverse method of strengthening agriculture in order to speed up heavy industry: this an example of ‘playing the pipa behind the back’ studied from life.
The road to informationalization with Chinese characteristics is taken when people today, after following the Americans for eight years, throw away the crutch and stand on our own two feet. The most unique aspect is using the reverse method of strengthening manufacturing in order to accelerate the information industry. This, too, is behind-the-back pipa-playing studied from life.
Jiang Jipin, “Informationalizing Manufacturing is Key of Keys–’Playing Pipa Behind the Back’: Seeking the Informationalization with Chinese Characteristics Road to Macroeconomic Policy.” (2002)
The short-necked, pear-shaped East Asian lute known as the pipa (琵琶) is one of the most, if not the most popular, Chinese musical instrument in China today. Its bright timbre, rapid rolling tremolo and the special vibrato and semi-tones — produced by bending its strings — instantly evokes “China” in soundtracks. It is the Chinese instrument most favored by Western and Chinese composers attempting to fuse aspects of Western and Chinese classical music in their orchestral, chamber and musical theatre works. And it is the Chinese instrument that many feel has been most successfully “reformed” to meet the needs of the modern Chinese nation.
In the expression “to play pipa behind the back” (反弹琵琶), moreover, the pipa is brandished in business, economic, and political contexts as quoted in the example above. Its sense is similar to “thinking outside the box,” but with a nationalistic tinge: a sort of “thinking outside the box with Chinese characteristics.”
Thus, while the pipa is not as obvious a national symbol as, say, the sitar in India or the bagpipes in Scotland, it comes close. This is ironic, however, because while many of the instruments in the Chinese traditional ensemble are originally imports, it is for the pipa that those associations with foreign lands are most salient. For one thing, the name pipa itself sounds foreign in Chinese.
There is debate over whether the word itself actually is a Chinese transliteration of a foreign word or a Chinese onomatopoeia, but the earliest references in Chinese texts, dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, affirm that the instruments called “pipa” were themselves of foreign origin, having been brought by northern or western “barbarians.” Later references from the Jin dynasty (265-419 CE) refer to an instrument from even earlier. The qin pipa, a spike-lute constructed by attaching a neck and strings to a drum) was supposedly invented by workers on the Qin era (221-206 BCE) Great Wall—that is likewise associated with wild frontier parts and is quite likely to have been inspired by if not copied from instruments used by the Xiongnu people.
The pipa’s foreign roots are a fundamental and obvious part of its lore. Various instruments given the name pipa were introduced to China over several centuries. The imports most resembling the modern pipa came following the fall of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE). Murals on cave temples and tombs from Dunhuang and elsewhere in western China and Xinjiang depict musicians playing various varieties of pear-shaped lutes; the most famous images are those of apsaras and devas in attendance on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; they are often depicted while aloft, sleeves and dupatta’s aflutter, and sometimes play the pipa behind their back (hence the phrase quoted above).
This brand of in-flight entertainment is linked inescapably to the Western Regions, the Silk Road, the introduction of Buddhism from India and Central Asia, and more generally with the exoticism and eclecticism of the Tang period, when the fad for music from the Western Regions (especially Kucha, in the Tarim Basin) reached a height. Most Tang poets rhapsodized at one point or another about the pipa, its music and musicians; as one modern scholar puts it, “there were pipas in the poems and poems in the pipas,” referring to service of Tang poems as lyrics for airs played on solo pipa or ensembles in which pipas figured prominently.
The famous pipa melodies themselves were often foreign imports (such as Nishang, mentioned in Bai Juyi‘s “Pipa Song“) or thought to be such, and the poems were populated with courtesans and dancing boys, exotic beauties serving up warmed wine and flattery to their scholar clients.
Thus the strongest candidate for Chinese national instrument and cultural icon in fact has a foreign pedigree that is not only acknowledged but celebrated. This stands in contrast to the guqin 古琴 or qin 琴, which would be the pipa’s closest competitor in a contest for status of “Chinese national instrument.” This short, seven-string zither dates back to the early first millennium BC and has always been closely associated with elements of early Chinese cosmology as well as Confucian values and Daoist quietism. Though a cherished object of the literati studio and the instrument whose name serves as the categorical Chinese term for all stringed instruments (including harps, viols, the hammered dulcimer 扬琴 and piano 钢琴), the qin, arguably, is today heard less than the pipa in China, and remains far less recognizable abroad.
One could argue that this has less to do with the kind of symbolic associations I have been discussing above and more to do with a sort of Darwinian selection among musical instruments: the qin is a solo instrument with low volume and soft tone given neither to ensemble performance or fast playing; it is thus technically less adaptable than the pipa to many kinds of music. But this, too, is important, for players, listeners and patrons of music have criteria about what they chose to play, listen to and support. The pipa’s position today as Chinese instrument and musical ambassador outside China is the product of such decisions, decisions which were made on the basis of both technical criteria and less tangible considerations. Moreover, these decisions were taken in a time of urgent political exigencies and acute cultural insecurity, in the context of China’s challenging engagement with the world in the 20th century.
Early pipas in China and the emergence of Chinese pipa
The first records of lutes in China date only from the 3rd century BC (as compared with the second millennium BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia). The word “pipa” was first used in China for a variety of plucked chordophones introduced from that time until around the beginning of the Tang (AD 617). These included the qin pipa and the ruanxian (阮咸) likewise a round-bodied instrument). The pear-shaped pipa (a bowl lute, in the Sachs-Hornbostel categorization) seems to have come to China in the Han period, and was known as Han pipa to distinguish it from the earlier instrument. The first textual references to these pear-shaped lutes in China date from the second century AD, and suggest that at that time it was a recent arrival. While archaeological and other evidence suggests introduction from Central Asia (Gandhara) and / or India (“pipa” may be related to the word “veena”), the literary tradition in China associates the Han pipa with the northern frontier and the famous princesses Xijun and Zhaojun who were married to nomad rulers of the Wusun and Xiongnu peoples, in what is now Mongolia and northern Xinjiang respectively.
Curiously, in the earliest textual reference to the legend linking the pipa to the Wusun, a fifth-century lyric poem by Fu Xuan, the emperor is said to have commissioned the construction of a stringed instrument modeled on but different from the Chinese zither and harp, especially to entertain the princess on horseback. This instrument was given a foreign name (pipa), according to Fu Xuan, because it was transported to (not from) a foreign country. The scholar Laurence Picken concludes that this illogical explanation, like the story from the same source that the spike lute was invented by workers on the Great Wall, is meant to save face by asserting Chinese origin for what was clearly a foreign import.
To Picken’s surmise, we might add the following: If pipa music was meant to alleviate the princesses’ homesickness, was the pipa to achieve this by reminding them of home, or by distracting them from their memories? Much of the point of the Xijun and Zhaojun stories, songs and poems is their exoticism: drinking kumis (fermented mare’s milk) and living in tents, for example, were outlandish activities from the Chinese point of view. Thus, I suspect the presence of pipas in the picture is also part of the frontier tableau; pipas were not to be read as a domestic image, as a bit of civilization in the wilderness like, say, spinet pianos in little houses on the American prairie. They belonged, rather, on horseback.
From the third century through the Sui and Tang era, the pear-shaped pipa was increasingly popular in China. It at first held close associations to Buddhism, appearing in mural and sculptural representations of musicians in Buddhist contexts. In the Tang, it was, as mentioned above, a principal instrument in court music, where its most famous players were from Kucha (a cosmopolitain oasis and Buddhist center in what is now Xinjiang). It served as an icon used by Tang poets to evoke romance, pathos and the far west. By the late Tang, solo and chamber music for pipa and ensembles including pipa had moved out of the court and enjoyed the patronage of merchants.
Increasingly, pipa players abandoned the use of a large plectrum and adapted a repertoire of right-hand techniques stemming from the Chinese qin tradition. (Ultimately, the large plectrum — which resembles a spatula used to serve rice — was abandoned in most parts of China, but it continues in Japan both in biwa and shamisen playing.)
By the tenth century AD, the pipa was thoroughly indigenized. Most of the Sui and Tang era music for pipa has been lost, but a set of 25 pieces for pipa (or pipa parts from music written for ensemble) were preserved among the manuscripts walled away at Dunhuang. They were rediscovered in 1907 and various attempts at deciphering their tablature and reconstructing the music have been made.
There is a long gap in preserved music for pipa between the 10th and mid-sixteenth century. But in the interval, the pipa was adopted in several regional musical styles and as accompaniment for singing. There are a few Ming and Qing era collections of pipa music that indicate further development of regional styles.
Fretting about the state of Chinese music
The pipa turned out by Chinese lutiers and factories today and played by amateurs and professionals alike, is quite a different instrument not only from that of the Tang, but from that of the nineteenth century. Most noticeable of these changes is the greater volume and brighter tone arising from the recent adoption of metal strings and use of plastic picks attached to the fingers, which permit the instrument to hold its own in orchestral settings. The most profound transformation is the diatonic, equally tempered scale of the new instruments.
In the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals grew concerned over the state of Chinese music. This was just one of many cultural anxieties arising from China’s military weakness and political disarray in the aftermath of the rebellions, wars and losses of sovereignty since the first half of the nineteenth century. Just as “traditional” family structures, manufacturing systems, government, literary style, and school curricula became the focus of intense debate and proposals for reform, so too did music.
The sense that Chinese music and instruments needed such reforming was intensified by comparisons with the West and Japan and the gathering sense that only modernization informed by science could preserve the nation from destruction. By the May Fourth era (c. 1919), no less prominent an educator and modernizer than Cai Yuanpei, first chancellor of Peking University (and later co-founder of what would become the Shanghai Conservatory of Music) believed that Chinese music needed rescuing as part of the national salvation project:
As an essential element of art, music is intimately related to cultural advancement. Advanced countries all tried their best to advocate the equalization of science and arts in order to renovate cultures. We are now advocating science. But for music, we haven’t done anything… Not only science needs formal education, the arts need it also. China has no musical conservatories; there are no musical departments even in our university [Peking University]. I hope everyone knows that music is a useful weapon for cultural advancement. We should improve Chinese traditional music by learning from the efforts of Western music. And we should persist in promoting Chinese music in order to keep pace with the world.
Thus this rescue was to be effected, Cai believed in 1919, by studying the west and striving to keep up with it musically.
During the Republican period (1912-1949), especially before 1937 and the onset of full-scale war with Japan, efforts were applied to the pipa by a few famous virtuosi (Liu Tianhua, Abin [Hua Yanjun], Wei Zhonglou), and aided by the opening of conservatories and university music departments in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and elsewhere.
Specifically, Liu Tianhua 刘天华 is credited with increasing the number of frets on the instrument by adding two on the neck and five on the body, to create an instrument with 19 frets (as opposed to the 10 to 14 found on nineteenth and early twentieth-century pipas). Though some early pipas had frets only on the neck, there are also early precedents for adding higher frets — and hence range — above the neck on the pipa’s soundboard itself: one example is from as early as the fifth century, another from the early eighth, and from the 15th and 16th century there are Chinese as well as Korean and Vietnamese pipas with extended fretboards. But Liu’s modification was not simply to add range to the instrument, but to give it a diachronic scale and equal temperament. His pipa was more suited to playing western music or playing alongside equally-tempered western instruments, and he began introducing “western compositional and technical concepts” to the traditional pipa repertoire.
Nevertheless, there was relatively little official or public interest in traditional Chinese instruments in the Republican period. In 1937 at China’s foremost center of musical training and research, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, only two out of 110 advanced students specialized in Chinese as opposed to European instruments. It was not until the 1950s that innovations in pipa design along the lines of Liu Tianhua’s experiments were continued and became wide-spread. The ways in which these changes were disseminated and institutionalized are telling, as is the rationale for them and the rhetoric in which discussion of pipa “reform” is cast.
Kuang Yuzhong 邝宇忠, a professor and instructor of pipa in the National Music (minzu yinyue) Department of the Central Music Conservatory (中央音乐学院), has left a memoir of his efforts to “reform” the pipa. Kuang may not have been alone in working to re-engineer the instrument and techniques for playing it, but his detailed narrative of the process is the only such account I have found.
When Kuang first entered the Central Music Conservatory as a student in 1953, he played an old-style pipa. There was no separate department for Chinese music at that time, so he studied with classmates specializing in western instruments. He envied their ability to practice scales, arpeggios and studies in all twelve keys; he himself did the same on his second instrument, the bassoon, but his old-style pipa could play seven-note scales in only a few keys — it lacked the semi-tones necessary to play full scales in the other keys.
Kuang knew about Liu Tianhua’s experiments and had obtained a chart of how frets on stringed instruments should be positioned for equal temperament. He commissioned the Tianjin Musical Instrument Factory to make him an equally tempered pipa with 24 frets. Armed with this new instrument, Kuang practiced his drills in all 12 keys, and began transcribing western and non-Han Chinese violin music for the pipa: his first choices included Rimski-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Mozart’s “Turkish March,” “Xinchun Yue” (Song of Spring) and “Xinjiang Chun” (Xinjiang Spring).
Since pipa had come to China from Central Asia in the first place, and its most famous Tang era composers and players were from the Xinjiang city of Kucha, it is thus quite ironic that an overhaul of the instrument was necessary to allow it to play a non-pentatonic song like “Xinjiang Spring.” And of course, while not surprising, it is worth highlighting that like Liu Tianhua before him, Kuang’s goal in commissioning this redesigned instrument was to accommodate it to the harmonic and melodic structures of European music.
The next innovation was to play the pipa with false nails. As any classical guitarist knows, the strength, smoothness and shape of fingernails are an endless, almost fetishistic source of concern to musicians for whom a broken nail means weeks of unsatisfying practice, or none at all. Most stringed instrument traditions that adopt metal strings while still playing with fingers and not a separate plectrum have come up with some sort of solution to the friability of nails; this usually takes the form of artificial picks fastened to the end of the finger. The curved plastic or steel thumb and finger picks used by banjo-players and steel-string guitarists are one example; the wound-wire slip-on mizrab used in India is another; the slim loop (nakhäla) that slips under the nail and is tied on with thread by players of the Uyghur tämbür is another.
Already in the early 1950s, some pipa players in China were polishing their nails to strengthen them. This was necessary, according to Kuang, because of the professionalization of the instrument: more practice and performance time meant more wear and tear on the nails. In 1956, Liang Shikan came up with a method of notching pieces of celluloid and fastening them to his right hand fingers and thumb with cloth tape. He visited the Central Conservatory of Music to demonstrate the technique. When Kuang and his classmates tried it, the results were noisy and awkward, but with a little experimentation they eliminated the notches, carefully shaped the nail edge and angled both nail and hand-position so as to minimize clicks and rattles. This was fine for preserving the nails while practicing, but initially no one performed publically on the pipa with bits of plastic taped to the ends of their fingers.
In 1958, Kuang graduated and was assigned to teach pipa at the high school attached to the Central Music Conservatory. There his pipa students were also required to study piano, but could not do so properly with long fingernails. Kuang thus decided to dispense with long nails altogether and use taped-on false nails for performance as well as practice. He found that the picks stayed on even more securely with only short nails underneath, and encouraged his students to try it. In this fashion, a centuries-old playing technique was abandoned, or at least drastically modified, so that pipa-ists could practice the piano. But another reason may have been the greater attack and volume false nails provided.
What Kuang calls the “third great reform” of the pipa was the adoption of metal strings. Traditional pipa strings were of silk, sometimes of gut. In the first half of the twentieth century there had been some experiments with stringing pipas with steel strings, none of which, in Kuang’s estimation, had been particularly successful. In 1959 the Central Music Conservatory moved from Tianjin to Beijing, a city which was itself then undergoing great changes. As Kuang had cut away his fingernails, Beijing’s planners had cleared the dense precincts around what had been the Qing dynasty palace, or Forbidden City, expanding the square and planning to flank it with grand, modern structures. In this form the new Tian’anmen Square would become the political epicenter of the People’s Republic of China.
The year of the Conservatory’s relocation to Beijing corresponded with the forced-march construction of the Great Hall of the People on the newly expanded square, an enormous trophy project of the Great Leap Forward campaign, then just ramping up. There was much buzz about how Li Ruihuan, chief architect of the project (and later member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo), found Mao Zedong’s theoretical writings an inspiration to resolving engineering problems. In this heady environment, Kuang experienced an epiphany: he undertook to apply the wisdom of Mao’s famous essays “On Practice” and “On Contradictions” to the pipa:
“I thought, the main contradiction of the recent past, the problem of false nails, had already been resolved. Well, what was the next main contradiction?”
After Kuang analyzed the problem with the help of the Chairman’s dialectical materialism, he recalls, the answer was obvious: strings.
Kuang’s memoir next proceeds straight to the technical aspects of his efforts to find appropriate metal strings for his pipa, without elaborating on what exactly was contradictory about using silk strings on a traditional Chinese instrument in the first place. The poets, after all, refered to the pipa and other stringed instruments metonymously as “the silk,” and the small ensembles playing the southern Chinese style of music are known as “silk and bamboo ensembles” (sizhu tuan 丝竹团). But Zhou Dafang, another Chinese writer on musical modernization, makes the reasoning explicit: “[On the old instrument,] strings were made of silk material, their tone weak and soft. This clearly did not meet the needs of a modern solo or ensemble instrument.”
Against the background of calls for musical “modernization” in China since the May 4th era, and especially after the coming to power of the Communist Party, the remaining “contradiction” Kuang identified lay between the capabilities of the silk-stringed instrument and the demands placed upon the arts in the New China. Musical reformers and their political allies and patrons in the Republican period increasingly saw large orchestral arrangement as the touchstone of modern, advanced music, and as the best means to deploy music as an instrument of propaganda and even social control.
Despite the rift between communist and nationalist parties that split musicians along with the rest of the country into two camps, the bias towards the large and the grand continued into the Communist era. In his famous talks on culture at Yan’an, Mao enjoined writers and artists to draw inspiration from the masses, but even when drawn originally from folk environments, art and music was to be refigured and broadcast back to the masses in a form that was appropriately grand and emphasized the positive. Neither the guqin, designed for the scholar’s studio, nor even a small ensemble of soft-toned instruments could, by their very nature, speak to the masses. This was not an era for subtle aesthetics. To serve new China — and it had no choice but to serve — Chinese music needed to be louder and brighter.
Kuang realized that now that the problem of fingernail wear had been solved, he could use higher-tension metal strings, if only the right composition and construction could be found. Kuang started with piano strings, but they were too high-tension and made the pipa’s action too hard. So he went for help — where else? — to the “Beijing City Sausage Casing Factory” (that would later become the “Beijing City Violin Factory’s String-making Workshop”). With assistance from this suitably proletarian quarter and after some experimentation, Kuang hit upon silver-wound steel as the best sounding solution; unfortunately, this cost too much to manufacture. He then discovered that strings wound with “a material called “dehe gold” (德合金) worked nearly as well, and was cheaper. And thus the factory began marketing “Red Flag Brand Dehe Metal Pipa Strings.” (The components of pipa strings today include high tension nylon as well as steel cores and windings.)
Kuang had hoped to experiment with the strings for some time himself before allowing his students to make the switch: he was afraid they would injure their developing hands by practicing on the harder strings. But there was no restraining the keen boy students who rushed to make their instruments louder and brighter sounding. Soon the guzheng 古筝 players made their own switch. Finally the girl pipa students switched over to metal strings as well.
* * *
Thus, in the twentieth-century, but especially during the 1950s, the pipa underwent a radical re-engineering. The resulting instrument lost its traditional intonation and the fretting system that had made it easy to play “right” notes within the pentatonic scale, but retained its particular timbre. It now enjoys standardized, equal temperament and a higher range. It can be played much louder thanks to tape-on nails and high-tension metal strings. These “reforms” suited the perceived needs of the reformers to make the pipa “modern,” which to them meant employing scientific principles in redesigning the instrument (the mathematics of equal temperament, an experimental method in working out new techniques and materials for fingerpicks and strings) and, in particular, playing music with European harmonic structures and arranged for large ensembles.
These reforms also helped make the pipa socialist, as Kuang’s linkage of steel strings to Maoist theory shows.
Finally, though the role of pioneers like Liu Tianhua and Kuang Yuzhong looms quite large, the main venue and vehicle for acceptance of the new pipa was institutional and state-run: the Central Music Conservatory in the capital, along with other conservatories and university music departments elsewhere in China.
The pipa is now the favorite example Chinese commentators on the subject use of a successful reform of a national (minzu 民族) instrument, because it has achieved equal temperament, harmonic flexibility and volume without sacrificing its unique Chinese characteristics.
Indeed, in a recent article entitled “The Reform of National Instruments” written for the journal Musical Instrument Research, Zhou Dafeng singles out the pipa as poster child to be emulated by such other instruments as the huqin 胡琴 family of spike fiddles, the seven string guqin, the guzheng and the sheng. Though these instruments’ reforms are still to be fully realized, Zhou is sanguine about future prospects for “reform,” provided that certain principles are followed. First of all, national and local government must play a role both in preserving old instruments and traditions, and also in selecting which instruments comprise the most promising candidates for reform, stressing strengths and minimizing weaknesses. He insists, also, upon a scientific approach to redesigning instruments — traditional affection for expensive and endangered materials such as mahogany or python skin must give way to pressurized wood and other modern materials as determined by scientific experimentation. And although Zhou doesn’t quite put it this way, reform and progress means westernization and globalization:
We must be compatible with the world’s advanced orchestras, to be sure, but we must also maintain the characteristic tone color of Chinese national instruments; moreover we must be able to perform Chinese and foreign, old and new pieces; moreover we must be able to perform together with western symphony orchestras, or establish large Chinese national string and wind ensembles. Therefore, we must not think of the reform of national instruments in the old way as some stand-alone single project, but must look to the whole world, look to the future, have a foothold in our nationality (minzu), and respect science. [emphasis added]
If the reforms are properly carried out, Zhou predicts, the various types of Chinese instruments will be able to form their own sections, together make up a Chinese symphony, and even beyond this, they may even join the most “advanced” western orchestras to jointly perform Chinese and western music. The western symphony orchestra, Zhou points out, lacks a plucked string instruments section. But it is with these instruments that China is most amply supplied, and the various playing techniques (especially tremolo) most advanced. In this way, then, Chinese will complement western instruments in a novel kind of orchestra.
With this notion, we are again playing the pipa behind our back, along with the economists and informationalizers of China’s cadre of national technocrats. It seems no coincidence in the age of “harmonious society” and “China’s peaceful rise” — slogans promoted by the current PRC leadership — that the highest aspiration for Chinese music is imagined to be its inclusion as an equal partner in the symphony of the world — and even that Chinese strengths could make up for western shortcomings.
Zhou’s outlook has not sloughed off the May 4th era’s sense of inferiority relative to the standardized construction, equal temperament and harmonic range of western instruments, and he remains convinced that large orchestras organized along western lines remain the touchstone of musical quality and modernity. Yet he demonstrates a new degree of confidence that China’s flagship instruments will ultimately take their place on the world stage. Of course, this can only be achieved through a careful collaborative effort, coordinated by the proper authorities, including local and national government. “By no means should individuals make decisions on their own!” (千万不能各自为政!)
The pipa, then, is the most Chinese of instruments to no small degree because it is the most foreign. Its several importations from Central Asia, Mongolia, and India, though they have at times in the centuries since the fall of the Tang been a source of embarrassment, are now again a strong point, demonstrating China’s proprietaryclaims over the Silk Road, its historical cosmopolitanism, and its success in indigenizing a once-foreign import. What is likewise remarkable about the pipa’s assumption of this status, however, is its intimate relationship to evolving Chinese nationalism, and the state’s close and largely unquestioned role in managing the pipa’s physical and symbolic re-engineering.
This essay is a version of a conference paper delivered at an AAS annual meeting on March 23, 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Author James A. Millward 米华健 is Professor of History at Georgetown University. He specializes on China and Central Asia, is the author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, and is currently working on The World on a String, which will be a history of stringed instruments on the silk road and the globalization of the guitar. He writes on history and stringed instruments on his blog, The World on a String.
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