Chinese flutes

Dizi 笛


The di or dizi, a side-blown transverse bamboo flute of Han Chinese origin, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most prominent wind instruments in Chinese and Taiwanese musical traditions for several reasons: its unique timbre; its vital role in various regional genres or accompaniments for various contexts; its diversity in styles and repertoire. Traditionally, it is made of a piece of bamboo with six finger holes, an embouchure hole, and an extra hole between the embouchure hole and the first finger hole for the placement of a tissue-thin membrane (dimo), which makes the distinguishing nasal and buzzing timbre.

As it has been widely used in various Han regional ensembles and theatrical genres, the dizi has regional varieties, including the two most prominent traditions: qudi, a medium-range flute mainly used for southern schools (nanpai), and bangdi, a shorter and high-range flute mainly used for northern schools (beipai). The difference between these traditions is reflecting in the differences of style, repertoire, aesthetic, and technique. The qudi is considered the leading instrument of southern genres such as kunqu opera (known as kundi) and jiangnan sizhu, which characterized by the low tessitura, lyrical playing, and expressive tune. The high-pitch bangdi, on the contrary, is considered a primary instrument of northern genres, such as bangzi opera and er ren tai, with more energetic, rapid finger movements, and its shrill tone. In general, the growth of professionalism fostered by institutions and conservatories after 1949 has led to the standardization of dizi’s solo repertoire, musical styles and schools, the emergence of new performance techniques, and new forms of dizi with the more equal-tempered tone production.

The dizi is also one of the few wind instruments in Confucian ceremonial orchestra, although many shrines were destroyed before and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The ritual has been introduced and maintained in Taiwan, in which the dizi is mainly used for Confucian sacrificial ceremony (jikong dianli). As some Han regional genres were introduced to Taiwan during the eighteenth century, the dizi has been widely used in several localized Han musical traditions in Taiwan, such as beiguan and Hakka bayin. In beiguan rendition, the dizi (known as pin) is an important instrument in the silk and bamboo ensemble for the iu-gak (soft style music). It must be noted that, the uses of dizi in these domains are not mutually exclusive. As the silk and bamboo ensembles normally associate with local temple affairs or Taoist ceremonies in tribute to gods and ancestors, the dizi intertextually appears in various settings.

Xiao 簫


The xiao, also known as dongxiao, is a vertical notched bamboo flute without the membrane hole. Such flute forms are already found in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), thus have been regarded as one of the oldest instruments with long history and continuity. The xiao has been thought to be the predecessor of the Japanese shakuhachi (syakuhati). Without the vibrating membrane, the xiao has a relatively sober and a gentle tone quality. Because of this characteristic, the xiao has remained mostly an ensemble instrument and/or in the more literary duets with qin (a long and slender cylindrical xiao known as qinxiao).

As an ensemble instrument, the xiao was one of the few wind instruments in the Confucian ceremonial orchestra, and it frequently appeared with other wind instruments such as di, sheng, and panpipes (paixiao). Due to its relatively classical, gentle character (dianya), the xiao also plays a vital role in other types of southern regional ensemble and genre, such as jiangnan sizhu, Chaoyang ditao, and nanyin in Fujiang Province or nanguan in Taiwan (known as dongxiao). In nanyin or nanguan tradition, the dongxiao is one of the five core instruments that are collectively known as the shangsiguan (upper four instruments). In nanguan rendition, the dongxiao normally fills in the skeletal pipa melody by adding neighboring and passing tones as well as ornamentations such as trills; similar to its role in jiangnan sizhu in filling the skeleton into a continuous, flowing melody. Because its association with qin and the classical/ancient characteristics, the xiao nowadays has been regarded as an important instrument for the government-supported folk arts preservation projects.

Notes and photos by Chia-Hao Hsu


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