Traditional musical instrument
The pipa is a four-stringed, pear-shaped, fretted plucked lute from Central Asia that had appeared in China by the seventh century AD. Its body is made out of hollowed out teak covered with a soundboard of wutong wood (Firmiana platanifolia). Four strings traditionally made of silk (now often of steel) stretch from a string attachment and bridge located near the base of the resonator to their individual tuning pegs which are inserted two on each side of the head. A varying number of frets consisting of horizontal bamboo strips (pin) glued to the soundboard run from the midsection to the upper body and give way to frets consisting of triangular blocks (xiang) made of ivory, cow horn or plastic on the neck of the instrument. With four xiang and ten to thirteen pin, a traditional pipa was capable of playing in only two or three modalities. Since the late 1940s, more pin have been added, resulting in a total of twenty-four frets that allowed for equal-tempered tuning, increasing the instrument’s harmonic and transpositional capabilities.
The term pipa is onomatopoeic, representing a downward and an upward stroke respectively by the thumb and index finger of the right hand on a string. All five fingers are used quite extensively for plucking. In performance, the instrument is typically set on the left thigh of the seated player, who holds it upright with the instrument’s neck and head close to his left ear. An exception can be found with the pipa used in the Minnan nanyin ensemble wherein the instrument is held at a horizontal angle.
The pipa has long been employed in narrative song (quyi) and string ensemble traditions and as a solo instrument. It provides the main accompaniment in oral narrative genres such as Suzhou tanci, Beifang quyi pipa and Sichuan qingyin pipa. Both traditional ensemble and solo pipa pieces are part of repertories associated with five different schools of pipa-playing based in the Jiangnan area with Shanghai as the centre. Since the 1950s, additional contexts for performance have been created. The expanded musical and expressive capabilities of the modern pipa lend it to the performance of Western-style compositions as well as new chamber music arrangements of traditional pieces using both Chinese and Western instruments. In the modern Chinese orchestra, which performs guoyue (national music), there is a pipa section.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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