Wind Musical Instruments



Xun is one of the oldest musical instruments in China that has approximately seven thousand years of history.

It is said that the xun originated from the hunting tool of the stone meteor. During ancient times, people often tied a stone or mud ball to the rope that was used for hunting wild animals. Some of the balls were hollow, which allowed it make many sounds when thrown. Most people found it enjoyable and learned how to blow air into it. Gradually, the stone meteor became the musical instrument we know as xun.

The earliest xun was made of stone or bones, but later it became earthen. Also, the forms varied in many ways. For example, it can be shaped like a ball, pear, fish, the flat circle or ellipse.

Xun is an egg-shaped, holed wind instrument. Initially it had only one hole, but afterwards it began to have more holes. Finally at the end of the 3 century BC there appeared an instrument with six holes.

Professor Caozheng from the Chinese Conservatory of Music has been trying to imitate the ancient earthen xun since the end of the 1930s. Later, Professor Chenzhong at the Tianjin Conservatory f Music created a new version with nine holes. The new instrument not only has kept the original form and tones, but also expanded its range and become louder. The nine holes are arranged in a free order, which is convenient for performing. Very soon, Zhao Liangshan, a student of Chenzhong from the Song and Dance Ensemble of Hubei Province, developed another new type with ten holes, which made up for the alt performances.

The xun instrument is usually used in making royal music in Chinese history. There are two kinds of xun. One is shaped like an egg (smaller but louder) and the other is often played along with another kind of pipe instrument called chi. Chi is an ancient Chinese musical instrument that is made of bamboo. Some descriptions about xun can be found in shijing, the earliest poetry in China.


Huluxiao is an ethnic piped instrument in China. It is the most popular and frequently performed instrument among the Dai, Achang, and Wa ethnic minority in southeastern China. Hulu, in this case means calabash, which indicates the shape of this instrument. The history can be traced back to the early Qin Dynasty before 221 BC. However, people can still find similar structural characteristics to the ancient instruments alike in today's huluxiao.

The form and structure of huluxiao are unique. It is made of a calabash, bamboo tree pipes and several pieces of metal reeds. A bamboo pipe is inserted at the end of the neck as the mouth. The calabash is the resonance box. There are three bamboo pipes of different thickness in the bottom. The pipe in the middle is the thickest and has seven sound holes in it.

Huluxiao is as low as other similar instrument. The sound produced by the main pipe is soft and graceful. The music produced by the other two pipes adds to the beauty of the music. The roulade gives the listeners the feeling of light and elegant silk. Therefore, huluxiao is called hulusi as well. Si here is the Chinese translation of silk.

Due to the differences among ethnic peoples and regions, there are even more variations of huluxiao in form and performing in Yunnan province. Still, they have one thing in common; they are often used to play the folk songs. It is also exceptional in performing fluent melodies and soft chords, through which feelings and thoughts find their best expressions.

Later, musicians have reformed on huluxiao, but the traditional tones and styles are remained and the range and volume is expanded. Through the visiting performances of Chinese musicians, this ethnic musical instrument has been brought to many performances worldwide.


Sheng is a wind instrument played in ancient China. It has played an active role in promoting the development of the western musical instruments.

In 1978, earliest forms of sheng called paosheng were found in Hubei Province in a royal tomb of more than 2400 years ago.

The development of sheng can be traced back to 3000 years ago. The instrument is quite similar to another kind of instrument called the paixiao, in form. It was made up of several bamboo pipes bound together with ropes or wooden frames. In order to be distinguishable from paixiao, designers added to sheng bamboo reeds and a cup-shaped dou.

The cup-shaped dou is made of calabash, and the blowtorch is made of wood. A dozen of bamboo pipes are arranged on top of the dou. After the Tang Dynasty at 618-907 BC, performers began to make wooden dou. Later, it was changed into copper, and so was the reed.

There are different types of sheng in different places. After the 1949 at the foundation of the People's Republic of China, musicians and designers have attempted to improve on this instrument. It improved on such disadvantages such as narrow range, inflexible switching of the tones and slow performing. Those progresses have brought a new life to sheng.

Sheng sounds bright and sweet in tone, the alt of which is clear, the mediant soft, and the bourdon deep and loud. Among the traditional piped instruments, sheng is most capable of performing harmonies. Sometimes in the grand ethnic orchestra, the instrument of alto, mediant and bourdon tones must be played together.


Flute is highly popular with the Chinese people. Due to the natural makings of bamboo, it is also called zhudi, which may be literally translated into bamboo flute.

The gnarls in the long bamboo pipe have been got rid off. There are one blowing hole, one affiliated hole and six sound holes. The blowing hole is the first hole of the flute, where the air is blew in and then produces sounds. Next is the affiliated hole, which is covered by the membrane of the bamboo or bulrush. The air makes the membrane vibrate, which can produce clear and smooth tones.

Although the structure of the flute is very simple, it has a history of seven thousand years. About four thousand and five hundred years ago, designers began to make flute with bamboo instead of bone. During the governance of the second emperor of the Han Dynasty at the 1 century BC, flute was also called hengchui, which may be literally translated into English as blowing horizontally. From the seventh century on, the hole covered by membrane had been added. Then with the development of free verse of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the music of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), flute had become the main part of the accompaniment. It was also indispensable in the folk and ethnic dramas.

Flute is rich in performing skills. Not only can it play the loud and sonorous tunes, but also the cheerful dancing music and the peaceful ditty. In addition, it can imitate various sounds in the nature such as the twittering of birds.

There are many kinds of flutes, such as those with seven or eleven holes, and those with keys. They are divided into two groups according to their different styles. Qudi, another kind of flute, which is popular mainly in the southern part of the Yangtse River, represents the southern group, which sounds clear and elegant. In contrast to the southern group, the northern style is rough and powerful. It is popular mostly in the northern China.


Xiao, or the Chinese vertical flute, is also called dongxiao, which indicated that there are many holes in the pipe. It has been popular since thousands of years ago. It is proper to start with the history of paixiao while talking about that of xiao. Here, paixiao means several pipes are combined together. During the early period of the development of paixiao, people began to call it xiao. While performing, people found that it may give out high and low tones if there were holes of different distances between each other. In this regard, dongxiao gradually took the place of paixiao, thus, dongxiao has many holes and only one pipe.

The earliest xiao appeared in Han Dynasty, and it was then called qiangdi, which was popular among the Qiang people in Sichuan and Gansu provinces. At the 1st century BC, it became popular in the region of Yellow River. Later, it was developed into an instrument with six holes, which is extremely similar to today's xiao.

Its structure is quite simple, like the flute very much, but is longer than the flute. It is usually made of bamboo. The top is sealed by bamboo. There is a mouth on the top and five sound holes on the frontal side and one hole at the back. Beside, there are other holes which are designed to adjust the tunes, smooth the tones and raise the volume.

Xiao sounds soft and graceful. The performing skills are basically the same with that of the flute, but it is less flexible. For that reason, it is only suitable to play slow and peaceful lyrics, which conveys in this situation people¡¯s feelings and draws a beautiful picture of the nature. It may perform solo, ensemble and concert, and also some folk music and accompaniment in local dramas.

The music below played by zizhu dongxiao, of which zizhu means a kind of bamboo, describes a picture in which flocks of wild geese are circling in the sky before descending onto the land.


Guanzi is a double-reed musical instrument, which has a very long history. It is developed in the ancient Persia, which is the present Iran. In ancient China, people called it "bili" or "luguan". About more than two thousand years ago, guanzi had already been very popular in the Xinjiang region. Later, it was introduced into the mainland and the performing skills were greatly improved. Today, guanzi has been frequently played by the northern people.

The instrument is loud with a clear and bright tone. It carries with itself a strong countryside flavor. The structure is very simple; it is made up of only three parts. It is often performed in solo, concert and accompaniment. In some music of the northern China, guanzi has played a very important role. The performance skills are various, such as roulade and glissandi and some unique skills. While performing, performers can depend on the degree of lip-rounding to imitate the human voice and the animal sound. There are various kinds of guanzi, such as the double-reed guanzi, and those of different sizes.

The solo below played by guanzi is smooth and relaxing. Such music can often be heard in the operas when the characters are changing their clothes or walking down the streets.

Xibili is an ethnic musical instrument. Xi here means slim. It is highly popular in the Korean autonomous region of Jilin province and other communities inhabited by the Korean people. It is loud and has a powerful tone.

The instrument has a very long history, the earliest ancestor of which is the ancient bili. Xibili is made up of the pipe whistle and the body. The pipe whistle measures 4 centimeters long, which is made of the reed without the hard-shell. The body part is made of the bamboo pipe. It is twenty to twenty-five centimeters long and about 1 centimeter in diameter. There are seven holes on the frontal side and an alt hole on the back.

The performing of xibili is quite similar to that of most play wind instruments. While performing, the player should hold the pipe straight and put the whistle in the mouth, with the hands pressing the holes respectively.

There are alt, mediant and double bili. The traditional alt xibili can only perform one tune, but later designers have added a hole above the sixth sound hole, so the instrument in all has two and a half octaves and can switch the tunes. The mediant instrument is more or less the same with the alt one in function, but the former is one octave lower. In comparison with the alt and mediant instrument, the double piped xibili is the combination of a big and a small xibili with the similar alt tones. Each of them has a pipe whistle. During the performance, the pipes can be played singly or simultaneously. The double piped xibili can be much louder than the single one. It has a clear tone and changeful skills.


Houguan is also called bamboo pipe. It is developed based on the designs of guanzi which is a folk instrument in China. It was only a tool for the vendors to attract customers along the streets at the beginning of its development in Guangdong province. Until the late 1920s, it began to be performed in the Cantonese music and dramas. After that, it gradually became popular with the people living in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Houguan has a very simple structure. It is constituted by the whistle, pipe and the trumpet. The whistle is made of the reed and it has a big mouth. The pipe may be made of several kinds of materials including the plastic, the bamboo with long caudexes, ebony, rosewood and metal. Among all these materials, the bamboo pipe has the best beautiful tone. There are seven sound holes in the pipe. To expand the volume and for decoration, the end of the pipe is installed with a sheet copper.

The tone of houguan is similar to that of guanzi, which has a pure and deep voice with slightly the sound effect of rhonchus. It is often played together with the mediant or bourdon hu, to put emphasis on the mediant and undertone parts.

In the ethnic band, performers often use the mediant houguan in G tone and the bourdon in D tone. The former measures fifty three centimeters long and one to one point three centimeters at the inner-radius. There is only one octave within the range. In comparison, the other one in D tone is longer and wider. However, the range is narrower, and it is inconvenient to switch the tones. In the 1960s, some designers developed a kind of houguan with keys, and added the sound holes to eighteen or nineteen. Not only can it play the half tone, but also is easy to switch tones. Meanwhile, the range has been expanded to two octaves, and it has become a solo performing instrument. Besides, the voice part has been divided into mediant, tenor, undertone and double bass.