Saturday, December 14, 2013

Yueqin - dulcimer-like Chinese "moon lute"

A present from my mother-in-law, who found an odd musical instrument on sale somewhere and decided on the spur of the moment to get it for the son-in-law who collects strange musical instruments. It looked a little bit like a little wooden banjo, and its strings looked like nylon fishing line. The only clues to what kind of instrument it might be were a sticker proclaiming it was "Handmade in Hong Kong" and a hand-lettered price tag identifying it as a "moon lute."

So when I got home that night, I tuned one of the strings up to where it would hold a tone and figured out that whatever it was, it was diatonic. Proably penatonic, although I couldn't be sure because I wasn't able to get much tension on the string and it was really, really floppy. A couple of Google searches later, I was able to determine it was probably Chinese and it was called a yueqin, variously translated as a moon guitar or a moon lute for the shape of its body.

The picture at left (copied here under Creative Commons Non-commercial license) shows a yueqin in the Powerhouse Museum of science and design in Sydney, Australia. A little more Googling around and I learned it's traditionally tuned in fifths -- usually in D and A -- and it's a melodic instrument played on one string a little bit like a dulcimer.

And at that point, I really got interested.

The yueqin in Sydney was made around 1880 by The Old Shop of Jin Shang (Golden Sound), in Guangzhou, China, but the basic design is unchanged today. My new yeuqin looks almost exactly like the one in the picture.

Here's how the museum describes theirs: "The yueqin (pronounced 'yu-shin') is traditionally used to accompany singing. It has four strings (traditionally made of silk) tuned as fifths in pairs. The yueqin is plucked either with fingernails or a small pick. It is often seen in the small instrumental ensembles of the Beijing Opera but it is not widely used in large Chinese orchestras."

Click here to hear a 30-second preview of a song called "Let's Play Yueqin (Yue Qin Tan Qi Lai)" by Qubiawu on the mp3 album Famous Chinese Minority Singers: Vol. 3 (Zhong Hua Ge Tan Ming Ren: Min Zu Ge Tan Ming Ren San).

The Powerhouse Museum offers the following additional "talking points," presumably geared less for policitians than for teachers guiding children through the display:

  • Traditionally these instruments had strings made from silk rather than gut as is common for stringed instruments in the West.
  • The makers must have had trouble with inferior instruments being passed off as their own leading them to place the warning "You are bandits and prostitutes if you counterfeit our products" on their label.

That label is worth translating in full: "The Old Shop of Jin Shang (Golden Sound)/Opened at Haoban Street of the city of East Guangzhou -- We specialise in making traditional musical instruments and all types of exquisite strings, Zi Dai Tai Gu qin xian and Qi Li Hu Si xian xian. Our shop has no extension shops nor branches. Recently some scoundrels have swindled for profit by counterfeiting our trademark in selling their goods. In order to get our genuine products may all our dear customers please beware of our trademark in making your purchase. You are bandits and prostitutes if you counterfeit our products."

A Chinese folk music web portal, known as or Elotaxin, gives more detail:

The yueqin (Chinese: 月琴, pinyin: yuèqín, pronounced [y̯œ̂tɕʰǐn]; also spelled yue qin, or yueh-ch'in; and also called moon guitar, moon-zither, gekkin, la ch'in, or laqin) is a traditional Chinese string instrument. It is a lute with a round, hollow wooden body which gives it the nickname moon guitar. It has a short fretted neck and four strings tuned in courses of two (each pair of strings is tuned to a single pitch), generally tuned to the interval of a perfect fifth. Occasionally, the body of the yueqin may be octagonal in shape.

According to legend, the instrument was invented in China during the Qin Dynasty.[citation needed] It is an important instrument in the Beijing opera orchestra, often taking the role of main melodic instrument in lieu of the bowed string section.

The webpage at makes a distinction between traditional and contemporary yueqins. It describes the traditional instrument like this:

The yueqin in China has four strings, tuned in two "courses," D and A (low to high). Yueqin used for Beijing opera, however, have two single strings, only one of which is actually used, the lower string being there purely for sympathetic resonance. In Beijing opera, the player uses a small wood dowel instead of a plectrum to perform, and only plays in first position; this requires the performer to use octave displacement in order to play all the pitches within a given melody.

The frets were formerly arranged rather like those on a mountain dulcimer, so that the instrument is diatonic; however, the fret size is high enough that any pitch may be bent up a minor 3rd. Modern yueqin have frets tuned in semitones.

The strings on the traditional form of the instrument were made of silk (although nylon is generally used today) and plucked with a rather long, sharp plectrum, which is sometimes attached to the instrument with a piece of cord.

There is no sound-hole, but inside the sound box are one or more strands of wire attached only at one end, so that they vibrate, giving the instrument a particular timbre and resonance.

There is no bridge or saddle; the strings are simply attached to the anchor at the base of the instrument.

And the contemporary, or modern, yueqin like this:

Modern forms of the instrument have three or four strings made of steel[citation needed] (or steel-wrapped nylon), each tuned to a different pitch. The strings are attached to the anchor by looping them through their own end-loops.

3-string instruments are often tuned A D a,

4-string instruments are often tuned to A D a d; however, in recent practice, the instrument is tuned G D g d so modern liuqin and ruan players can easily double on Yueqin. T

he anchor on modern instrument may have up to 5 holes, so it can be strung and tuned as a 3- or 4-string instrument. The nut, at the peghead end of the instrument, is filed with notches appropriate to the number and position of the strings.

Modern yueqin are often played with a guitar pick.

The website (if I am understanding the Google translation correctly( is a project of the Eloxatin Network. which appears to have nothing to do with western medications but describes itself as
... a professional learning folk music charity online media, to "spread the culture of folk music" philosophy, committed to the dissemination and popularization of folk music culture, so that more people like the Chinese folk music.

We will strive to Eloxatin made practical, authoritative study of folk music station! Making it the brand of folk music station! I hope that more people with a traditional Chinese folk music of love and nostalgia, looking forward to the return of national art.

The web portal's name appears to have something to do with the "singing sands" of western China. As translated by Google, it explains: "On Eloxatin (yuèshā) in the dictionary meaning: [musical sand] emit a tone when the sand is agitated or trampled when."

Apparently the youqin is easy to play and has a long history as a folk instrument.

A blog called features china on Chinese arts and crafts, clothing, cuisine and musical instruments, which also appears to be translated from the Chinese, adds this:

The yueqin Nguyen similar, then gradually change clear yueqin Nguyen completely different, although the shape like Nguyen, but handle quite short. Different shapes. Four strings of the old yueqin the improvement yueqin three strings, eighteen to twenty frets, Chromatic device. Four or five degrees tune a stringed instrument, the pitch is not fixed. Right hand holding playing plectrum playing. The tone is crisp and bright. Mainly in the band playing the melody. Yueqin common to the accompaniment of folk ditty, Peking Opera, as well as for national orchestra.

Yueqin widespread in people of all ethnic groups in China, won the favorite of China’s Han, Yi, Miao, Dong, Buyi, white and Hani peoples playing stringed instruments. Rich and colorful yueqin song, all nationalities, all regions will also be different. The famous traditional solo Yi: “scrape wind” Mustang across the river “” a pair of geese “Dali tune” and “Ga woody”. Hani Month melodies mountain tune “. Taiwan has number of famous yueqin, such as the late Wang Siming, warm red painted, Chan Tat, Mr. Liu Lu.

Picture: Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial. Concise link back to this object:

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