CASE 6:  Pipa as a Window on Chinese Music

by Joseph Lam (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Imagine that you are taking a twelve day trip to China. During the day you visit famous places, such as the Great Wall near Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xian, the Yu Garden in Shanghai, and Disneyland in Hong Kong. In the evenings you go to restaurants, attend concerts and shows, or participate in other cultural activities. As you experience China, seeing and touching its diverse objects and interacting with its people, you will probably hear a lot of Chinese music. If you pay attention, you are likely to notice the distinctive sounds of a plucked musical instrument; these will range from a soft, wavering tone to a loud and percussive strumming. If you ask your tour guide what Chinese musical instrument makes these sounds, you will be told that it is a pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute. You will probably also be told romantic stories about the instrument, musical compositions for it, and the female musicians who play it. Once you have learned to recognize the pipa, you will realize that it is all over China: it is used in both traditional and contemporary Chinese music, described in poetry and prose, and represented in the visual arts. You will probably wonder: why is pipa so popular in China?; how should one listen to pipa music?; and what can it tell me about Chinese history, culture, and sentiments?

Want to know more? Have a look at the next section: WHAT IS THIS THING?

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