Percussion Instruments

Chinese percussion instruments are usually made of:
  • Wood: e.g. zhuban (bamboo clogs), muyu (temple blocks)
  • Skin: e.g. dagu (Chinese bass drum), yaogu (waist drum)
  • Stone: e.g. qing (ancient chimes)
  • Metal: e.g. luo (gongs), bo (cymbals)
Based on sound and performance methods, one can categorise the percussion instruments into the following categories:
  • Ban lei (board category): e.g. Chinese claves, temple blocks
  • Gu lei (drum category): e.g. Chinese bass drum, timpani, Chinese tom toms
  • Bo lei (cymbal category): e.g. bells, xiaobo (small cymbals)
  • Luo lei (gong category): e.g. pitched gongs, xiaoluo (small gongs) etc.
Percussion instruments can also be categorised into being of definite pitch or of indefinite pitch:
  • Definite pitch instruments include yunluo (pitched gongs) and bianzhong (bronze bells); Indefinite pitch instruments are usually sub-categorised into high, middle or low-pitched because of their indefinite values.
  • High-pitched instruments include temple blocks and pengling (bells);b. Middle-pitched instruments include jingluo (opera gongs), jingbo (opera cymbals) and paigu (Chinese tom toms);c. Low-pitched instruments include dingyingu (timpani) and dagu (Chinese bass drum).

In most Chinese instrumental music, the percussion section serves to create an atmosphere or set the tempo for the orchestra to follow. In Chinese opera, the percussion section is most responsible for the dramatic feel. It is capable of deepening an actor’s character, complimenting singing and pushing for a climax.

Taken from:

Mu Yu 木鱼

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The Mu Yu (pronounced Moo You) is a hammered wood block instrument that is made into different sizes that are partially hollowed out giving it a knocking sound
The wooden fish, also known as the muyu and sometimes known as a Chinese block, is a wooden percussion instrument similar to the Western wood block. The wooden fish is used by monks and laity in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is often used during rituals usually involving the recitation of sutras, mantras, or other Buddhist texts. There are two kinds of wooden fish. One of them is the traditional instrument that is round in shape and often made out of wood.Another type of wooden fish is literally in the shape of a fish.

Ban 板

The ban is the Chinese version of the wood block, made of two pieces of wood linked together as a wood clapper. The note that it produces is short and its sound is bright. It is used in all kinds of music ensembles, especially in traditional north Chinese operas where it provides the rhythm for the singers.

Gu 鼓

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The drum is probably the oldest human instrument. In ancient China, large drums (gu) were sounded to launch an attack during battle, thus intimidating the enemy and boosting the morale of the army. Drums of various sizes were also used for religious and ceremonial occasions. There are many kinds of drum - the twirling "rattle" drum, the hanging drum, the drum suspended on a foot frame to be beaten with two wooden sticks and the drum on a pedestal. Drums can be made of metal, bamboo or animal skin. Chinese drums are usually made of wood and stretched buffalo skin, and are played with a pair of thin drumsticks. In orchestras they are often used to portray scenes of vibrancy and majesty. In recent years, various techniques of playing the gu have been developed. For example, the skin is sometimes pressed in different parts to produce varying pitches, while the running of the drumsticks along the studded sides of the gu is also commonly used in many musical pieces.

Bo 钹

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The Bo (pronounced Bwo) are small cymbal type percussion instruments about 6 inches in diameter. They are used in many types of music especially the local folk opera music。
The cymbals, known in China as the bo or cha, come in a pair and are made of brass. A loud sound is produced when they are banged or rubbed together. They can also be played by tapping a stick on their rims, as in modern drum sets. Chinese cymbals come in different sizes. The bigger ones are loud and booming and are used in ensembles and opera and on ceremonial occasions. The small ones are bright and clear and can be used to depict happiness and liveliness, for example in the traditional Chinese Lion Dance.

Bianzhong 编钟

The bianzhong ("arranged chimes") is one of the most distinctive and amazing percussion instruments known in Chinese history. A set of large bells of different pitches is hung on a rack and struck on the rim with small metal sticks or a long rod, producing chiming melodies. The first bianzhong were made from clay 4000 years ago, then from copper in the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BC). In the Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC), beautifully decorated bronze bianzhong became the centerpieces of court music in sets numbering from 6 to 65. However, the cost and metallurgical skill involved in casting these heavy bells led to a decline in popularity from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) onwards. In 1978, the first known extant set of 65 bianzhong was unearthed by Chinese archaeologists from the tomb of the Warring States (475 - 221 BC) Marquis of Zeng 曾侯. This bianzhong was used in the Chinese composer Tan Dun's "Symphony 1997", celebrating Hong Kong's reunification with China. Today, most existing 65-piece bianzhong are reproductions of this set.