The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.
History of the Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music

Asian Free-Reed Instruments
by Henry Doktorski (© 2000)

Part One: The Chinese Shêng

Illustration 1: The Naw.
Photograph by Randy Raine-Reusch

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The evolution of the accordion began many thousands of years ago in prehistoric Southeast Asia. The naw, which is played today by some of the "Hill Tribes" of minority peoples found in Southern China and in the mountains of Northern Southeast Asia, is in all probability the oldest member of the free-reed family. It has five pipes grouped in a circular cluster, whose open ends appear flush with the bottom of the gourd wind chamber, which allows the player to "bend" notes by slowly covering the ends of the pipes with the right thumb while playing. The technique for this instrument is difficult and the resulting music is quite loud, in spite of the bamboo reeds. Traditionally this instrument also played a coded language which was used by unmarried couples in order to communicate with each other. (End note 1)

Illustration 2: Four Shêngs.
From J. A. Van Aalst, Chinese Music (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964), 81.

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Several millennia ago, long before European music's first rustlings of life, sophisticated musical instruments as well as a complete musical theory appeared in China, owing largely to the orthodox ritual music advocated by the nobility, philosophers and religious leaders. During the passage of many centuries, the naw had gradually evolved into a beautiful and sophisticated instrument: the shêng — literally "sublime voice." The invention of the shêng is shrouded with the obscurity of antiquity. Oral tradition attributes its creation to the mythical female sovereign Nyn-Kwa who was supposed to have lived around 3000 B.C. More reliable sources, such as the 'oracle bones' of the Yin dynasty (which is thought to have ended in the 11th or 12th century B.C.), mention it under the name ho (a small shêng); and the Shih-ching (Book of Odes) attests its use among ordinary people and at court before the time of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), who is believed to have played the instrument.

Another ancient text, the She-king, stated:

    The lutes are struck, the organ blows
    Till all its tongues in movement heave.
    (End note 2)

    The drums loud sound, the organ swells
    Their flutes the dancers wave.
    (End note 3)

Illustration 3: A shêng excavated from Marquis Yi's tomb (430 B.C.)

This tomb, excavated in 1978, is located in what is now Hubei Province. Inscriptions on the bronzes found at the site identify the tomb as that of Marquis Yi of the state of Zeng in the early Warring States period around 430 B.C. Photograph from: Zuo Boyang, Recent Discoveries in Chinese Archeology (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1984), 8th page of illustration. (End note 4)

The shêng, and its sister instrument, the yu, played significant roles in ancient court and banquet orchestras. The shêng was especially important in Confucian ceremonial music until the twentieth century when these rituals themselves became obsolete. It was also played in secular contexts to accompany folk songs, as a solo instrument and in operatic genres such as k'un-ch'ü. The pronunciation of the Chinese character for the musical instrument "shêng" is the same as the pronunciation of another Chinese character "shêng" (rising). Therefore the instrument implies luck and auspiciousness.

Illustration 4: Third century B.C. line-drawing.
From T.C. Lai, Jade Flute: The Story of Chinese Music (New York: Schocken Books, 1981) 50, 51.

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This line-drawing of a rubbing from a bas-relief titled "A Hundred Kinds of Game" from the West Han Dynasty (3rd century B.C.) was unearthed in 1954 in Shantung. It depicts two jugglers, one dancer and seventeen musicians, including one mouth organist (at bottom right of image). (End note 5)

Illustration 5: An undated depiction of an all-women's ensemble from the Tang dynasty.

Photograph courtesy of Robert Garfias, from

All-women orchestras were sometimes employed for court ceremonies. Orchestras from many parts of Asia were invited to perform in the court and many of these ensembles became a regular part of Tang entertainments.

The shêng is constructed of four parts: the base (wind chamber), the mouthpiece, the pipes and the reeds. It originally had a gourd (End note 6) as a wind-chamber. Later shêngs had bases made from lacquered wood; today modern shêngs have bases made from metal. The shêng had thirteen to twenty-four bamboo pipes. (Seventeen pipes was the standard number.) At the base of each pipe a tongue (made from a copper alloy) (End note 7) was cut in such a way as to vibrate freely when the player blew into the instrument through the mouthpiece and covered the hole in the side of a pipe with a finger. The shêng was formed to imitate the shape of the tail of the Phoenix bird — fêng-huang — and the length of the pipes has no effect on the pitch; the shape is simply decorative.

Illustration 6: Another shêng excavated from Marquis Yi's tomb (430 B.C.)

Photograph from Zhongguo Gu Wenming [Ancient Chinese Civilization] (Taipei: Hankun wenhua shiye youxian gongsi, 1983), 51, courtesy of Dr. Ping Yao, California State University, Los Angeles.

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The shêng is one of the few traditional Chinese instruments which can produce more than one note at a time. It was used as a solo, ensemble and accompanying instrument. It usually played the melody and also chords of fourths or fifths to enrich the sound.

Illustration 7: Yu and Shêng in the style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), manufactured by Suzhou #1 Traditional Musical Instrument Factory.

Photograph taken by the Oriental Musical Instrument Exhibition Hall, Shanghai Conservatory of Music and provided by Yu Hui, Music Research Institute, Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

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Traditional Chinese music was, for the most part, learned by rote and not notated. When there was a need to have the music written down, Gongche notation was used.

Example 1: Hantian Lei in Gongche notation (20 KB)

Example 2: Hantian Lei in modern notation (48 KB)
Transcribed by Alan Robert Thrasher

Very few people can read Gongche notation anymore, even professional shêng players. Today, shêng players are trained to read modern staff notation, as well as tablature, which uses numbers and other symbols to indicate the pitches and rhythms. The following example is a type of tablature which originally came to China from the West via Japan.

Example 3: Jin-Diao (Music from Shanxi Province) by Yan Haideng (26 KB)
Modern Tablature

Example 4: Jin-Diao (Music from Shanxi Province) by Yan Haideng (36 KB)
Modern Notation

Jin-Diao is based on musical material of the Shanxi regional theater (Shan-xi-bang-zi) and includes characteristic techniques such as li-yin (glissando) and tu-yin tonguing.

During the second half of the twentieth century, improvements were made to the shêng. There are now shêngs with 36 and 51 pipes (with keys to extend the range of the fingers), as well as amplified shêng, alto shêng, bass shêng and keyboard shêng. There are also chromatic shêngs which allow the performer to modulate to different keys as well as play complicated chords and polyphonic passages. The bass shêng, also known as BaoShêng, is large and heavy and has to be placed on the lap or on the floor. Its sound is low and mellow and it can produced a great variety of chords. Steel tubes are used instead of bamboo tubes, for large bamboo tubes that resonate low pitch notes are difficult to find.

Illustration 8: A modern improved shêng: BaoShêng

Photograph taken by the Oriental Musical Instrument Exhibition Hall, Shanghai Conservatory of Music and provided by Yu Hui, Music Research Institute, Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Notice the 36 buttons.

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When shêng players blow into their instruments, condensation from their breath forms inside which causes intonation problems and sometimes even stops the reeds from speaking. This condition can be prevented if the instruments are heated to a higher-than-room temperature before playing. Therefore shêng players "warm up" their instruments over a small charcoal fire before and during performance. Modern shêng players with state-of-the-art instruments accomplish the same by pouring a cup of hot water inside its base, in a specially designed chamber expressly made for that purpose.

The following musical example gives an indication of the high standard of technique required by contemporary shêng players. Note the three-note triad drone accompanying a single line melody with many grace notes in the first eight measures. Also of interest is the single line melody accompanied by syncopated three-note chords in lines nine and ten.

Example 5: Happy Woman Soldiers (31 KB)

Example 5: Happy Woman Soldiers from the ballet The Women Soldiers of the Red Army as arranged by Shi Po and Tang Fu for shêng (early 1975). This ballet was created during the Cultural Revolution and is very well known in China. This example appeared in the anthology Best Selection of Shêng: Compositions from 1949 to 1979. It was compiled by Chinese Musical Associations and published by People's Music Publishing House in Beijing.

As in the past, the shêng today is still an integral part of the cultural life of the Chinese people. The modern Chinese orchestra consists of four sections: woodwind, string, plucked string and percussion. The string section consists of instruments like the GaoHu, ErHu, ZhongHu and occasionally, a BanHu. The plucked string section consists of instruments like the LiuQin, Pipa, Zhong Ruan, Da Ruan and occasionally, San Xian. In the woodwind section are instruments like Dizi (Bangdi, Qudi and Xindi), Suona and Shêng. The percussion section consists of instruments like the Chinese drums, gongs and timpani. The modern Chinese orchestra uses the cello and double bass to strengthen the bass composition of the orchestra. Before the introduction of these Western musical instruments the main bass string instrument was the GeHu. Other instruments include the Konghou (harp), Zheng (zither) and Yangqin (hammered dulcimer). (End note 8)

Very few shêng players have concertized in the West. Wang Zheng Ting (b. 1955) is a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory and holds an M.A. degree in Ethnomusicology from Monash University in Australia. He is the founder and director of the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble and has actively promoted Chinese music throughout that country. His 1997 US tour included both lectures at various universities and the premiere in Minnesota of his Concerto for Sheng, commissioned by the American Composers Forum. Wang is presently pursuing the Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the University of Melbourne. I had the pleasure of meeting him and hearing him perform in 1999 at a concert in New York City sponsored by The Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments (Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York).

Illustration 9: Wang Zheng Ting holding a modernized Hmong gaeng. Note the megaphone-like bells at the ends of the pipes to enhance the projection of the sound. (End note 9)

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Wang wrote about his Concerto for Shêng, "The instruments in the piece include shêng (solo instrument), dizi, yangqin, ruan, erhu, zhonghu, Western cello, double bass, and percussion. The content of Chinese music always holds important the idea that the piece is taken from the Buddhist doctrine of karma which teaches that one's afterlife is determined by one's previous existence. Deliverance from karma is possible through the performance of beneficent deeds. The shêng techniques I used include simultaneous playing of different keys with varied repetitions; simultaneous use of chords and melodic lines; playing and singing together borrowed from the Japanese sho (Japanese mouth organ); and dissonant chords to increase tension. Many dramatic contrasts appear in this work." (End note 10)

Example 6: Wang Zheng Ting, Concerto for Shêng (cadenza) (47 KB)

The Chinese composer/conductor Kuan Nai-Chung has also composed a shêng concerto — a set of four symphonic pictures titled Peacock, — which was premiered in August 1998 by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Hong Kong's only professional Chinese music ensemble. The solo part was played by Cheng Tak-wai, the shêng principal of the HKCO and a shêng instructor at the Music Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The four movements are titled: Peacock Maidens, Peacock Maidens' Dance, The Peacock in the Cage and The Peacock's Wedding. The piece is also scheduled to be performed in October 2000 by shêng soloist Huo Chang Suo and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Many modern Chinese composers have written for the instrument. Following are some composers and their compositions for shêng and traditional Chinese orchestra which were recorded on a compact disc titled Shêngmasters and released by the China Record Corporation in Shanghai: Li Zuoming wrote Spring Song on the Xiangjiang River, Yan Haideng wrote Jin-Diao (Shanxi Tune), Xiao Jiang and Mou Shamping wrote Riding a Bamboo Pole, Xu Chaoming wrote Moon Night in Lin-Ka, Liu Yu wrote Butterflies Love Flowers, Mou Shanping wrote Lotus Flower Above the Water, Gan Yang and Qingchen wrote The Reservoir Attracts the Phoenix. As can be deduced from the titles of these pieces, a natural love for nature is reflected in Chinese traditional music.

A few Western composers have also expressed an interest in the shêng. In 1963, the American composer, Lou Harrison (b. 1917), composed a large work for an orchestra of Western and Oriental instruments: Pacifika Rondo. It is scored for shêng, psalteries, p'iri (a Korean double-reed instrument), chango (a Korean hourglass-shaped doubled-headed drum), and a pak (a Korean wooden clapper) along with Western stringed instruments, celesta, trombones, organ, percussion, and tin whistles.

End Notes

1. In mainland China, the Naw is called Hulushêng. I did not use this term in this chapter as Hulushêng is a derogatory Chinese term for the free-reed instruments of the "National Minorities," which translates into something like "barbarian shêng."

2. She-king, II, I, I, cited by Dr. F. Warrington Eastlake in China Review (published August 1882), and reprinted in the book by J. A. Van Aalst titled Chinese Music (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964) 81.

3. She-king, II, VII, VI, Eastlake, op. cit.

4. The tomb of Marquis Yi is 21m long, 16.5m wide, 13m deep, making it 220 square meters in area. It has four chambers. The central chamber was decorated as a ceremonial hall with a set of bronze bells still hanging on their rack and bronze vessels neatly arranged in rows. The north chamber resembled an armory with large numbers of weapons, chariot trappings, helmets, and armor. The east chamber contained the coffin of the Marquis Yi and a large number of musical instruments. 21 smaller coffins in the tomb were also found in the eastern and western chambers. All belong to young women between the ages of 13 and 25.

Altogether Marquis Yi's tomb contained:

From: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, Test Version. (University of Washington website:

5. Three rows of musicians are shown sitting on mats. In the first row are four women singers accompanying themselves on the Wa P'ing (earthen hand drum) while the fifth appears to be beating time with a stick. In the second row are performers of the Hsün (globular clay flute), Pai Hsiao (pan pipes) and Nao (single large bell). In the third row, one musician plays the Yu (mouth organ), another the Se (zither), while another seems to be playing a kind of Jew's harp (possibly with a leaf as the reed — "Chu Yeh").

At the back of the orchestra, three percussionists play one Chien Ku (barrow drum) mounted on an elaborate stand, two large bells and four stone chimes. The dancer with large sleeves in the foreground is looking back toward seven drums (Pan Ku) on the ground which he will mount and stamp in time to the music.

6. Musical instruments were classified by the ancient Chinese according to eight varieties:

7. Terry E. Miller wrote, "The reeds are made, I'm told, from cutting up old gongs." From an email letter to the author, June 20, 2000.

8. Diagram from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra website:

9. The Sinocentric mainland Chinese people pejoratively call this instrument Lushêng, or "barbarian shêng."

10. Wang Zheng Ting, from an e-mail letter to the author.

The Japanese Sho
The Laotian Khaen

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