Chinese dulcimer

When someone tells you to name an instrument, which instrument comes to your mind first? Maybe a piano since it is very popular. Other instruments that might come to mind would be a guitar, a flute, drums, etc. What about the Chinese hammered dulcimer? What is a Chinese hammered dulcimer anyway? A Chinese hammered dulcimer, also known as a yangqin, is a stringed musical instrument. It has strings stretched over a trapezoidal wooden box. The dulcimer is usually played by two bamboo mallets. With the two mallets, you can hit the strings or plucks the strings. The dulcimer can be used as a solo instrument or in ensembles.

The Chinese hammered dulcimer is not a very common instrument in the US. However, not surprisingly, it is very common in China. The dulcimer does not only exist in China but also in Europe, India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world. There is a common theory that the dulcimer came from Persia, which is a province in southern Iran. The Silk Road stretched from Persia to China and it is by way of this lucrative route for trade and cultural exchange that the Chinese were introduced to this beautiful instrument.

There is another theory that the dulcimer was introduced to the Chinese by the Portuguese. During the 16th century, in the Age of Exploration in Europe, trade blossomed between China and Europe. In addition to the trade of goods and other important business transactions, scientific knowledge and religion (Buddhism) were exchanged as well. Later, it came to be known that dulcimers existed in other parts of Europe. Some historians believed that the dulcimer originated in Europe.

The Chinese later called the dulcimer yangqin. The character for qin denotes that it is related somewhat to the piano. Also, the dulcimer was foreign, yang, to the Chinese. Therefore, they called the dulcimer a yangqin.

What does a Chinese hammered dulcimer look like? It is a trapezoidal box, with bridges on the top. There are four to five bridges on a dulcimer, depending on the specific instrument and the preferences of the musician. On top of the bridges, there are metal strings. On the left side of the dulcimer, the strings are thin, creating higher tones, while on the right side the strings are thicker so the notes are lower.  On the left and right side of the dulcimer, there is a board which you can lift open. When you open it, there are pegs. The pegs on the left side are to hold the metal strings in place. The pegs on the right control the sound of the strings. The tones of the various strings can be tuned with twisting the pegs left or right with a metal wrench. The mallets are made of bamboo. It is very flexible and delicate. On the top of the mallets, it is covered with rubber so that when it hits the strings, the notes will sound soft. On the end of the mallets, it is slightly sharp so that you can use that part of the mallet to pluck the strings to give it a sharper sound. Also, when you play the dulcimer, it usually has four octaves.

Today, the Chinese hammered dulcimer is played throughout Chinese, Europe, and other parts of the world. Yes, the dulcimer is still being played but it is still not very common. The dulcimer is a traditional instrument, so it is most often seen being used in Chinese operas.

Students from Kwong Kow Chinese School playing the Chinese dulcimer at Beth Israel Hospital.

One of the most famous dulcimer players today is Professor Zhang Zhen Tian. He is very well-known in Beijing, China, and we are now lucky to have him in the States with us; he currently teaches the dulcimer and drums at the Kwong Kow Chinese School right here in Chinatown. If you are interested in taking lessons in this ancient instrument, please contact Kwong Kow Chinese School.

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