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An Insight into the Pipa 琵琶

11 July 2023

Cardiff Confucius Institute tutor Modi playing the Pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument
Tutor Modi playing Pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument

Cardiff Confucius Institute Intern Tia Liu interviews our resident musician and tutor Modi Zhu about her journey through traditional Chinese music.

Hi Modi, and thanks for talking to me about your musical experiences. Can you tell us what the pipa is?

The pipa (pípá 琵琶) is a traditional Chinese instrument with a 2,000-year-old history. Traditionally it was five or six strings, but nowadays they are only four strings, making it more convenient to play. The body of the instrument is like a pear, and it is held upright. The pipa belongs to the lute family and is sometimes referred to as the 'Chinese Lute'.

Why did you learn the pipa?

I first learned the piano. After playing for a long time my parents suggested I try a traditional instrument. Some of the main traditional Chinese instruments include the guzheng and the pipa. The guzheng is a very large and heavy instrument and it is difficult to transport, so the pipa was a more convenient option.

What do you like about the pipa?

I like the history of the pipa and its unique sound. The pipa has a very mellow sound. When playing traditional Chinese music, the rhythm is very soft. When I was young learning an instrument was a very difficult thing but after my experience with the piano, the pipa was much easier and I enjoyed playing.

Why do you think it is important to learn traditional instruments?

In order to understand a country first you need to know some of the language. But by playing a traditional instrument you can understand the sound and emotions of the country. The instrument and traditional music will tell you a story about the country or culture and help you connect with the people. When I was in Guyana I played the pipa in their local style of music which is upbeat. The music was like a bridge between our cultures and helped us express friendship.

Whilst working at the Cardiff Confucius Institute, Modi played the pipa for our Chinese New Year events at Cardiff Central Library and the Red Dragon Centre:

I realised that the event was not just for sharing our culture with foreigners, but also for Chinese people living here who wanted to connect with their culture and homeland. Playing the pipa allowed me to also connect with the Chinese people and remind them of home. For anyone interested in Chinese culture, I recommend learning the pipa, especially if you can play the guitar because they are very similar, so it will be easier for you to learn.

List of songs for the pipa

青花瓷 -"Blue and White Porcelain"

春江花月夜 - "Spring River and Moon Night"

发如雪 - "Hair like Snow"

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