The liuqin (Chinese: 柳琴, p liǔqín) is a four-stringed Chinese mandolin with a pear-shaped body. It is small in size, almost a miniature copy of another Chinese plucked musical instrument, the pipa. The range of its voice is much higher than the pipa, and it has its own special place in Chinese music, whether in orchestral music or in solo pieces. This has been the result of a modernization in its usage in recent years, leading to a gradual elevation in status of the liuqin from an accompaniment instrument in folk Chinese opera, to an instrument well-appreciated for its unique tonal and acoustic qualities. The position of the instrument is lower than the pipa, being held diagonally like the Chinese ruan and yueqin. Like the ruan and unlike the pipa its strings are elevated by a bridge and the soundboard has two prominent soundholes. Finally, the instrument is played with a pick with similar technique to both ruan and yueqin, whereas the pipa is played with the fingers. Therefore, the liuqin is most commonly played and doubled by those with ruan and yueqin experience.
Historically, the liuqin was commonly made of willow wood (柳 liǔ literally meaning "willow"), while the professionals used versions constructed with a higher-quality red sandalwood or rosewood. In contemporary versions, however, the front board is made of tong wood (桐木) and for the reverse side, of red sandalwood, as comparable to historical types.
The liuqin has gone by various names, firstly the liuyeqin (柳葉琴), meaning willow-leaf-shaped instrument. This was the original term for the liuqin, which is visibly an abbreviation of the term liuyeqin. The other reference to the liuqin is the tu pipa (土琵琶), literally meaning unrefined pipa, because of the aforementioned diminutive size and resemblance of the liuqin to the pipa.
Throughout its history, the liuqin came in variations ranging from two (which only had a range of one and a half octaves) to four strings. However, the earliest precursor of the modern four-stringed version of the instrument appeared and experienced popularity during the Qing Dynasty . This version had two strings, and was only used for accompaniment purposes in traditional operas, as mentioned before.
The two-stringed liuqin remained in use for much of dynastic China from the Qing Dynasty until the late 20th century. With the modernization of traditional Chinese music in the 1970s, the four-stringed liuqin was developed as an improvement to its musical range, and the body of the instrument was enlarged to allow the player to handle the instrument with greater ease.
Playing technique, tones and range
Its technique is closer to that of the mandolin than that of the pipa, using a plectrum and frequently using the tremolo technique. Its strings are either tuned in fifths, G-D-A-E (as a mandolin or violin), or else in a mixture of fourths and fifths, as for example G-D-G-D, which is a more common tuning employed by mainstream players of the liuqin. This makes playing of the liuqin exactly the same as the ruan, hence players of either the liuqin or the ruan often double on both instruments.
The modern liuqin has four steel strings. Like the ruan, the number of the liuqin's frets was increased from 7 to 29 over the course of the 20th century. These frets are arranged in half-step intervals. Its refreshing and jubilant tonal quality is more delicate than that of the yueqin.
Note that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers never touch the actual body—distinctively different from western fretted instruments. This allows for a greater control over timbre and intonation than their western counterparts, but makes chordal playing more difficult.
Notable players of the liuqin
- Wang Hongyi (王红艺), daughter of Wang Huiran
- Wang Huiran (王惠然), esteemed "Father of the liuqin'"
- Mei Han, guzheng who doubles on liuqin
composed/co-composed/adapted by Wang Huiran (王惠然)
- Canal Works of Happiness
- Melody on a Moonlit River
- Sing a Mountain Song of Love
- Spring Comes to River Yi (春到沂河)
- The Lark (Yun Que) Romanian Folk Music
- Warrior Suite
- Yu Yunfei,"The transition of liuqin's characters",Jiao Xiang-Journal of Xi'an Conservatory of Music,Mar.2005,90-92;
- Wang Huiran,"The revolution of liuqin an its current situation",People's Music,May.2006,48-51.
- Wang Huiran, the famous Chinese instrumental music composer, who was the leader of instrument revolution of liuqin, and wrote pieces of famous works for liuqin, like Spring comes to river Yi, etc. He was called "father of the liuqin" at present.
On the instrument
- Liuqin photographs (first row)
- Liu Qin (a Mp3 recording available here as well)
- Information on the liuqin (also includes information on other plucked-string instruments and notational description of instrumental tonal range)
On players of the liuqin
- Concert information on Wang Huiran
- Press release on Wang Hongyi
- Information on Wang Huiran and Wang Hongyi