The shape of the liuqin looks like a "liu (willow) leaf", hence its name. It is also commonly called "tu pipa" and "jingang tui" and is a popular instrument in Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu. The liuqin is the principal accompanying instrument for the Lked instrument with four strings and twenty-nine frets in the 1950's as a need of the Chinese ensemble. Its range is as wide as four octaves, iuqin Opera common in southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu, the Sizhou Opera of Anhui, and Shaoxing luantan of Zhejiang. Originally the liuqin was an alto instrument fitted with two strings and seven frets. It was reformed into a soprano pluccomparable to that of a violin. Its tone quality is solid in the low register, tender in the middle register and sonorous in the high register with strong penetrating power. It is a plucked-string instrument for playing high-pitched melodies, has exuberant expressions and is hailed as the "gem" of Chinese orchestras. One of the representative pieces for solo is Spring Comes to River Yi.
Before the Sui (581-618) and the Tang Dynasties the pipa was a general term referring to those plucked-string instruments ployed in hand-held positions with the outward fingering technique called "pi" and the inwardone called "pa". Instruments such as the pipa and the konghou (lyre) were introduced into China from the western regions. The ancient model of pipa wasequipped with four strings and four ledges. Nowadays the pipa is equipped with six ledges and twenty-four frets. In the Tang Dynasty the plucking on pipa was done with wooden plectrum; it is now with five fingers. The pipa has rich expressiveness and is played with demanding techniques. Well-known pipa melodies for solo include Moonlight over Spring River, Spring Snow and Ambush from All Sides.
The yangqin is also called "hudie qin (butterfly lute)", "shanmian qin (fan shaped lute)" and "daqin (dulcimer)". At first it was found in Persia (now Iran) and Arabia, then made its inroads into China towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It became popular around the Guangdong region at first, and later spread all over China. In recent centuries it has became an important accompanying instrument in folk narrative singing and operatic music, particularly in such regional genres as Cantonese music, Chiuchow (Chaozhou) xianshi, Jiangnan sizhu and Hakka Han music.
The yangqin is important in instrumental ensembles for its crisp tone quality, wide tonal range as well as chord, quick arpeggio capability and timbre. It is therefore popularly used for ensemble music playing as well as accompanying. The well-known solo pieces are Song of the General Sichuan version and Yangge of Northeastern China.
The zheng, a traditional instrument that existed already in the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), was extremely popular inthe State of Qin (around the Shaanxi region). Hence it was also referred to as Qin zheng. Traditionally, it was used in ensembles and for accompanying folk narrative singing. The timbre of zheng varies from the pristine and elegant to the crisp and sprightly according to the different kind of strings (silk or metal) used. Before the Han (206 BC - AD220) and the Jin (265 - 420) dynasties, it was fitted with 12 strings. After the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, it evolved into a 13-string version. The recently developed type is fitted with 21 strings. There is also a 25-string version that has a mechanism to enable the instrument to re-tune the strings instantly. The zheng has a unique and rich expressiveness, capable of interpreting music of various moods, from the classically elegant to flying passions. It is played with diverse finesse and outstanding character. The well-known solo pieces are Song of the Homebound Fishermen, In Celebration of a Bumper Harvest and Battle against Typhoon.
The ruan, called Qin pipa or yueqin in ancient times, was a kind of pipa with a long neck. It was modelled upon such instruments as the qin, zheng, zhu and the konghou. Among the artifacts unearthed in the Six Dynasties (220-581) Tomb at Xishan Bridge, Nanjing, there was an engraved picture showing Ruan Xian, a member of the Seven Wise Men of the Bamboo Grove, playing a musical instrument. It was said that he showed excellent skill in playing this kind of instrument. Hence it was named after him. Today it has come to be known as ruan for short. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), the ruan was generally used for playing court music and folk dance music. In ancient times the ruan had 8 frets; nowadays it is equipped with 4 strings and 24 frets. It is enlarged into small, medium, large and bass versions called xiaoruan, zhongruan, daruan and diruan. However, only the zhongruan (medium) and daruan (large) are used in Chinese orchestras. With its rounded, rich tonal quality, the ruan is an essential alto and tenor plucked-string instrument for ensemble playing as well as accompanying instrument for various kind of music. The well-known solo pieces include In Remembrance of Yunnan and Cherry Blossoms.