The Chinese pipa, a four-string plucked lute, descends from West and Central Asian prototypes and appeared in China during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). Traveling over ancient trade routes, it brought not only a new sound but also new repertoires and musical theory. Originally it was held horizontally like a guitar, and its twisted silk strings were plucked with a large triangular plectrum held in the right hand. The word pipa describes the plectrum’s plucking strokes: pi, “to play forward,” pa, “to play backward.” During the Tang dynasty (618–907), musicians gradually began using their fingernails to pluck the strings, and to hold the instrument in a more upright position. In the Museum’s collection, a late seventh-century group of female musicians sculpted in clay (23.180.4-7) illustrates the guitar style of holding the instrument. First thought to be a foreign and somewhat improper instrument, it soon won favor in court ensembles but today it is well known as a solo instrument whose repertoire is a virtuosic and programmatic style that may evoke images of nature or battle.
Because of its traditional association with silk strings, the pipa is classified as a silk instrument in the Chinese bayin (eight-tone) classification system, a system devised by scholars of the Zhou court (1046–256 B.C.) to divide instruments into eight categories determined by materials. However, today many performers use nylon strings instead of the more expensive and temperamental silk. Pipas have frets that progress onto the belly of the instrument, and the pegbox finial may be decorated with a stylized bat (symbol of good luck), a dragon, a phoenix tail, or decorative inlay. The back is usually plain since it is unseen by an audience, but the extraordinary pipa illustrated here (50.145.74) is decorated with a symmetrical “beehive” of 110 hexagonal ivory plaques, each carved with a Daoist, Buddhist, or Confucian symbol. This visual mixture of philosophies illustrates the mutual influences of these religions in China. The beautifully decorated instrument was probably made as a noble gift, possibly for a wedding. The flat-backed pipa is a relative of the round-backed Arabic ‘ud and is the ancestor of Japan’s biwa, which still maintains the plectrum and playing position of the pre-Tang pipa.