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Woman seated on a green stool, playing a pipa.

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Woman seated on a green stool, playing a pipa.

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Archaeological evidence indicates that music culture developed in China from a very early period. Excavations in Jiahu Village in Wuyang County, Henan found bone flutes dated to 9,000 years ago, and clay music instruments called Xun thought to be 7,000 years old have been found in the Hemudu sites in Zhejiang and Banpo in Xi'an. A set of bronze bells called bianzhong c. 5th century B.C. from Hubei During the Zhou dynasty, a formal system of court and ceremonial music later termed yayue (meaning "elegant music") was established. The most important set of music of the period was the Six-dynasty Music Dance (六代樂舞) performed in rituals in the royal court. Music in the Zhou Dynasty was conceived as a cosmological manifestation of the sound of nature integrated into the binary universal order of yin and yang, and this concept has enduring influence later Chinese thinking on music. "Correct" music according to Zhou concept would involve instruments correlating to the five elements of nature and would bring harmony to nature. Around or before the 7th century BC, a system of pitch generation and pentatonic scale was derived from a cycle-of-fifths theory.

Sometimes called the "Chinese lute", the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 31. Another Chinese four-string plucked lute is the liuqin, which looks like a smaller version of the pipa. The pear-shaped instrument may have existed in China as early as the Han dynasty, and although historically the term pipa was once used to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones, its usage since the Song dynasty refers exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument. The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related instruments are derived from the pipa, including the Japanese biwa and Korean bipa in East Asia, and the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà in Southeast Asia. The Korean instrument is the only one of the three that is no longer widely used.

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New York Public Library
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