The ruan (, pinyin: ruǎn) is a Chinese plucked string instrument. It is a lute with a fretted neck, a circular body, and four strings. Its strings were formerly made of silk but since the 20th century they have been made of steel (flatwound for the lower strings). The modern ruan has 24 frets with 12 semitones on each string, which has greatly expanded its range from a previous 13 frets. The frets are commonly made of ivory. Or in recent times, metal mounted on wood. The metal frets produce a brighter tone as compared to the ivory frets. It is sometimes called ruanqin (阮琴), particularly in Taiwan.

It comes in a family of five sizes:

  • Soprano: Gaoyinruan (高音阮, lit. "high pitched ruan"; tuning: G3-D4-G4-D5)
  • Alto: Xiaoruan (小阮, lit. "small ruan"; tuning: D3-A3-D4-A4)
  • Tenor: Zhongruan (中阮, lit. "medium ruan"; tuning: G2-D3-G3-D4)
  • Bass: Daruan (大阮, lit. "large ruan"; tuning: D2-A2-D3-A3)
  • Contrabass: Diyinruan (低音阮, lit. "low pitched ruan"; tuning: G1-D2-G2-D3)
The ruan is now most commonly used in Chinese opera and the Chinese orchestra, where it belongs to the plucked string (弹拨乐 or chordophone) section.
With a history of over 2000 years, the ruan has gone by several names: the qin pipa (秦琵琶), ruanxian (阮咸) and ruan (阮). According to the Pipa Annals 《琵琶赋》 by Bo Xuan (博玄) of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the ruan was designed after revision of other Chinese plucked string instruments of the day, including the Chinese zither, zheng (筝), zhu, (筑) and konghou (箜篌), or Chinese harp.

In ancient China before the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), the ruan was called Qin pipa ([Qin Dynasty, 221 BC - 206 BC] pipa, 秦琵琶). What distinguished Qin pipa from the pipa (琵琶, another plucked string instrument) was that the Qin pipa had a long, straight neck with a round sound box while the pipa was pear-shaped. The name of "pipa" is synonymous to "tantiao" (彈挑), the right hand techniques of playing a plucked string instrument. "Pi" (琵), which means "tan" (彈), is the downward movement of plucking the string. "Pa" (琶), which means "tiao" (挑), is the upward movement of plucking the string[1]. As this right hand technique was used for playing the ruan, the ruan was also called "pipa".

The present name of the Qin pipa, which is "ruan", was not given until the Tang Dynasty (8th century). Between the Empress Wu Zetian (武則天) period (about 684-704 AD), a copper instrument that looked like the Qin pipa was discovered in an ancient tomb in Sichuan (四川). It had 13 frets and a round sound box. It was believed that it was the instrument which the Eastern Jin (東晉) musician Ruan Xian (阮咸) loved to play[2]. Ruan Xian was a scholar in the Three Kingdoms Eastern Jin (三國東晉) Dynasty period (3rd century). He and other six scholars disliked the corruption government, so they gathered in a bamboo grove in Shanyang (山陽, now in Henan [河南] province). They drank, wrote poems, played music and enjoyed the simply life. The group was known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七賢)[3]. Since Ruan Xian was an expert and famous in playing an instrument that looked like the Qin pipa, the instrument was named after him when the copper Qin pipa was found in a tomb during the Tang Dynasty. The ruan was used to be called ruanxian (阮咸), but today it is shortened to ruan (阮)[2].

Also during the Tang Dynasty, a ruanxian was brought to Japan from China. Now this ruanxian is still stored in Shosoin of the Nara National Museum in Japan. The ruanxian was made of red sandalwood and decorated with mother of pearl inlay. The ancient ruanxian shows that the look of today's ruan has not changed much since the 8th century. However, the Tang ruanxian was much more beautifully made when compared to today's ruan.

Nowadays, although the ruan was never as popular as the pipa, the ruan has been divided into several smaller and better-known instruments within the recent few centuries, such as yueqin (“moon” lute, 月琴) and qinqin (Qin [Dynasty] lute, 秦琴) . The short-necked yueqin, with no sound holes, is now used primarily in Beijing opera accompaniment. The long-necked qinqin is a member of both Cantonese (廣東) and Chaozhou (潮州) ensembles [4].
Essential Question

Why is it good that musical tastes change constantly?

Vocab: interest, varietz, growth, change
Fun Facts


Similar Instruments