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What Is a Chinese Flute?

Pablo Garcia
Pablo Garcia

A "Chinese flute" refers to the “dizi,” a side blown flute made of bamboo. Although there are other kinds of traditional flutes in China, the dizi is considered a national instrument and “the” flute of China. It is an ancient instrument and very popular among the Chinese people. There are three types of dizi, categorized by their length and pitch.

The origins of the dizi date to the Neolithic period. This prehistoric flute is known as the “gu di” or bone flute. Through its evolution to the dizi, the Chinese flute became an important cultural instrument. It was used in folk music and also as a solo instrument for personal enjoyment.

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During the Ming Dynasty, the period between 1368 and 1662, the dizi became part of Chinese classical music. It was discovered that the instrument was louder than other flutes and could be heard amid a full orchestra. It began to be used in Kunqu Opera of the time, known for its delicate and beautiful music.

Usually made from bamboo, the dizi is known for its full and melodious sound. Chinese flutes are also made from wood, bone, iron and jade. The traditional bamboo dizi, however, is still the favored instrument of the Chinese people. Inexpensive and easily constructed, the basics of playing the instrument can be learned by without undue effort.

The dizi is made in three types, each characterized by its size and pitch. The bangdi is a short dizi with a high pitch. Qudi dizis are of medium length, around 15.75 inches (40 cm). Large dizis, a modern innovation, have a seventh finger hole, and are sometimes called “seven star tubes” because of the tubular shape that all dizis have and the extra finger hole.

In its construction, the head of the Chinese flute is closed off to create resonance. There is no mouthpiece at the top. The musician uses a “blow hole,” or mouth hole, on the side of the flute. Below the mouth hole is a “mokong,” or membrane hole, which is covered in “dino,” membrane peeled from the inside of the bamboo plant. All the finger holes are the same size as the mouth hole. Each of the six finger holes can be affixed with membranes to create different sounds.

There are auxiliary holes on the flute’s tail called “ji yin.” These are sometimes used to hang symbolic or decorative tassels. When covered with dino, these auxiliary holes can also produce additional new sounds. The sounds of the Chinese flute are produced through the opening in the tail of the instrument.

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