Chinese instruments and music – Early China

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A Chinese musician playing a qin

Ocarina, Han Dynasty (200 BC-200 AD)(Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The first people who came to China, about 50,000 BC, brought their music with them from Africa, by way of India. These people certainly clapped their hands and sang songs. Probably they brought drums and bone pipes with them to China.

Han Dynasty bell player (Portland Art Museum, Oregon)

Chinese tradition says that a man named Ling Lun, perhaps during the Zhou Dynasty, about 1000 BC, invented the earliest musical instruments in China, bamboo pipes that imitated the sounds of birds. But really people were certainly playing drums and pipes as early as the Shang Dynasty, about 1800 BC.

Under the Qin Dynasty, about 200 BC, the Chinese emperors started an Imperial Music Bureau to oversee all kinds of music. Perhaps around this same time, someone invented the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument like a zither.

The Han emperors, starting about 100 BC, told the Imperial Music Bureau to work on court music and military music, and also to keep track of folk music. They were especially interested in keeping track of political protest music, and sent music officers out to listen and collect popular music. They tried to stop revolts by controlling music.

Playing an erhu

With the rise of Silk Road trade, Chinese musicians began to get ideas from Central Asian musicians. Han Dynasty musicians turned the Central Asian pear-shaped lute into the Chinese pipa, plucking the strings with a pick or with their fingernails.

During the T’ang Dynasty, about 700 AD, musicians wrote a lot of new music for the qin. People kept playing the pipa too. Then in the 900s AD, another new idea came from Central Asia: Chinese musicians began to use a bow to play an early stringed instrument – the erhu, with only two strings.

Learn by doing: go to a concert of classical Chinese music
Find out about Central Asian music

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese music:

Egyptian music
Ancient China home

By | 2018-03-14T09:25:37+00:00 June 6th, 2017|China|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Chinese instruments and music – Early China. Study Guides, June 6, 2017. Web. March 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Stu kuby March 13, 2018 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    Dear Karen Carr,

    Thank you for this great article. I am excited to learn about the Music Bureau, the Music Masters, their roles and the process for music gathering in ancient China. Can you help an old man in his quest for this great KNOWLEDGE? Thank you for any time and wisdom you are able to share.

    Best regards,
    stu kuby

    Hudson River Music Hall
    Strand Theater
    Hudson Falls, NY

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr March 14, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Thank you for your enthusiasm! I’m afraid I am not a specialist in Chinese music myself, but you might want to read this: which has more detail.

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