The Bamboo Origins of Far Eastern Bridged Zithers

Robert Garfias

Throughout the Far East there are a number of plucked zithers with moveable bridges.Instruments of this type are to be found in Japan, The Ryukyus, Korea, China and Mongolia. Most of these appear to have Chinese origins. Included in this list are the Chinese chung or cheng, the Korean kayagüm, the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatag and even the Sundanese kechapi. In the case of the kechapi, although the body of the instrument is of probable Chinese origin, its name is derived from the now unused Indian kechapi vina. The ancient Chinese seven string zither, the ch'in (qin) in its earliest forms also had bridges.

The Chinese writing system by which these instruments are first described in ancient Chinese texts, provides an interesting possible clue to their origins. According to the Chinese ideographs used to write the names of these instruments, the ch'in and cheng are distinct types of instruments. The name for the instrument ch'in is written with the king radical, a variant of the "jewel" radical. In the Chinese writing system. radicals are a part of the ideograph which serve as system of classification for written ideographs, usually grouping words together into related concepts, qualities or physical materials. The jewel radical category is quite broad and includes such words as jade, king, lapis lazulli, rare or strange, full moon, and the musical instruments, ch'in and p'ip'a. The bamboo radical, however, is used with much more regularity for words relating to bamboo or items made of bamboo, as for example, most of the Chinese bamboo flutes. That the instrument, cheng, is written with the bamboo radical, does not absolutely imply a relationship to bamboo, but the fact that it is not written with the "jewel" radical like other stringed instruments, indicates the suggestion that the Chinese saw a possible connection.

Most instruments of the cheng type in China, Korea and Japan have 12 or 13 strings made of wound silk. The Southern Chinese types as well as the Vietnamese dan tran have metal strings, usually steel, but in Southern China, the sweeter sounding brass strings can still be encountered. All use strings of equal thinkness, except for the Korean kayagum, in which the lower strings are thicker than the high strings.

One distinctive feature is significant to this disscusion. In the Southern Chinese and Vietnamese forms the instrument has a distinctive curve to the upper surface. The suggestion is that the curved surface is a survival of the older now extinct form of cheng which was originally made of bamboo. Large southern Asian bamboo can grow to be quite thick, thick enough to provide the curved surface for an instrument of this type. It is possible although not clearly documented, that zithers with bridges could have been made of bamboo, thus suggesting the use of the bamboo radical in the Chinese writing system.

Such as an idea may not be so far fetched as it first appears. Throughout Southeast Asia, in the Hills of Vietnam among the hill peoples, among the hill people of the Philippine Islands and in various parts of Indonesia, in particular, on the Island of Timor, there are to be found bamboo tube zithers. These are instruments which were constructed of a tube of bamboo, from which strips were incised on the surface. Leaving the strips attached at each end, small bamboo wedges were forced under these bamboo 'strings' and by adjusting the bridges, the pitch could be raised and lowered. Such insturments survive in numerous forms today in Asia. Given the Chinese system of naming and creating written ideographs for objects, according to some then logical system of classification, the existence of the bamboo radical seems to have been a recogintion of the connection to these older bamboo tube zithers.

It is clear that the South East Asian bamboo tube zither is the forerunner of the national instrument of the Malagasy Republic, the valiha. There is it a part of the ancient Malay heritage of the peoples of Malagasy and survives and flourishes there today, having been a part of the recent renaissance of roots global pop in Malagasy.

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last updated 11.23.04