What is the ruan (阮)?

Image from China Radio International OnlineWhen Nic told me of his interest to perform the ruan at the library, I didn’t have a clue what instrument he was referring to. So I decided to scoop around and find out more about this ancient Chinese instrument.

Turns out that the ruan is one of the earliest types of pipa, and it was named after one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七贤), Ruan Xian, who was pretty nifty at plucking the strings of this lute.

Just to sidetrack a bit, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Seven Sages were “a group of Chinese scholars and poets of the mid-3rd century AD who banded together to escape from the hypocrisy and danger of the political world of government officialdom to a life of drinking wine and writing verse in the country” (“Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”).

(Ed: Man, that is THE life! *Packs off to find a spot and proclaim himself the Single Sage of the Bamboo Grove.*)

With Ed outta the way, let’s turn back to our subject of the ruan. Extracted from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

From the Qin (221–207 BC) to the Tang (618–907 AD) dynasties, the term pipa was used generically to refer to many types of plucked stringed instruments, both indigenous and imported.

Historically three types of pipa were distinguished, but in the late 20th century four were identified: the qinhanzi, the ruan, the wuxian, and the quxiang. The qinhanzi, or qin pipa—a four-stringed lute having a skin-covered round body, a straight neck, and 12 frets—was developed from a rattle drum by the labourers on the Great Wall during the time of Shihuangdi (the first emperor, ruled 238–210 BC). By the time of Han Wudi (141–87 BC), the body was made of wood and had 12 frets.

This instrument eventually became the ruan, or ruanxian (named for the musician Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove). The ruan differed from the qinhanzi in having a longer neck and 13 frets. In performance the ruan, which is still in use today, is held vertically and plucked with the fingers. The famous yueqin, a short-necked lute, is a variation of this instrument (“Pipa”).

Further, as the Chinese Civilisation Centre’s e-Learning of Ancient Chinese Music website notes, the ruan “was constructed on the basis of zheng 箏, zhu 筑 and horizontal kong hou 箜 篌“.

It also notes that “pictorial evidence, excavated from a tomb of [Ruan Xian’s] time in Nanjing 南京, depicting Ruan Xian’s performance of this instrument, shows that the form of ancient ruan was roughly the same as that of today’s” (“Ruan — Long-necked Lute”).

So what was the ruan used for in the past then? What and how is it used nowadays? And has it really not changed all that much these hundreds of years?

Quoting from the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra website, we find out that

during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), the ruan was generally used for playing court music and folk dance music.

In ancient times the ruan had 8 frets; nowadays it is equipped with 4 strings and 24 frets. It is enlarged into small, medium, large and bass versions called xiaoruan, zhongruan, daruan and diruan. However, only the zhongruan (medium) and daruan (large) are used in Chinese orchestras.

With its rounded, rich tonal quality, the ruan is an essential alto and tenor plucked-string instrument for ensemble playing as well as accompanying instrument for various kind of music.

The well-known solo pieces include In Remembrance of Yunnan and Cherry Blossoms (“Ruan”).

If you look at this earlier post, you’ll find that famed Tang poet Bai Juyi has also written a poem on the ruan.

Interested to find out more about the ruan instrument? Then come down to library@esplanade and check out the following related items:

Click to EnlargeTitle: 孤芳自赏 / Gu fang zi shang = Talking to myself
By: 刘星、沈菲 / Liu Xing, Shen Fei
Call No.: Chinese 787.83 LX
Format: CD
Location: Music Village

Click to EnlargeTitle: 闲云孤鹤 / Xian yun gu he = Animal suites
By: 刘星 / Liu Xing
Call No.: Chinese 784.2 LX
Format: CD
Location: Music Village

Click to EnlargeTitle: 阮中情 / Ruan zhong qing = Passion
Publisher: Xinjiapo: Ming jiang yin yue, p2000
Call No.: Chinese 787.83 P
Format: CD
Location: Music Village

Features the Ding Xiaoyan Ruan Ensemble.

Title: 阮. 柳琴演奏基本教程 / Ruan. liu qin yan zou ji ben jiao cheng
Author: Jefford, Jacqui
Call No.: Chinese 787.7193 WYR
Location: Music Village

Click to EnlargeTitle: 中阮 : 新加坡国立大学艺术中心华乐器乐考级 / Zhong ruan
Editor: 徐宜平 / Xu Yiping
Call No.: Chinese 787.7076 ZR v. 1 – 3
Format: Score
Location: Music Village

Click to EnlargeTitle: 拍鼓翔龙 / Pai gu xiang long = Flying dragons in drum beats
By: 丁晓燕 / Ding Xiaoyan
Call No.: Chinese 787.83 DXY
Format: CD
Location: Music Village

List of Works Cited

  • “Pipa.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. 18 Nov. 2008 [http://library.ebonline.com/eb/article-9059882].
  • “Ruan — Long-necked Lute.” e-Learning of Ancient Chinese Music. 2008. Chinese Civilisation Centre. 21 Nov. 2008. [http://www.english.cciv.cityu.edu.hk/Ancient_Music/plucked.php].
  • “Ruan.” Plucked-string Instruments. 2008. Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. 21 Nov. 2008. [http://www.hkco.org/Eng/about_hkco_eng.asp].
  • “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. 21 Nov. 2008 [http://library.ebonline.com/eb/article-9066941].

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