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Ming-Dynasty Pipa

Pipa MET DP216711

Ming-Dynasty Pipa

This Ming-Dynasty (1368 – 1644) Pipa is a four-stringed musical instrument, with a pear-shaped wooden body with a number of frets. The pear-shaped instrument may have existed in China as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The name “pipa” is made up of two Chinese syllables, “pí” (琵) and “pá” (琶). These refer to the way the instrument is played – “pí” is to strike outward with the right hand, and “pá” is to pluck in towards the palm.

The pipa is one of the most famous Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related musical instruments in Asia are derived from the Pipa. Until the mid-tenth century, the Pipa was held guitar style, and its twisted silk strings were plucked with a large triangular plectrum. Toward the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907), musicians began using their fingernails which gaining popularity and that became the new style. To help the fingers, the instrument began to be held in a more upright position.

The back and sides of this Pipa feature more than 100 hexagonal ivory plaques, each carved with figures and symbols signifying prosperity, happiness, and good luck. The front is relatively plain, but the ivory string holder bears a scene featuring four figures and a bridge. The lip has a bat motif with leafy tendrils. Also, there are a spider and a bird, two men with a fish on the frets and a trapezoidal plaque. The finial echoes the bat motif which signifies good luck.

Reflections

  • The Pipa has been developed into a modern version and is in use today. Have you seen or heard a modern Pipa?
  • Have you seen other versions of the Chinese Pia in different Asian cultures?

The Musical Instruments Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Ming-Dynasty Pipa

  • Title:              Ming-Dynasty Pipa
  • Date:              late 16th–early 17th century
  • Culture:         Chinese
  • Geography:   China
  • Period:           Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
  • Materials:     Wood, ivory, bone, silk
  • Dimensions:  L. 37 × W. 9 15/16 × D. 1 1/8 in. (94 × 25.3 × 2.9 cm)
  • Museum:      Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

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“A single tree makes no forest;
one string makes no music.”

– Chinese Proverb

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Photo Credit: 1) Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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