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date: 20 February 2020


  • Alan R. Thrasher


Vertical notched flute of the Han Chinese. The name xiao (which was the ancient name for panpipe) is onomatopoeic. The notched flute, historically known by names such as di, guan and chiba, was not called xiao until about the 12th century. It is one of the most venerated of Chinese instruments, possessing a pure and ‘natural’ tone quality (associated with bamboo) and embodying important associations with the Confucian ethos and cosmology. As known by the name di, the instrument was likened to the Confucian concept of di, a different character meaning ‘to wash away evil from the mind’. A later variant known as chiba was twice the length of the ‘yellow bell’ pitch (huangzhong, the foundation pitch of the empire calculated on a tube of 0·9 feet), sounding a root pitch one octave lower and thus achieving correspondence with the universe.

The present-day xiao is constructed of bamboo, with an inward-sloping notch at the upper end (to assist tone production), five frontal finger-holes plus one dorsal thumb-hole, and two or more tassel holes near the lower end. External lengths vary by region, the crucial measurement being the location of the lower tassel holes (which define the vibrating length), for D flutes usually between about 50 and 52 cm below the blow-hole, depending upon internal diameter. Range is about two octaves commonly (d′ – e‴)....

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