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  • Alan R. Thrasher

Categorical name for Chinese drums. A prefix is usually attached to specify type. While of a wide variety in size and usage, most indigenous Chinese drums have a barrel-shaped body with two heads of oxhide tacked on (rather than laced together), and are struck on one head with two beaters. Pictographs from the Shang dynasty (c16th–11th centuries bce) and archaeological finds of two barrel-shaped drums (dating between the 13th and 10th centuries bce) attest to the appearance of such drums by that time. The excavated drums are made entirely of bronze (including their heads). They rest horizontally upon four short legs and are decorated with raised saddle-shaped images on their upper sides. One drum, found in Hubei province, is about 45 cm long, with a head diameter of about 40 cm; the other, now in a Japanese collection and of unknown provenance, is smaller. Historically known as zugu (‘foot drum’) due to their support position, during the 20th century they were often called tonggu (‘bronze drums’) and consequently confused with the gong-shaped bronze drum of South China and Southeast Asia. The shape of the barrel and presence of raised imitation tacks in three rows (for each head) suggest the earlier existence of similar drums constructed of wood.

Wooden barrel drums have been found in the 5th-century bce Zeng Hou Yi site (Hubei province), including a single large drum mounted on a post (jiangu) and a smaller drum of unknown name with a short attached handle (length and head diameter both about 24 cm). The jiangu and nearly two dozen other drums are mentioned in classic texts of the 3rd century bce, very few reconciled with archaeological finds or early pictographs.

Unusual drums have been found in early sites as well. Most surprising have been several goblet-shaped ceramic drums resembling the modern Central Asian dombak, recently discovered in pre-Shang sites in Gansu province (northwest China). Scholars believe that heads (now missing) were strung over the large flaring ends. One of the excavated drums is 32 cm long, its bell-shaped end 22.5 cm in diameter and the tubular end 9 cm. Chinese sources reveal nothing about the name or usage of these drums.

Another unusual and obsolete type found in late Zhou sites (c5th–3rd centuries bce) is a frame drum generally known as biangu (‘flat drum’) or popularly as niaojiagu (‘bird-frame drum’). Examples found in Henan, Hubei, and Hunan provinces (central China) have circular wooden frames of about 8 cm deep, with tacked heads 40 cm or more in diameter. Attached to the sides are three rings, from which they are suspended by cords between two large carved wooden birds (most likely egrets), which stand on the backs of carved crouching tigers. The drum frames and suspension frames are typically lacquered black, with bold designs in red and other colours.

Mainstream drums from later periods survive in different forms. Medium-sized barrel drums suspended head-upward in stands, used in opera and instrumental ensembles, include zhangu and tonggu. Very large barrel-shaped and related drums used in percussion ensembles and Chinese orchestras include dagu, bian dagu, and huapengu. Thin barrel drums suspended by neck straps and used in dance accompaniment, such as yaogu, are discussed under Huagu. Various hourglass drums introduced from India or Central Asia (and now obsolete in China) include maoyuangu, dalagu, and jiegu.

Gu, China, 19th century. (US.SL.hartenberger)

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See also Bajiao gu; Bangu; Bofu; Dagu ; Diangu; Huagu; Jiangu; Paigu; Shigu; Shugu; Taogu ; Xiyaogu.


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Asian Music