ⓘ Ruan


ⓘ Ruan

The ruan is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument. It is a lute with a fretted neck, a circular body, and four strings. Its four strings were formerly made of silk but since the 20th century they have been made of steel. The modern ruan has 24 frets with 12 semitones on each string, which has greatly expanded its range from a previous 13 frets. The frets are commonly made of ivory or in recent times of metal mounted on wood. The metal frets produce a brighter tone as compared to the ivory frets. It is sometimes called ruanqin, particularly in Taiwan.


1. Sizes

The ruan comes in a family of five sizes:

  • tenor: zhongruan 中阮, lit. "medium ruan "; tuning: G2-D3-G3-D4
  • bass: daruan 大阮, lit. "large ruan "; tuning: D2-A2-D3-A3
  • contrabass: diyinruan 低音阮, lit. "low pitched ruan "; tuning: G1-D2-G2-D3
  • alto: xiaoruan 小阮, lit. "small ruan "; tuning: D3-A3-D4-A4
  • soprano: gaoyinruan 高音阮, lit. "high pitched ruan "; tuning: G3-D4-G4-D5

The ruan is now most commonly used in Chinese opera and the Chinese orchestra, where it belongs to the plucked string 弹拨乐 or chordophone section.


2. Playing techniques and usage

The instrument can be played using a plectrum similar to a guitar pick formerly made of animal horn, but today often plastic, or using a set of two or five acrylic nails that are affixed to the fingers with adhesive tape. Mainstream ruan players use plectrums, though there are some schools which teach the fingernail technique, similar to that of the pipa. Pipa players who play ruan as a second instrument also often use their fingernails. Plectrums produce a louder and more clear tone, while fingernails allow the performance of polyphonic solo music. The instrument produces a mellow tone.

In Chinese orchestras, only the zhongruan and daruan are commonly used, to fill in the tenor and bass section of the plucked string section. Occasionally the gaoyinruan is used to substitute the high-pitched liuqin.

Daruan soloists generally use the D-A-D-A tuning, as it allows for the easy performance of diatonic chords. Some orchestral players tune to C-G-D-A, which is exactly the same as cello tuning. The advantage of using C-G-D-A in orchestras is so that the daruan can easily double the cello part.

A ruan ensemble 重奏 consists of two or more members of the ruan family, for instance, an ensemble of the xiaoruan, zhongruan and daruan. The wide range covered by the ruan, its easily blended tone quality, and the variety of soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and contrabass instruments all make ruan ensembles very effective in playing polyphonic music.


3. History

Ruan may have a history of over 2.000 years, the earliest form may be the qin pipa 秦琵琶, which was then developed into ruanxian named after Ruan Xian, 阮咸, shortened to ruan 阮. In old Chinese texts from the Han to the Tang dynasty, the term pipa was used as a generic term for a number plucked chordophones, including ruan, therefore does not necessarily mean the same as the modern usage of pipa which refers only to the pear-shaped instrument. According to the Pipa Annals 琵琶赋 by Fu Xuan 傅玄 of the Western Jin Dynasty, the pipa was designed after revision of other Chinese plucked string instruments of the day such as the Chinese zither, zheng 筝 and zhu 筑, or konghou 箜篌, the Chinese harp. However, it is believed that ruan may have been descended from an instrument called xiantao 弦鼗 which was constructed by labourers on the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty hence the name Qin pipa using strings stretched over a pellet drum.

The antecedent of ruan in the Qin Dynasty 221 BC - 206 BC, i.e. the Qin pipa, had a long, straight neck with a round sound box in contrast to the pear-shape of pipa of later dynasties. The name of "pipa" is associated with "tantiao" 彈挑, a right hand techniques of playing a plucked string instrument. "Pi" 琵, which means "tan" 彈, is the downward movement of plucking the string. "Pa" 琶, which means "tiao" 挑, is the upward movement of plucking the string.

The present name of the Qin pipa, which is ruan ", was not given until the Tang Dynasty 8th century. During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 about 684-704 AD, a copper instrument that looked like the Qin pipa was discovered in an ancient tomb in Sichuan 四川. It had 13 frets and a round sound box. It was believed that it was the instrument which the Eastern Jin 東晉 musician Ruan Xian 阮咸 loved to play. Ruan Xian was a scholar in the Three Kingdoms Eastern Jin 三國東晉 Dynasty period 3rd century. He and other six scholars disliked the corruption government, so they gathered in a bamboo grove in Shanyang. The short-necked yueqin, with no sound holes, is now used primarily in Beijing opera accompaniment. The long-necked qinqin is a member of both Cantonese 廣東 and Chaozhou 潮州 ensembles.

The famed Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易 once penned a poem about the ruan, entitled 和令狐撲射小欽聽阮咸:



4. Ruan and Pipa

A small pipa was found in murals of tombs in Liaoning 遼寧 province in northeastern China. The date of these tombs is about late Eastern Han 東漢 or Wei 魏 period 220-265 AD. However, the pear-shaped pipa was not brought to China from Dunhuang 敦煌, now in northwestern China until the Northern Wei period 386-524 AD when ancient China traded with the western countries through the Silk Road 絲綢之路. Evidence was shown on the Dunhuang Caves frescoes that the frescoes contain a large number of pipa, and they date to 4th to 5th century.

During the Han period 206 BC-220 AD, Lady Wang Zhaojun 王昭君, known as one of the Four Beauties in ancient China departed mainland to the west and married the Grand Khan of the Huns. The marriage was meant to maintain peace between the two ancient countries. On her way to the west, she carried a pipa on the horse. Looking back today, her pipa must have been a ruan-type instrument with a round sound box, since the pear-shaped pipa was not brought to China until the Northern Wei Dynasty after the Han Dynasty. However, in almost all the portraits and dramas, Lady Zhaojuns pipa is displayed inaccurately. The pipa is usually shown with a pear-shaped sound box as in todays pipa, rather than a round sound box.

Note that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers never touch the actual body - distinctively different from western fretted instruments. This allows for a greater control over timbre and intonation than their western counterparts, but makes chordal playing more difficult.


5. Laruan bowed ruan

In addition to the plucked ruan instruments mentioned above, there also exist a family of bowed string instruments called lāruǎn and dalaruan literally "bowed ruan and "large bowed ruan ". Both are bowed bass register instruments designed as alternatives to the gehu and diyingehu in large orchestras of Chinese traditional instruments. These instruments correspond to the cello and double bass in range. Chinese orchestras currently using the laruan and dalaruan include the China National Traditional Orchestra and Central Broadcasting National Orchestra, the latter formerly conducted by the late maestro Peng Xiuwen 彭修文.


6. Repertoire

A famous work in the zhongruan repertoire is the zhongruan concerto "Reminiscences of Yunnan" 云南回忆 by Liu Xing, the first full-scale concerto for the zhongruan and the Chinese orchestra. This work finally established the zhongruan as an instrument capable of playing solo with the Chinese orchestra.

Some works for the ruan:

  • 火把节之夜 Night of the Torch Festival- zhongruan solo 吴俊生* - Fernwood "Nightingale"
  • 翠华山的传说
  • 泼水节The Water Festival- Ruan Tecerto
  • 汉琵琶情 Love of the Han Pipa - zhongruan concerto
  • 塞外音诗 Sound Poem Beyond The Great Wall- zhongruan concerto
  • 满江红 Red Fills the River - zhongruan concerto
  • 山韵 Mountain Tune - zhongruan concerto
  • 玉关引 Narration of Yuguan - ruan quartet
  • 睡莲 Water Lilies- zhongruan solo

Some of Lin Jiliangs compositions for the ruan:

  • 满江红
  • 石头韵
  • 侗歌
  • 凤凰花开 Flowers Open in Fenghuang Translation from
  • 牧马人之歌
  • 石林夜曲
  • 草原抒怀

Some of Liu Xings compositions for the ruan:

  • 第七号- 夜长梦多, zhongruan solo
  • 孤芳自赏, zhongruan solo
  • 回心转意, zhongruan solo
  • 随心所欲, zhongruan solo
  • 水到渠成, zhongruan solo
  • 无所事事, zhongruan solo
  • 来日方长, zhongruan solo
  • 第二中阮协奏曲Second Zhongruan Concerto
  • 云南回忆 Reminiscences of Yunnan, zhongruan concerto
  • 第十一号-心不在焉, zhongruan solo
  • 天地之间, zhongruan solo
  • 第六号-异想天开, zhongruan duet
  • 流连忘返, zhongruan solo
  • 月光, zhongruan solo
  • 山歌, zhongruan solo
  • 心旷神怡, zhongruan solo

Some of Ning Yongs compositions for the ruan:

  • 望秦川 zhongruan solo
  • 丝路驼铃 Camel Bells on the Silk Road, zhongruan / daruan solo
  • 篮关雪 Snow at Lan Guan, zhongruan solo
  • 终南古韵 Ancient Tune of Zhongnan, zhongruan / daruan solo
  • 拍鼓翔龙 Flying Dragons in Drum Beats, zhongruan solo composed with Lin Jiliang


7. Notable players and composers

  • Tan Su-Min, Clara陈素敏
  • Miao Xiaoyun 苗晓芸
  • Cui Jun Miao 崔军淼
  • Liu Xing 刘星
  • Wu Qiang 吴强
  • Ning Yong 宁勇
  • Wang Zhong Bing 王仲丙
  • Shen Fei 沈非
  • Wei Wei魏蔚
  • Lin Jiliang 林吉良
  • Su Handa 苏涵达
  • Zhang Rong Hui 张蓉晖
  • Fei Jian Rong费剑蓉
  • Liu Bo 刘波
  • Ruan Shi Chun 阮仕春
  • Wei Yuru 魏育茹
  • Xu Yang 徐阳
  • Ding Xiaoyan 丁晓燕
  • Features of Ruan - ruan included: no mid vowels initial l - final consonantal cluster - nd Ruan - ruan had the feminine gender suffix - tu - Ruan - ruan vocabulary
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