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Hither & thither, the majesty of a zither

By Cheng Yuezhu | China Daily | Updated: 2019-09-21 10:00
The third International Dulcimer Music Festival in Beijing marked a departure, being the first time the event had been held outside the United States. [Photo provided to China Daily]

An old Chinese instrument is making its presence felt in many places and is winning hearts.

Sit down and listen to her for just a few minutes, and the sweet sound of this lady of uncertain provenance may well strike your heartstrings.

In ancient Persia they knew her as santur, among modern-day English speakers she is dulcimer - from the Latin for sweet melody - and when she reached China she became yangqin.

The English name's etymology accurately reflects the timbre of the dulcimer, its two hammers striking the strings on its trapezoidal board.

Liu Yuening, a professor and doctoral supervisor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and artistic director of this year's music festival. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Dulcimer players can conjure diverse moods, hence the instrument's frequent appearances in film scores, from portraying scenes of everyday life to creating a sense of mystery in epic fantasies. The instrument's exact origin remains an enigma and can only be roughly traced back to somewhere in the Middle East thousands of years ago. It is believed to have come to China from the Persian Empire through the Silk Road about 400 years ago, in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In China it was localized and named yangqin, which meant foreign instrument, and gradually took a central role in Chinese folk ensembles, similar to that of the piano in an orchestra. As with pianos, usually only one yangqin is required in a concert, but at the third International Dulcimer Music Festival in Beijing recently the audience was treated to the uncommon presence of more than 30 yangqin on the same stage being played by musicians from around the world.

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