Also:       dongxiao      

Title: Miniature Ensemble of Jiangnan—Suwu Muyang; Shanghai Association for Research on Traditional Music. Label: King. Format: CD. Catalogue#: KICC 5234. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The xiao is an end-blown edge aerophone (flute) of the Han Chinese. The two xiao pictured here are typical of ones found in central China, especially the region around Shanghai. Another closely related flute called the dongxiao is prevalent along the southeast coast of China. Both flutes can go by either name, but on this page ‘xiao’ will be used specifically for the central China model and ‘dongxiao’ for the southeastern one. The xiao is associated with noble, ancient cultural ideals, and is thought of as a scholarly instrument. It is played as a solo instrument, in duet with the qin, and as an auxiliary instrument in some central Chinese instrumental ensembles such as the Jiangnan sizhu (‘silk and bamboo’ ensemble of the Jiangnan region around Shanghai; see ‘Sizhu Ensemble from China’). During recent decades there have been attempts by a few outstanding exponents of the xiao to enlarge its solo repertoire and increase its acceptance as a solo instrument for concert hall performance.


The xiao is made from a long, narrow stalk of bamboo about .9 inches in diameter. Except for the natural node at the blowing end, all other nodes must be removed internally to create a cylindrical bore. Only a small semi-circular portion of the node at the top end of the stalk is removed, and into the edge of the wall that is exposed is cut a small notch with a sharp edge. The remaining nodal material is ornamented with perforations. Five fingerholes, a thumbhole, and several vent holes are drilled into the tube; the placement of the first vent hole after the last fingerhole determines the acoustical length of the flute. While the two xiao pictured on this page differ in their length (the first is 32.7 inches long, the second 27.2 inches, a difference of 5.5 inches), their first vent holes are exactly 20.7 inches below the blowing end of the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The xiao player holds the instrument vertically at a 45-degree angle or greater with both hands; some players prefer their left hand on top, others their right (with whichever hand is on top the player operates the thumb and top two fingerholes, while the remaining three fingerholes are manipulated with the fingers of the other hand). The nodal membrane at the blowing end is placed against the lower lip, leaving the small opening cut into it unobstructed. The player’s focused airstream is directed against the sharp edge of the notch, which in turn sends pulses of air pressure into the bore of the instrument that respond to the length of the tube, creating audible wave patterns. The acoustical length of the tube at any given moment is determined by which of the thumb and fingerholes are covered. At its full acoustical length (20.7 inches) the pitch D4 is sounded. The xiao has a practical range of approximately two octaves (D4 to E6), but skilled players can extend the upper end of this range. Xiao players, recognizing that it is a quiet instrument with a narrow dynamic range, coax subtle tonal variations out of it and use delicate ornaments and short trills to enhance the melody being performed.


The term ‘xiao’ has been used in reference to many different aerophones during China’s long history, and it is seldom clear precisely to which instrument the term is being applied. It seems likely that notched flutes with five fingerholes and a thumbhole like the xiao pictured on this page have been in existence if not during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) then soon thereafter. 

Bibliographic Citations

Lau, Frederick. 2002. "Instruments: Dizi and Xiao." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 183-186.

Liang, Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Thrasher, Alan R. 1984. “Xiao [hsiao].” NGDMI v.3: 867-868.

________. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Aalst, J. A. 1964. Chinese Music. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp.

Witzleben, J. Lawrence. 1995. ‘Silk and Bamboo’ Music in Shanghai. Kent: Kent State University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.141.12 aerophone--open single notch flute: airstream directed over the edge of a notch at the top of the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: notched cut in rim at end of tube or in opening of vessel

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


32.7 in. length (first instrument) 27.2 in. length (second instrument) 20.7 in. acoustical length (both instruments)

Primary Materials

reed - cane

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin