Also:       xiao      

Title: Chinese Classical Music--Temple Meditation; Wei-Chung Loh, dongxiao. Label: Lyrichord. Format: LP. Catalogue#: LL 72. Track: B-1.

Contextual Associations

The dongxiao is an end-blown edge aerophone (flute) of the Han Chinese. The two dongxiao pictured here are typical of ones found along the southeast coast of China and in Taiwan. Another closely related flute called the xiao is prevalent in central China, especially the region around Shanghai. Both flutes can go by either name, but on this page ‘dongxiao’ will be used specifically for the southeast China model and ‘xiao’ for the central China one. The dongxiao is associated most strongly with the Fujian Province musical genre called nanguan, a regional instrumental ensemble that can include a singer.


The dongxiao is made from a long stalk of bamboo about 1.2 inches in diameter. All natural nodes must be removed internally to create a slightly conical bore open at both ends. At the top end a notch with a sharp edge is cut into the edge of the wall. 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 dongxiao pictured on this page differ in their length (the first is 29.1 inches long, the second 24 inches, a difference of 5.1 inches), their first vent holes are exactly 19.3 inches below the blowing end of the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The dongxiao 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 open, notched end is placed against the lower lip, leaving a small opening 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 their full acoustical length (19.3 inches) these flutes sound a pitch that is a little sharper than D4. The dongxiao has a practical range of approximately two octaves (D4 to E6), but skilled players can extend the upper end of this range. A dongxiao player performing in the nanguan ensemble context very closely imitates the melodic line performed by the singer, adding characteristic delicate ornaments and short trills to enhance it.


The term ‘xiao’ has been used in reference to many different aerophones during China’s long history, and it is seldom clear precisely to what instrument the term is being applied to. It seems likely that notched flutes with five fingerholes and a thumbhole like the dongxiao pictured on this page have been in existence if not during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), then soon thereafter. The dongxiao has been a part of the nanguan tradition throughout its 400-year history. 

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.

Wang, Ying-fen. 2002. "Ensembles: Nanguan." 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.


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 closed 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


29.1 in. length (first instrument) 24 in. length (second instrument) 19.3 in. acoustical length (both instruments)

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin