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Title: demo: Chinese hulusi; Zhang Changpin, hulusi, Yang Hui, pipa. Format: DV.

Contextual Associations

The hulusi is a free-reed aerophone traditionally used in the musical life of several hill tribe groups of southwest China for courtship and recreation. It comes in many related forms and goes by many different names; hulusi (‘gourd silk’) is actually a Han Chinese word used as an umbrella term for these related instruments. The Dai people of Yunnan Province are most closely associated with, and sometimes credited with the creation of, this instrument; their name for it is bilangdao. The hulusi pictured here is not a ‘folk’ instrument manufactured in and used by ethnic minority communities such as the Dai. It is now mass-produced by cottage industries and factories in various cities around China for domestic and foreign consumption. It is today incorporated in regional Chinese folkloric ensembles, sometimes played by conservatory-trained Han Chinese majority musicians (such as the performer seen in the accompanying video). The hulusi and its sound are used to symbolically represent minority identity and inclusion within Nationalist Chinese society.


The hulusi pictured here has two functional pipes, one with fingerholes for melody play and the other a drone, and a third pipe that does not sound but, since it is the same length as the drone pipe its presence adds visual symmetry to the instrument. All three pipes are made from bamboo. The melody pipe is basically a bawu, another hill tribe reed pipe with a side-mounted reed. This pipe is closed at its top end by a natural node, but all other nodes are bored out to produce a cylindrical bore. Its bottom end is closed with a cloth plug. A rectangular hole is cut in the wall just below its closed end and is filled with a thin copper reed plate mounted in a plastic frame. The reed plate has two incisions in it that form an elongated V, the tip of which is bent slightly outwards. Eight holes are drilled into the pipe: the bottom most, on the back side, is a tuning hole that marks the end of the pipe’s acoustical length; the middle six on the front side are fingerholes of varying sizes and are gapped; the uppermost hole is located on the back side and is covered with the thumb. The drone pipe is similarly constructed but lacks fingerholes and is open at its bottom end. The dummy pipe has no reed and its internal nodes are not removed. The top ends of all three pipes are encased inside a windchest made from a small double gourd; the melody pipe is in the middle, the drone and dummy pipes to its sides. A small wooden tube inserted at the apex of the gourd serves as the air duct. A cloth plug at the end of a string can be inserting into the open end of the drone pipe to silence it.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the instrument vertically, using the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand to cover the top four holes of the melody pipe, and the first three fingers of the right hand to cover the remaining fingerholes. The player’s lips surround the duct through which a fairly forceful airstream is directed to make the instrument speak. Unlike some free-reed instruments that operate when the performer both inhales and exhales, the hulusi sounds only when the airstream is flowing into the windchest. A mellow sustained tone is produced. The melody pipe has a usable range of a major 9th and produces the following notes G4 - A4 - B4 - C5 - D5 - E5 - G5 - A5. The drone pipe produces the pitch E5. Legato melodies enhanced with pitch bends and trills are most idiomatic on this instrument and can be played with or without the drone. Generally played as a solo instrument due to its relatively low volume.


It is not known when the instrument originated but it was most likely created by hill tribe peoples of present day southwest China. It does not appear to be an instrument that originated within Han Chinese culture, eventually introduced to the hill tribes. Rather, just the opposite appears to have happened during the 20th century. The basic hulusi pictured here has been further elaborated and modernized in recent decades to include key work and an expanded range.

Bibliographic Citations

Missin, Pat. “Hulusi.” Accessed January 16, 2014

Shen Qia. 2002. "National Minorities in China’s South an Southwest: Ethnic Groups and Musical Styles." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 485-493.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Dai

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.321.2-5 aerophone--set of cylindrical-bore reedpipes with free reeds: reedpipes with a reed which vibrates through a closely fitted frame; the air column must be the dominant partner in determining the frequency of vibration; at least one pipe has fingerholes; with wind-cap

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: encased free reed mounted on wall of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: both none for some components, and opening fingerholes for other components

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - both one or more single-pitch tubes, and changing length/shape of standing wave within a single tube with fingerholes


13.2 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - metal

Entry Author

Roger Vetter