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

Contextual Associations

The bawu is a transverse (side-blown) free-reed pipe traditionally used by a number of southwest Chinese minorities such as the Dai, Hani, Miao, and Yi peoples. This instrument, when played, appears to be a side-blown (transverse) flute, but is actually a free-reed aerophone. The bawu pictured here is not a ‘folk’ instrument manufactured in and used by ethnic minority communities. It is an ‘improved’ model mass-produced in an instrument factory for use primarily by conservatory-trained Han Chinese majority musicians (such as the performer seen in the accompanying video) to perform composed works in which its sound and appearance are used to symbolically represent minority identity and inclusion within Nationalist Chinese society. It is also used to reference minority identity in film scores.


The bawu is made from a stalk of bamboo with all natural nodes bored out so that a hollow cylindrical tube results. The tube is cut into two pieces about one-third its total length from one end; the short piece becomes the mouthpiece joint, the longer the fingerhole section. After shaving a strip of the skin from the exterior of the two new ends and coating the fingerhole section end with a thin layer of cork, the two sections are reunited with a brass sleeve about 1.5 inches long to make a tuning joint. A rectangular hole cut in the wall of the mouthpiece section about 1.5 inches above the brass sleeve is filled with a thin copper reed 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. The bore of the mouthpiece is plugged just above the free-reed mount, leaving the top five inches of the joint acoustically non-functional. Eight holes are drilled into the fingerhole section of the instrument: the bottom most is a tuning hole and left uncovered; the middle six are fingerholes of varying sizes and are gapped; the uppermost hole closest to the brass sleeve is offset from the other fingerholes and is covered with the thumb.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the pipe sideways to his or her right, using the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand to cover the top four holes, and the first three fingers of the right hand to cover the remaining fingerholes. The player’s lips surround, but do not touch, the mounted free-reed. A fairly forceful airstream is needed to get the instrument to speak, but once started a mellow sustained tone is produced. Unlike some free-reeds that operate when the performer both inhales and exhales, the bawu sounds only when the airstream is flowing into the pipe. It has a usable range of a major 9th and produces the following notes: B-flat3 - C4 - D4 - E-flat4 - F4 - G4 - B-flat4 - C5. Legato melodies enhanced with pitch bends and trills are most idiomatic on this instrument.


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 bawu pictured here has been further elaborated and modernized in recent decades to include key work and an expanded range.

Bibliographic Citations

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

Thrasher, Alan R. 1984. “Bawu.” NGDMI v.1: 196.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Dai

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.311.2 aerophone--single cylindrical-bore reedpipe with free reed: reedpipe with a reed which vibrates through a closely fitted frame; the air column must be the dominant partner in determining the frequency of vibration; 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: exposed free reed mounted on wall of tube

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: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length/shape of standing wave within single cavity with fingerholes


23.6 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - metal

Entry Author

Roger Vetter