Also:       di      ti      ti-tzu      hengdi      

Title: Like Waves Against the Sand—Birdsong; Lam Si Kwan, dizi. Label: Musical Heritage Society. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MHS 11110L. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The dizi is a side-blown (transverse) edge aerophone (flute) of the Han Chinese. In various forms it is used today in many regional and national forms of Chinese music for solo, small ensemble, and orchestra performance. In the north a relatively short dizi referred to as the bangdi is heard in certain forms of village folk and ritual ensembles. Various versions of this flute have been used in regional opera ensembles for centuries (for example, kunqu, bangzi, and jingju--see Jingju (Beijing Opera) Ensemble from China), its sound typically associated with civil, as opposed to military, scenes. It is a leading melodic instrument in many regional ‘silk and bamboo’ (‘sizhu’) instrumental ensembles such as those found in the central China area of Jiangnan (see Sizhu Ensemble from China). As a consequence of the Chinese government’s policy in the second half of the 20th century to emphasize and professionalize traditional Chinese music, dizi performance has been taught in music conservatories and composers have created a significant repertoire of solo works for the instrument. As a result, there are many highly trained concertizing dizi players in China today performing as soloists and in state-sponsored modern chamber and orchestral ensembles. Yet there still are many village and urban contexts in which folk and amateur dizi players are active.


The dizi is made from a straight stalk of bamboo with any internal nodes removed to produce a cylindrical bore. They are made in various lengths (see gallery photo). Just above the blowhole the bore is blocked with a cork stopper, leaving only the far end of the flute open. Six fingerholes, nearly equidistantly placed, are drilled into the lower half of the tube; there is no thumbhole on the reverse side. A distinguishing feature of the dizi is the inclusion of a mirlitone--a membranophonic sound modifier consisting of a hole covered with a tissue paper-thin bamboo membrane that vibrates sympathetically when the flute is sounded. This hole is located between the blowhole and the first fingerhole. Vent holes at the far end determine the acoustical length of the flute, and can be used to tie an ornamental tassel to the instrument. Several rings of silk line are tightly wound around the flute and covered with red lacquer to keep the bamboo from splitting.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer positions the flute so that he/she can direct the airstream passing through his/her tensed lips across the far edge of the blowhole. Some players prefer to have the far end of the flute with the fingerholes to their right, others to their left. In either instance, the middle three fingers of both hands are used to cover the six fingerholes. The fundamental pitch produced on a dizi with all the fingerholes covered is a function of its acoustical length. The three dizi pictured here, from top to bottom (longest to shortest) are tuned to the fundamental pitches E4, F4 and A4, respectively. Through overblowing and opening fingerholes, a practical range of two octaves can be attained. Two distinct styles of dizi characterize its use in northern and southern China. The southern style focuses on mellow, expressive sounds with delicate ornamentation while the northern style is energetic and more shrill, featuring glissandi and dazzling tonguing effects. Regardless of the style being performed, the mirlitone feature of this flute adds a characteristic nasal quality to its sound, especially when the dizi is played loudly and in its higher register.


Precursors to the dizi, without the mirlitone feature, were introduced into China from central Asia during the early Han period (202 BCE - 220 CE). They were both a popular instrument and one used in Confucian ritual; in the latter instance, the ends of the flute could be ornamented with carvings in the form of the head and tail of a dragon. The mirlitone design feature was added sometime after the Tang dynasty (post 907 CE), and the dizi has remained basically unchanged ever since save for some late 20th century experiments with keys that have not as of yet caught on.

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. “Di [ti] (i).” NGDMI v.1: 563-564.

________. 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)

421.121.12 aerophone--side-blown flute: the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side 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: beveled edge in wall of instrument, directly blown against

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


19.9 in. length 19.1 in. length 15.6 in. length

Primary Materials

membrane - bamboo

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin