Also:       hsün      

Title: China’s Instrumental Heritage--Yang-kuan san tieh “The Farewell;” Liang Ming-Yueh, xun. Label: Lyrichord. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LYRCD 792. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The xun is a Chinese vessel edge aerophone. Its primary context of use is in Confucian ritual ensembles, which are found in Taiwan more so today than on the Chinese mainland (due to restrictions placed on such practices by the Chinese communist government). As early as the late Zhou period, musical instruments made from a select group of materials of nature were used for court rituals. The sound qualities of these materials were valued for their ritual efficacy. A system of classification called bayin (eight timbres or tone qualities) was articulated, and the xun was the primary instrument belonging to earth/clay material category. In the thought of the time, correspondences were made between earth/clay, the southwest compass point, summer and autumn seasons, and other phenomena, all of which could be used to construct ritual actions intended to express an idealized perfect harmony between heaven, earth, and man. This system was adopted later into Confucian ritual practices, which have survived, if tenuously, to the present day. Worked into the front surface of the clay body itself is a very subtle decorative image of a mythological animal.


Constructed entirely of fired clay, the xun pictured here has, in addition to its blowhole (at the top), two thumbholes (not visible in the photo) and seven fingerholes. Its base is closed, making it a vessel.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player holds the instrument in both hands basically oriented as seen in the picture. The back edge of the blowhole is place on the bottom lip so that a focused airstream passing through the player’s lips is directed against the front edge of the blowhole. There are separate holes for each thumb on the backside of the instrument, and on the front side there are four fingerholes for the fingers of the right hand to cover and three for the left hand fingers. A fundamental tone of D4 is produced with all fingerholes covered. With various fingering combinations, several notes forming roughly a diatonic scale can be sounded; the highest pitch, with all fingerholes open, is E5.


A vessel flute without fingerholes was found at the Hemudu archaeological site that dates to as early as 5,000 BCE. Several Neolithic period xun with one to three fingerholes have been unearthed. By the Zhou period (1122-221 BCE) the xun had become a member of state ritual ensembles and typically had five fingerholes. Further fingerholes--up to nine, including two thumbholes--were added over time.

Bibliographic Citations

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

Thrasher, Alan R. 1984. “Xun [hsün].” NGDMI v.3: 868.

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

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

Wu, Ben. 2002. "Archeology and History of Musical Instruments in China." 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. 105-114.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.13 aerophone--vessel flute (without distinct beak): the body of the pipe is not tubular but vessel-shaped; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: globular vessel

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: not used

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


5.7 in. height

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin