Also:       kouxian      gue gueq      

Title: Echoes of History – Naxi Music in Modern China—Jiul bbu jjiq diu (Water Dripping in a Copper Basin); He Hing, kouxuan (field recording by Helen Rees; see Bibiliography). Label: Oxford University Press. Format: CD (accompanying book). Catalogue#: ISBN 0-19-512950. Track: 6.

Contextual Associations

The kouxuan is a set of three small mouth-resonated idioglot lamellaphone idiophones of the Pumi and other closely-related Tibeto-Burman speaking minority groups, including the Naxi, of Lijiang County in Yunnan Province, southwest China. Kouxuan was the name used by the Pumi musician from whom the instrument pictured here was acquired; the Naxi call the same instrument gue gueq. Literature on Naxi music culture is more readily available and much of the information found in this entry pertains to the gue gueq. which is characterized as a “talking” instrument by the Naxi. Rees explains that: “like many other ethnic groups in Yunnan, the Naxi use the [gue gueq] to ‘talk,’ especially in courtship; the instrument can mimic the vowels, certain consonants, and possibly the tones of the Naxi language.” (2002, p. 511) The kouxuan/gue gueq is played by both males and females.


This instrument consists of three nearly identical components, each of which is constructed from a narrow, elongated strip taken from the wall of a stalk of bamboo. Into each strip is carefully incised a tongue the free end of which is very narrow (about 1/32 inch) and the fixed end of which is considerably wider (about 1/8 inch). The cuts that articulate the tongue begin very close to one end of the strip, which suddenly narrows down from a width of 5/8 of an inch to 1/8 inch to produce a nib that is plucked to set the tongue into vibration. The idioglot tongue itself has a rather complex design that is best seen in detail #1. The first ¾ inch of the tongue as well as the strip itself is shaven to a paper-thin thickness. The next ½ inch of both the tongue and the strip are at their full thickness. The final 5/8 inch of the tongue—its narrow free end—is again paper thin and articulated by gouging out a trough in the back of the strip. What results from this design is a flexible tongue the free end of which vibrates rapidly through the strip out of which it is carved when the nib-end of the strip is flexed. The three components of this instrument are stored in a bamboo tube with a yarn stopper (gallery #1).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The solid end of each component of this instrument is pinched  between the thumb and index finger of the player’s left hand so that the three components are positioned horizontally one above the other. The section of each component with the enclosed tongue is positioned in front of the player’s mouth and held in position by the player’s lips. The plucking end of each component sticks out to the right and is plucked by the performer with her/his righthand index and middle fingers. By manipulating the shape of her/his mouth cavity, the overtone structures of the three fundamental pitches (one for each component) can be changed, producing shifting timbres. The fundamental pitch of the individual components of the instrument pictured here (gallery #1) is approximately E3, G3, and A3; these would be positioned by the performer as the bottom, middle, top component, respectively. The performer heard on the audio #1 clip


Jew’s harps are found widely distributed throughout the world and take many forms, suggesting this type of instrument is very old. Bamboo idioglot jew’s harps are found in many areas of East and Southeast Asia and Oceania (see, for example, two other such instruments in this collection, the hun and kubing). That said, the specific design of the kouxuan/gue gueq jew’s harp—three non-integral idioglot units brought together at the moment of performance as an instrument performed by a single performer—appears to have a very narrow distribution centered on the upland region of present day Yunnan Province in Southwest China where several closely-related Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples incorporate it into their lifeways to mask and mimic spoken texts.

Bibliographic Citations

Rees, Helen. 2000. Echoes of History – Naxi Music in Modern China. CD included. New York: Oxford University Press.

________. 2002. "The Naxi." 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. 509-515.

Shen Qia. 2002. "National Minorities in China’s South and Southwest: Ethnic Groups and Musical Styles." 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. 485-493.

Thrasher, Alan R., and François Picard. 2014. “Kouhuang.” GDMI v.3: 210-211.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Pumi and Naxi

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

121.21 idiophone--lamellaphone (or plucked idiophone; lamellae, i.e. elastic plaques, fixed at one end, are flexed and then released to return to their position of rest) in the form of a frame: idioglot guimbarde (trump, also known as jew's harps) that depends on the player's mouth cavity for resonance; the lamella is carved in the frame itself, its base remaining joined to the frame

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tongue - idioglot

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: mouth cavity

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: flexing - direct

Sound exciting agent: fingertip/s, fingernail/s, finger-mounted pick/s

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: changing shape of mouth cavity to amplify partials of the fundamental sound


4.9 – 5 in. length .25 - .3 in. width

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter