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Guanzi - Chinese double reed
Guanzi and Bili

The Chinese guanzi or bili is a cylindrical double reed, related to the western and central Asian duduk, duduki, and bili of Eastern Europe, Persia, Armenia, and Georgia. The original instrument was introduced to China through the Silk Road as the bili in the Sui Dynasty (580-618 AD). This ancient bili was most likely made from bamboo, as the Chinese character for “bili” contains the bamboo radical. The bili reached its peak as part of the Tang (618–906 AD) court orchestra, and traveled to other courts in the region to become the Korean piri used for Sujecheon, and the Japanese hichiriki used in Gagaku.

Chinese court orchestras disappeared in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the bili became a folk instrument with some instruments traveling to southern China of the centuries. It was during this period that wooden instruments started to appear and the instrument became known as a guanzi, although many scholars still refer to them as bili. The term “guan”, meaning “pipe”, was originally found mentioned in Confucius’ Shi Jing (Book of Odes), an anthology of 311 poems and songs dating from the Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC) to the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 BC). This ancient guan was described as a vertical flute with fingerholes but closed at the end. There was no mention of a reed. This instrument had disappeared sometime before Song Dynasty. The guanzi is still played in a number of musical styles and especially those that contain remnants of Tang court music such as some Buddhist and Taoist music, and in the wind and percussion groups of Xi'an, the modern city built on the site of the ancient Chinese court of Chang'an.

The wooden guanzi is usually made from a type of rosewood with 7 finger holes and one to two thumb-holes. The ends of the instrument are decorated with metal. The guanzi is made in a range of sizes from approximately 25 to 30 cm. in length. Some modern instruments are being made with keys to facilitate ease of playing. The reeds are made from a hard cane.

Bamboo bili are rare, found only in a few areas in southern China. They are used in village music and are now considered a somewhat crude folk instrument. Bili are quite difficult to play as they have a soft cane reed, which can vary in pitch greatly with a change of embouchure. However this also gives them a much greater range than that of the guanzi.

Country: China
Region: Asia
Type: double reed

Bili - Chinese double reed
©  R. Raine-Reusch, May 2002