The painting United by Music (合樂圖) was attributed to Zhou Wenju (周文矩)(917 – 975). It is kept in The Art Institute of Chicago. Some people believed that it could be a copy painted in the 15th or 16th century.
The painting shows an all-female orchestral ensemble and its audience. The audience for this concert was a gentleman sitting in a big couch, a lady sitting on a stool and a few male and female attendants. The court figures strikingly resembles court figures depicted in The Night Revels of Han Xizhi (韓熙載夜宴圖) attributed to Gu Hongzhong (顧閎中), around the same time.
Ten musical instruments have been accurately drawn with the performers. Nine of them were played in pairs but the pairs of performers were not seated together side by side as in modern ensemble. Instead they formed two groups. Each group has all nine different instruments. The order was as follows. The front was a lute, followed by angular harp, long zither, metallophone, mouth organ, hourglass drum, transverse flute, vertical flute, and clapper. The last instrument was one large drum performed by a single performer.
The artist was highly skilful and showed the front view of one group and the side or back view of the other.
I labelled the front group as ‘a’, the other group as ‘b’ and the performers from 1 to 10. I also described very briefly the musical instruments below. Please click onto the links to YouTube for performance by contemporary musicians using modern instruments. This would give some idea of the timbre of the instruments.
Description of Each Musical Instrument with Its Performers
1. Lute: Pipa (琵琶)
The pipa (琵琶) is a four-stringed musical instrument plucked with fingers. The instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. The 4 strings of the modern pipa are tuned to ADEA (lower A, D, E, higher A).
Please click the below for a demonstration of the pipa:
2. Angular harp: Shu Konghou (豎箜篌)
The konghou (箜篌) is an ancient Chinese harp. It has 5 to 25 strings. The strings are plucked by fingers. The instrument became extinct sometime around the 14th Century. Its shape is similar to Western concert harps. It was generally played in rites and ceremonies.
Please click the below for a demonstration of the konghou:
3. Long zither: Zheng (箏)
Please click the below for a demonstration of the zhang:
4. Gong-chime: Fangxiang (方響)
The fangxiang (方響) is an organized-suspended metallophone that has been used for over 1,500 years. Fangxiang consists of 16 bronze tuned rectangular slabs with 16 different pitches, laid in a frame in two rows. The slabs are struck with a hammer and played melodically.
Please click the below for a demonstration of the fangxiang:
https://m.bilibili.com/video/av31584169 (modern music)
5. Mouth organ: Sheng (笙)
The sheng (笙) is a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes. It is a polyphonic instrument and enjoys an increasing popularity as a solo instrument.
It is one of the oldest Chinese instruments, with images depicting its kind dating back to 1100 BCE.
Please click the below for a demonstration of the sheng:
6. Hourglass drum: Xi Yao gu (細腰鼓)
Skin drums (or membranophones) are instruments whose sound is produced by a vibrating membrane. The body of the drum is made of wood. The drum is played by hands or sticks.
The hourglass drum, or waisted drum (細腰鼓) is shaped like an hourglass. Most often these drums have two heads.
7 Tranverse flute: Dizi (笛子)
The dizi (笛子) is a tranverse flute. It is is widely used in many genres of Chinese folk music and ensemble works. It is simple to make and easy to carry. Most dizi are made of bamboo.
Modern dizi has an additional hole, called a mo kong (膜孔), between the blowing hole and finger-holes. A special membrane called dimo (笛膜) is glued over this hole. The dimo-covered mo kong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder.
Please click the below for a demonstration of the dizi:
8. Vertical flute : Bì lì (篳篥), Guan zi (管子), Chi ba (尺八), Xiao (簫), etc
The chiba (尺八, Japanese name shakuhachi) is a longitudinal, end-blown bamboo. It was originally introduced from China into Japan in the 7th century and reached its peak in the 17th–18th century. The chiba is traditionally made of bamboo.
The xiao (簫) a vertical end-blown flute, generally made of bamboo.
Please click the below for a demonstration of the xiao:
9 Clapper: Pai ban (拍板)
The paiban (拍板) is a clapper made from several flat pieces of hardwood or bamboo. It is held vertically by one hand and clapped together, producing a sharp clacking sound.
10. Large drum: Jian gu (建豉)
Skin drums (or membranophones) are instruments whose sound is produced by a vibrating membrane. The body of the drum is made of wood. The drum is played with one or two wooden sticks.