Chinese dialect music in Singapore: A deeper look into the unique instruments of the genre
To celebrate the pioneers and the age-old traditions of Chinese music, The TENG Ensemble recently presented The Forefathers Project, a lecture-concert held as part of the Cultural Extravaganza 2022.

Chinese dialect music in Singapore: A deeper look into the unique instruments of the genre

What comes to mind when thinking about Chinese dialect music? While it may be bundled into the wider category of “folk music” with roots traced to the southern parts of China, the uniqueness of each dialect’s music is undeniable and can be attributed to one thing: the instruments.

There is the Nanpa in Hokkien music, the Cantonese Gaohu, and the Hainanese Yehu – all of which are string instruments made with vastly different materials, carefully crafted into various forms. What is also interesting is that none of them is used in contemporary Chinese orchestras, which feature more commonly seen instruments such as the Erhu, Guzheng, Pipa, and Dizi.

The A List explores the range of instruments, and their unique characteristics, used in each dialect’s music.

1. Hokkien music

The Nanpa, a Fujian Nanyin variant of the Pipa lute.
The Nanpa, a Fujian Nanyin variant of the Pipa lute.

The Nanpa is a Fujian Nanyin variant of the more often seen Pipa that makes a unique appearance in Hokkien Nanyin music (music from the south). The lute is traditionally strung with strings made of silk and can be identified by its crooked neck, black body, and distinct horizontal playing style. Its tone is said to be reminiscent of bells reverberating.

2. Cantonese music

The Cantonese Gaohu and Qinqin.
The Cantonese Gaohu and Qinqin.
Click to listen to the Gaohu
Click to listen to the Qinqin

This dynamic dialect-derived duo is a mainstay of Cantonese opera and music ensembles. The Gaohu often appears as a lead instrument, and wherever the Gaohu goes the Qinqin follows. This is because the latter’s bright and gentle notes perfectly resonate and complement the former’s warmer, melodious tones.

The Cantonese Gaohu is slightly smaller than its cousin, the Erhu. It features steel strings instead of the traditional silk threads. While the Erhu is often played on the lap, it’s fairly common to see the Gaohu positioned between the thighs, allowing the musician to maintain control over the timbre and volume of the instrument.

The Qinqin lute is a long-necked fretted instrument that can be played with two or four strings, depending on the orchestral arrangement. The instrument’s body can also come in a variety of shapes, from round, hexagonal to octagonal, or a shape resembling a flower.

3. Hakka music

The Hakka Yueqin.
The Hakka Yueqin.
Click to listen to the Yueqin

Popular in Hakka Waijiang music, the moon-shaped Yueqin is a short-fretted lute. As it’s played with a pick, the instrument is suitable for performing both virtuosic and fast-running passages. The history of this instrument goes as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) but rose in prominence from the 17th century onwards due to the advent of Beijing opera. The Yueqin often accompanies actors singing on stage with its melodic backing tunes.

4. Teochew music

The Teochew Pipa and Zheng.
The Teochew Pipa and Zheng.
Click to listen to the Pipa
Click to listen to the Zheng

Two out of three members of the Teochew plucked-instrument trio, the Teochew Pipa and Zheng, feature very flexible strings that allow for large pitch bends that have become a hallmark of Teochew Xianshi music.

The Teochew Pipa’s frets are usually made of bamboo, while its pegbox houses tuning pegs usually made of bone, jade, ivory or wood. The soft silk or nylon strings attached to the instrument create incredibly soothing, melodic tunes which finely harmonise with the deep pitch bends of the Zheng.

The Zheng itself stands apart from the contemporary Guzheng in terms of tone and build. Instead of the 21 strings on a Guzheng, the Teochew Zheng consists of 16 to 18 steel strings that produce a brighter, sharper timbre.

5. Hainanese music

The Hainanese Yehu features an iconic coconut shell body.
The Hainanese Yehu features an iconic coconut shell body.
Click to listen to the Yehu

In Hainanese Bayin music, the Yehu is known as an essential instrument. Unlike the contemporary Erhu which is made using wood wrapped in snakeskin, the Yehu features an iconic coconut shell body and a cockle shell in place of a wooden bridge. The combination of these unique components creates an incredibly distinctive hollow and “throaty” sound, even though the instrument is played similarly to other bowed Chinese instruments.

The A List spoke to The TENG Ensemble to learn more about the instruments used in Chinese dialect music and their recent lecture-concert The Forefathers Project:

From a musical perspective, what are the unique differences between the five Chinese dialects?

The instruments used are unique to each dialect. For example in Hokkien Nanyin music, a Nanpa is used. You do not use a Nanpa in other dialect music. Secondly, each dialect has a unique method of expressing itself through music. This is known as performance practice, and each dialect’s music has its own form of performance practices like unique musical scales with which they play, or pitch bends that imitate the dialect in speech

What is the range of instruments used in music across the dialects? Are there instruments that are unique to each?

For The Forefathers Project, we chose to use some dialect instruments in our re-creations of contemporary dialect music. We used the Nanpa in Hokkien Nanyin music, the Cantonese Gaohu and Qinqin, the Yueqin found in Hakka Waijiang music, and the Teochew Pipa and Zheng. We also used the Hainanese Yehu which is made out of a coconut shell in Hainanese music. All these instruments are known among Chinese musicians today as regional-specific folk instruments.

What are some common themes that inspire music across the dialects?

In our research, we found that innovation was a common theme that was found in our Singaporean forefathers. In Singapore, Chinese migrants who had brought music from their respective provinces began to integrate their traditions, creating new methods of performance and even inventing new instruments. 



The TENG Ensemble’s pieces are a tribute and homage to the music of our past but created in the present with a contemporary focus and we hope to invoke a greater appreciation of these folk traditions among the younger generations.

Look out for The TENG Ensemble’s upcoming concerts here.

(Photos: National Heritage Board, Little Day Out, Gardens by the Bay)

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