SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Cheng Yu and her Five-Stringed Pipa

Cheng Yu

Cheng Yu is an internationally renowned pipa lute virtuoso and scholar. She holds BMus, MMus, and PhD degrees from China and the University of London. She is also the founder of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble and London Youlan Qin (seven-stringed zither) Society.

Born in Beijing, Cheng Yu grew up in the Gobi desert in Gansu, Northwest China, where her family was exiled during the Cultural Revolution. She studied the Pudong pipa style from her father from the age of seven and the Pinghu style from experts; she also studied guqin in the Xi'an Conservatory of Music and graduated with distinction in 1987.

Since 1990, she has been based in London and currently researches and teaches the pipa and guqin at SOAS. In addition to mastering and performing traditional music, Cheng Yu seeks to develop and explore the Chinese sound world in the West.

She has worked with contemporary composers including Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Xu Yi, Barrington Pheloung, Randy Edelman, Carl Jenkins, Trevor Jones and Fabien Tehericsen, and has performed with orchestras including London Sinfonietta, Lyon Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, Avignon Orchestra, Edinburgh String Quartet and the World of Strings.

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The Pipa

Descending from Middle Eastern and Central Asian lutes but distinct, both the four and five-stringed pipa arrived in China some 1,600 years ago. Transformed and musically expanded, they flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and were exported eastwards to become the pip'a in Korea and biwa in Japan. Yet, whilst the four-stringed pipa continues to thrive, the five-stringed instrument mysteriously fell out of favour around the eighth century and its unique capabilities and repertory were lost. For Cheng Yu, however, the instrument was not lost, but waiting to be found. 

In 2003, she set out to re-create the five-stringed pipa and bring it back to life. In doing so, she faced a number of choices: should she make a faithful recreation of the Tang instrument, perhaps also reconstructing surviving scores? Or, should she update the pipa - as indeed the four-stringed pipa has over the years - to reflect both changes in technology and the different contemporary socio-cultural performance contexts?

The new instrument and its commissioned music clearly acknowledges historical and geographical origins but is at the same time distinctively modern. The physical reconstruction combines historical and modern data collated from existing Chinese, Korean, and Japanese instruments.

The lower pitched fifth string enables the range to expand to beyond four octaves, and gives potential to form additional chords and a greater variety of tone colours. Two crescent-shaped soundholes on the front (absent from the modern four-stringed instrument), project the tone, while the soundbox is larger and hollower, imparting a deeper, more mellow sound quality and a more prominent multi-phonic harmonic effect.

And, as happened during the Tang period, the new compositions cross cultural boundaries, so this album features composers and musicians from China, Korea, Britain, America and the Middle East