SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

UK Chinese Music Ensemble - Flowing Water

The internationally-recognised UK Chinese Music Ensemble was founded in 1990 by Cheng Yu, Chen Dacan and other Chinese virtuosi resident in Britain. The ensemble seeks to promote a wide variety of traditional repertories and to deepen the understanding and appreciation of Chinese music in the West, as well as to explore contemporary styles.

In addition to regular concerts, the ensemble presents workshops and other outreach events for a wide range of community groups. Since its founding, the ensemble has performed throughout Europe. In the United Kingdom, the ensemble has been featured at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Jersey Folk Music Festival, and at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The Musicians

  • Chen Dacan - erhu, gaohu, & zhonghu
  • Cheng Yu - pipa, ruan, sanxian ,& qin
  • Liu Xiaohu - sheng & guanzi
  • Qiu Zenghui - jinghu & yueqin
  • Hu Ruijin - dizi & xiao

The Instruments


A two-stringed fiddle - The earliest version of this instrument originated in the nomadic tribes to the north of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The contemporary instrument has a hollow cylindrical soundbox with a snakeskin stretched  across it as a soundboard. There is no fingerboard, and the the two strings run from conical pegs at the top of the neck across a bridge on the soundboard. The strings are tuned a perfect 5th apart, and the horsehair bow passes between the two, generating a number of techniques as it switches between them. 

There are three other string fiddles on the recording: the jinghu from Beijing Opera, the gaohu from Canton, and the lower-pitched zhonghu.


A four-stringed pear-shaped lute with frets on both the neck and the top of the soundboard, the pipa is related to various East Asian and Middle Eastern lutes, and it arrived in China in the 4th or 5th century.

Of all the Chinese instruments, the pipa has undergone the most dramatic change. The upright position for holding the instrument has gradually replaced what was once the Tang horizontal position, plucking with finger picks has replaced the use of a single plectrum, a total of between 30 and 32 frets are now fixed to the neck and body, a straight head above the neck has replaced the crooked head of ancient instruments, and traditional silk strings have given way to steel.

The most common tuning of the strings is A, D, E, and A. On the recordings, there are three additional lutes: the ruan four-stringed, long-neck base lute, the yueqin four-stinged short-neck fretted "moon lute", and the sanxian fretless three-stringed long-neck lute.


The seven-stringed fretless zither is an ancient instrument in China, stretching back beyond the late Han period (25-220 AD), by when its physical construction had already been standardised.

The qin enjoyed privilege as the favourite instrument of the literati and aristocracy, along with other arts such as Chinese chess, calligraphy and ink-painting.

The most common tuning, known as zheng diao, is pentatonic: C, D, F, G, A, C, D.


The sheng consists of between 17 and 36 pipes, each with a reed near the lower end. Each pipe has a fingerhole beneath the reed, and sounds only when the hole is covered by the player. The pipes are inserted into a windchest made from copper or gourd. A mouthpiece protrudes from this into which the player blows.

The sheng is unusual amongst Chinese wind instruments, since more than one single tone can be played simultaneously as the player covers a number of finger holes. The effect is to produce a cluster of tones.

It is also one of the oldest Chinese instruments, with a history of over 3,000 years. It has been exported to Korea and japan, where it still plays a part in court and ritual music as the saengh-wang and sho. It is also the direct ancestor of the harmonica and accordion.


This is a vertical pipe or oboe with a large double reed. It haas seven frontal finger holes and a single thumb hole at the rear. Scholars tend to consider that the guanzi came to China along the Silk Roads from Central Asia, arriving during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The instrument was soon incorporated into court music, but today it is found more regularly in local folk ensembles and as part of the orchestra for local operas. 

The double reed is much larger than that on a Western oboe, allowing the player to change embouchure to give considerable variation in pitch and to produce complex ornamentation. It can glide between pitches. In effect, it is an instrument closely associated with the human voice.

Dizi & Xiao

Both are bamboo flutes. The dizi is a transverse flute, with six finger holes, a mouth hole, and a further hole covered by a thin membrane which acts as a morliton to give the instrument it's wavering and poignant sound. Holes at the bottom end mark the lowest point to which air can travel, and hence define the lowest pitch. These also have a second function, for ornaments are attached through these holes.

The dizi has a history stretching back to the Han period. Today, it is highly popular as a solo instrument in a wide variety of musical genres, and plays in ensembles for folk ballads and various regional opera forms.

The xiao is a vertical flute, gentle and lyrical in timbre, which often features in music of the 'civil repertory' (wenqu), typically used to accompany the quiet qin.