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What Is a Chinese Harp?

Jay Leone
Jay Leone

A Chinese harp is often referred to as a konghou. There are three basic types of Chinese harps, including the wuo konghou, the shoo konghou, and the fong shou konghou. Certain konghou instruments are played lying flat while others are held and played upright. These harps, which were in wide use in many ancient royal Chinese courts, produce a sound when strings are plucked with wooden picks or the fingertips.

While many modern Chinese harps do not resemble ancient models, they are still operated in much the same fashion. The biggest difference between a Chinese harp and other harps is that the konghou features strings that are folded over the instrument across bridges to allow the operator to play more notes off each string. The folded strings allow the operator to play vibrato and bending tones.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Swift rhythms and overtones can be achieved with these harps. When a string is plucked on one side of a konghou with a hand or pick, another hand can press the string on the opposite side of the instrument to create a sound other than the one that would be produced by plucking the string alone. Plucking many strings together creates complex sounds.

The three main types of konghou differ largely based on the position in which they are held and played. The wuo konghou is referred to as the horizontal konghou while the shoo konghou is referred to as the vertical konghou. Horizontal Chinese harps are laid out and played horizontally in front of the operator. Shoo konghou Chinese harps on the other hand, are held upright and played vertically.

Vertical Chinese harps are bow-shaped and feature 7, 15, 22, or 23 strings. This type of Chinese harp is played with both hands but only the index fingers and thumbs are used to play the instrument. The fong shou konghou features a phoenix bird head design on the neck of the instrument. The original sound boxes on these instruments were carved into shapes that resemble a boat. The strings on the original phoenix Chinese harps were either tied to the neck or attached to the neck with pins.

The horizontal Chinese harp was played in southern China as early as 770 BC. The instrument was not widely played in a vertical fashion until several hundred years later. The shoo konghou made its debut between 22 and 220 AD, during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Chinese harps were widely used for ceremonies and rites between the years 618 and 907 AD, during the Tang Dynasty. Phoenix-headed konghous were introduced to China's central plains from India between 317 and 420 AD.

Chinese harps essentially went out of widespread use around the seventeenth century because more complicated instruments were being introduced to the population of China. Demand for konghou instruments rose again in the twentieth century. In 1964, the konghou was revived among the people in Shenyang, China. During the mid-1980s, many manufacturers began manufacturing hybrid konghou instruments that incorporated the designs of several instruments including the mandolin.

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