In China, music instruments are classified according to the material, not according to the generated sound or the construction method like in the West. Traditionally, there exist eight different types of instruments. Already during the late Warring States period, but especially during Han Dynasty, the theory of the Five Phases or Elements (wuxing 五行) and correlation of beings and appearances was very popular. The correlation also includes music instruments. Bamboo flutes are used when the spring begine, summer is the time of string instruments (silk), bronze bells are the instruments of the autumn, and in wintertime, drums are sounding.
Historically, wooden and earthen instruments were of course the first music instruments in China, like elsewhere in the world too. The high standard of bronze casting during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties was also adapted to create different kinds of bronze bells. Sounding stones, pending on a rack, were also popular during the Zhou Dynasty, used for official ritual events, like the big drums. Some drums were even totally made of bronze, equal to the famous bronze drums of Northern Vietnam. Flutes of different materials must have existed from the earliest times. A Chinese speciality are the few music instruments made of a gourd. But the most famous Chinese instruments did not originate in China. Many plucked and bowed string instruments came from the West, from Arabia or Inner Asia. Only bronze bells, sounding stones and drums were allowed during the ritual performances. All other instruments are used for daily entertainment, either at the court or among the people. Since the 20th century, many Western instruments (piano gangqin 鋼琴 "iron lute", violin xiaotiqin 小提琴 "lifted lute", guitar jita 吉他 - or translated as "six string lute" liuxianqin 六弦秦) came to China and are very popular to perform classical or pop music.
1 Bamboo instruments
The most important bamboo instruments are the flute xiao 簫
2 Wooden instruments
Most wooden instruments are idiophones, sounding by themselves, like wooden drums, clappers (ban 板) or rattles (yu 敔). Buddhist monks use to clap their muyu 木魚 "Wooden fishes", hollowed out wooden globe of different seizes, during the sutra recitation.
There are only two woodwind instruments in China, and both are only employed during festivals among the people, never at the court. The first is the suona 嗩吶, a kind of simple oboe with a metal bell at the top. The second is called guan 管 and is also a primitive kind of oboe, but quite short and without bell. Both are probably not of Chinese origin (the suona is definitely borrowed from the Turkish zurna).
3 Silk instruments
The strings of these instruments are made of silk, not of hair or gut like in the West, so that we must assume that at least a part of these music instruments originated in China. Especially the zithers qin 琴 (qin is also a general word for string instruments), se 瑟 and zheng 箏, are of Chinese origin, and there are many proofs for their existence in early Zhou China. Mythical tales explain the origin of these instruments as inventions of the Yellow Emperor or of his ministers. The huge long zheng or guzheng 古箏 zither, comprising 20 to 25 strings, is still very popular today and was transmitted to Japan as koto and to Korea as Kayagum (although the proud Koreans state that it is a native invention of the state of Kaya). The word qin serves to describe all different kinds of zithers, like the trapeziform dulcimer yangqin 洋琴, that came to China from Persia probably during the Tang Dynasty. The lutes came to China already during the Han Dynasty, but especially during the time of north-south division when the cultural and economical relations with the Inner Asian people were very intense. One of the first string instruments coming to China from the West was the lute pipa 琵琶 (see the history of the pipa in the encyclopedia Tongzhi). Its smaller brother is the liuqin 柳琴 "willow lute ", and there is a cousin named "moon guitar" yueqin 月琴. These lutes are not handled like in the West, but are held vertically on the knees. The pipa was even traded to Japan with the name biwa, and there is a late Yuan theatre play named "The Lute" (Pipaji 琵琶記) . The pipa lute is quite similar to the Western lute, but it has only four strings and a very flat corpus. The moon guitar has a big round resonance body - hence its name - and a short neck, stabilizing three to four strings. The resonance body is flat at the back. A bigger type of this lute or guitar is the ruanxian 阮弦, with a resonance body that is also flat like that of the yueqin, but deeper, and it is the only Chinese string instrument with holes in the resonance corpus. Both pipa and yueqin resonance bodies show no holes like the Western violins, lutes or guitars.
A different type of plucked string instrument is the long neck guitar sanxian 三弦 with three strings (that is also just its name) and a very small resonance body, often covered with a snake skin. Its Japanese counterpart is the shamisen 三味線.
The most popular bowed string music instrument or fiddle is the erhu 二胡 with two strings. It is very similar to the sanxian and has an extremely small corpus, similar to a little drum with a leather resonator. The thin and long neck ends in two pegs that are standing seriell, not obstinate. There is also a four string type of this fiddle with two parallel resonance strings. The sanxian and erhu are instruments employed by professional musicians and storytellers on the street, and in the Chinese opera.
4 Earthen instruments
The only earthen music instrument is a kind of ocarina called xun À¥.
5 Metal instruments
The group of these instruments comprises all different kinds of bells from the Zhou Dynasty. Most of them were pending from a rack and organized as chimes (bianzhong 編鍾). They were an integral part of Zhou ritual music. There were the types of zhong 鍾 (the regular word for "bell"), fu 鎛, chunyu ëÞ¤_, nao 鐃, and some others with only minimal differences to each other. In recent years, some bronze bell sets have been excavated from Warring States tombs and were reconstructed and reemployed in official performances. Bells were also used during the war, like trumpets in the West, to indicate attacks, redrawal, and other formations.
Gongs (round, or in the shape of a cloud), gong chimes and cymbals (yunluo 雲羅) have also be mentioned here. They are instruments of war, of popular festivals, or are used for an opera orchestra.
A metalwind instrument not yet mentioned is the laba 喇叭, a kind of trombone used during festivals and probably introduced from Inner Asia or Tibet, where the monasteries still today employ huge, some ten to fifteen feet long trombones to announce Buddhist festivals.
During the Zhou Dynasty, bronze drums were casted especially in the southern regions.
6 Stone instruments
In the West, stone instruments are unknown. Sounding stones qing 磬, pending from a rack and each stone with a different tone, are a native Chinese invention (the whole rack is called bianqing 編磬). The stones have a special shape, best described as rectangular and bend short before the middle, in a sharp angle, but not up to 90 degrees like the letter "L". The stones are hung up at the tip of the angle.
7 Leather instruments
There exist dozens of types of drums gu 鼓, from small handy drums to such types bound to the hip and clapped with two hands, to the huge drums that are drummed with a long stick, or with two sticks. Like many Chinese instruments, also the big drum was transmitted to Japan and Korea as taiko 大鼓 where it is played during some festivals.
8 Gourd instruments
There is actually no reason to classify the "mouth-organ" sheng 笙 as an instrument made of a gourd, although the first types of this music instrument obviously used a gourd as resonance corpus. The ball-like bottom of the sheng is held with both hands, just before the face. Blowing into a tube, the breath makes swinging some tongues made of bamboo (or metal, in the modern version). Out of the half-ball bottom, up to 36 reeds of different length and tonal height come out vertically. It is necessary to cover a hole on a reed to make it sounding. A smaller type of this instrument is called yu ¬ò, that looks like an upside down pan-flute. Both instruments are not Chinese, but they come from the southwestern hill tribes. Similar instruments are in use among the hill tribes in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
The most famous music instruments of the national minorities in China are probably the Mongol horse head fiddle (Morinchuur), the huge Tibetian bronze trumpets, and the Tibetian bone trumpets, made of human femur bones.