Membrane Flute Mystery

At some point in Chinese music history, the idea of boring a hole on a flute between the blow hole and the six finger holes and covering the hole with a membrane became aesthetically valued and desirable. Enter the dizi, a transverse bamboo flute. It’s been around for centuries in China, but we still don’t have ay idea exactly when and where the membrane started.

One of the crumbs of evidence is found in Chapter 148 of a music treatise by Chen Yang, a scholar and theoretician of the northern Song dynasty (960-1127 C.E). This treatise was presented to the throne in 1104. We find reference to an instrument called the seven-star pipe and its maker Liu Xi.

During a trip to Shenyang in China’s northeast province of Liaoning in January 1993, I was able to read the chapter in question, a Qing dynasty handwritten copy housed in the Special Repository Section at the provincial library. There was only threadbare information about the instrument and Liu Xi. While Liu is attributed to single-handedly inventing the instrument, the fact remains that dubious and rather murky figure does not appear in any of the standard musical dictionaries or encyclopedias. Nor do we have the foggiest idea of where Liu was born or when he died.

Chen’s reference suggests to me that he merely recorded what was considered by the northern Song—and by others much earlier—as the popular or accepted account surroundings the origins of the instrument like Hermes in Greek mythology is attributed to inventing a tortoise-shell lyre. If Liu was the brainchild of a membrane flute during the Tang dynasty why is it mentioned some two hundred years after it was allegedly created? Is it possible that musicians and instrument makers at the Jiaofang, a performing arts academy established during the reign of the Tang Emperor Gaozu (r.618-626 C.E.) knew of a membrane flute like the seven-star pipe, but turned a deaf ear to its tone quality because it was not aesthetically pleasing? If so, what does this tell us about Chinese concepts of musical aesthetics during the early Tang?

I have always wanted to turn this organological mystery into a story with a hard-nosed sleuth around the early Tang dynasty and Southeast Asia as the setting. A young Chinese detective from China is called in to solve the membrane mystery and in the course of his investigations finds himself caught in a web of murder and international intrigue. But that would certainly be crossing the lines of fact and fiction.

Let me explain what we do have. We do have our aforementioned textual reference—Chen Yang’s music treatise, and we do know there are other membrane hole flutes found in parts of southeast Asia which cropped up around the sixth century and earlier. The taegum, for instance, a large transverse flute from Korea, was one of the three major flutes of the Unified Silla Period (688-935 C.E.), and an important instrument in folk and court traditions and many shaman ensembles. The instrument has six fingerholes and corresponds in structure to two other flutes of the Silla Period, the medium-sized chunggum and sorgum. Unlike the membrane on the dizi, the membrane on the taegum is protected by a metal plate 'laced to the instrument with leather thongs.'

We can also map membrane-hole flutes from Vietnam, the transverse cai on dic, the internal-duct vertical flute cai sao, and from China the wenbeng from southwest Yunnan province, the tongxiao of the Korean nationality in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces in China’s northeast and the limbe found across regions of Mongolia, and Qinghai in China’s northwest. In Okinawa, there is also a membrane-hole transverse flute which is known under at least four names.

There are also flutes found in East Asia that have membranes not applied to cover a hole but are exposed. The zhumoguan found among the Dong in China is an end-blown flute with no fingerholes. A strip of bamboo one-sixth the length of the pipe is cut and scraped away to expose a bamboo membrane. Among the indigenous aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, the modi similar to the zhumoguan among the Dong in China in that it also has an exposed membrane, is used by hunters to lure and capture wild deer.

Our organological map highlights cultural diffusion, migrating populations, artifacts, customs, ideas, techniques, political factors and so on. The tributary system which began as early as the Han dynasty in China played a crucial role in cultural diffusion as it was soon adopted by neighbouring countries like Japan, Korea, Burma and Thailand. We know that when the Japanese decided not to send any more envoys and missions to China in 894 C.E, the membrane had not become and indelible feature of transverse flutes used in court music in the imperial capital in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an).

The mystery hinges on one major question: Did the membrane originate independently in China around the sixth century or was it introduced to China from one of its southeast neighbours or among its ethnic peoples? Several Chinese musical instruments came to China via its northwestern border like the pipa, konghou and huqin, but what of a membrane-hole flute? There are no examples of such flutes found in Central Asia or India, and such a lead, while worthy of further investigation is in my view, highly dubious.

The rest is speculation until we have more tangible leads. And there will be many broken tiles to complete this mosaic puzzle.

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