The fiddle-like xianzi has been part of Tibetan folk culture for centuries. But the number of people who can make the traditional instrument is dwindling.
Many people might be familiar with the erhu 二胡, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle that sits on the lap. Fewer might know the Tibetan variation, called the xianzi 弦子 or piwang.
Like the erhu, the xianzi consists of a long wooden neck and two strings, which are played with a bow. A sound box, usually made with animal skin, sits on the bottom to amplify the sound, which tends to be louder and more high-pitched than that produced by the erhu.
There are few written records of the xianzi’s history, though a fresco at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, depicts people playing the instrument. It suggests the xianzi has existed at least since the seventh century, when the temple was built.
An integral part of Tibetan folk life, the xianzi can be heard at festivals, weddings, and harvest celebrations—a symbol of appreciation for the small things in life. The instrument can be found wherever there are Tibetan communities, including the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in southwestern China.
“There is no sheet music for the Tibetan xianzi.”
“There is no sheet music for the Tibetan xianzi,” says Cili Nongbu, a xianzi maker in Yunnan. “Beginners just follow the melody and improvise.”
Cili lives in the Tibetan village of Luotong, where he is one of eight people in the 100-person community who knows how to make the instrument from scratch. The interest began when he was 17.
“I remembered when I first heard my father play the xianzi,” said Cili, 66. “The sound soothed me and helped me get away from daily life. That’s when I knew I wanted to pass this onto the next generation.”
Over the years, he has amassed a collection of xianzi made from walnut wood and animal skin. He’ll spend hours in the forest looking for the right material. When he does, he prays to the mountain god before harvesting the wood.
At his workshop, he carves the wood into a tube. The string is traditionally made from horsehair, but since it’s not easy to find nowadays, Cili says he’s started using fishing line as a substitute.
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The wooden tube is covered with ox, sheep, or snake skin, depending on what’s available, and that becomes the sound box. “When we sun-dry the body, we need to be extra careful,” Cili says. “The body will crack if we sun-dry it for too long or store it improperly.”
Cili remains one of the few xianzi makers in his village, but he still hopes to carry on its legacy. So far, he’s given away the instruments he makes to fellow villagers. In 2017, Luotong formed a band and even organized competitions with other villages.
“I’m very proud of the xianzi and very willing to teach others if they are interested,” Cili says.