Ruan - Chinese Plucked String Instrument
Once one of China’s most ancient but extinct plucked string instruments, the Chinese ruan (moon guitar) as we know of today was developed for the modern Chinese orchestra in the 1970s. This occurred as a result of a deficiency in lower registers among plucked string instruments. Thus, the ruan - originally obsolete - was recreated to fulfill this lack of sound. Consequently, variations of the instrument - such as the gaoyin ruan (soprano ruan), xiaoruan (alto ruan), zhongruan (tenor ruan), daruan (bass ruan) and diyin ruan (contrabass ruan) - were designed based on the original.
Records state that, during the time of the Han Wu Di (140 BC - 87 BC), plucked string instruments such as the qin, zhu, zheng and konghou were already in use. In addition to that, the pipa - a generic term for plucked string instruments during that time - possessed a round body, straight neck, 12 frets as well as four strings. This instrument’s shape, just like today’s ruan, is believed to be one of the earliest forms of the ruan. Hence, is can be argued that the ruan was first invented during this period.
The Jin dynasty poet and musician Ruan Xian, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was well known for his aptitude in ruan performance. He made numerous contributions to literature and viewed politics with disdain, hence garnering respect from the common people who then named the then ‘pipa’ after him. This particular instrument then became known as the ‘ruanxian’; later ‘ruan’.
It is also arguable that the ruan received immense popularity during the Tang dynasty, which was considered to be the golden age of China. Thereafter, the ruan ceased to be developed further and historical materials, bearing archives of ruan repertoire, declined in production. Only after the liberation of China was this ancient instrument revived.
The Central People’s Broadcast Chinese Orchestra - one of the eminent Chinese orchestras of that era - envisioned the ruan as an ideal instrument to make up for the lack in register, and hence sought to reform it. Their successful assimilation of the various ruans in the 1970s was what spurred on other orchestras to do the same for themselves. Currently, the zhongruan is the most popular instrument within the ruan family, and is widely used in orchestras, ensembles as well as in a solo context.
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has a series of videos that introduce the ruan, alongside other unique plucked string instruments that they use.