Sheng - Chinese Woodwind Instrument
One of the oldest Chinese reeded wind instruments, the sheng is a multi-reed mouth organ that consist of numerous bamboo pipes, varying in length. The shape of the sheng has been likened to a wings of a phoenix at rest. The only Chinese instrument capable of sounding and sustaining chords of three or more notes simultaneously, historical records refer to the sheng as a crucial instrument in ancient music, popular within the imperial palace as well as during court processions. Today, this piped instrument remains popular amongst common folk for use in weddings, celebrations and festivities.
Using free-beating bronze reeds affixed on bamboo pipes to create rich and dynamic sounds, the sheng is an extremely versatile instrument that compliments other woodwinds, as well as bowed string, plucked string and percussion instruments within the Chinese orchestra. In folk music, the sheng is also commonly used to accompany the dizi, suona and guanzi.
Beginning from the fifties, the sheng has underwent a series of reformations, resulting in the birth of the 21, 24 and 36-reed chuangtongsheng as well as the keyed gaoyinsheng (soprano sheng), zhongyinsheng (alto sheng), cizhongyinsheng (tenor sheng) and diyinsheng (bass sheng), which are currently staples of the Chinese orchestra. Shengs can thus be classified into two large categories; namely, the traditional sheng and the reformed sheng.
Traditional shengs are small and handheld, requiring the use of fingers to cover air holes during performance. On the other hand, reformed shengs are relatively larger and need to be placed in the player’s lap or on a stand, requiring the use of fingers to press keys or buttons in order to be sounded.
Owing to the fact that the different reeds of a sheng may be arranged in any order whatsoever, the potential range and note combinations that can be sounded is up to the performer and will vary according to region or repertoire. This is especially true of the traditional sheng.