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The female musicians in the center of the image are playing transverse bamboo flutes and guan

Earliest ancient Chinese musical instruments unearthed in tomb complex

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Ancient musical instruments, some the earliest of their kind ever found, have been discovered by archaeologists in the tombs of Zaoyang city, China.

China Daily reports the musical finds were uncovered in the tomb complex in Hubei province. A plucked string instrument was found, known as the “ Se. Thousands of years ago, the long, flat board instruments were fitted with 50 strings of twisted silk, and were instruments for the elite used in rituals and sacrificial offerings. Eventually the instrument evolved into the guzheng, notes Wikipedia. The se is one of the most important Chinese stringed instruments to be created, but there are very few modern musicians who can play the se.  

Watercolor illustration of a woman playing a zheng, or guzheng

Watercolor illustration of a woman playing a zheng, or guzheng. Public Domain

Also unearthed by archaeologists was a frame for housing chime bells. Bells were another important instrument in ancient Chinese culture, used in ritual and court music. Bells were hung from a wooden rack and struck with a pole or mallet.

Xinhuanet reports that the frame recovered was 4.7 meters (15.4 ft) long, and several pieces of the base were found. The bases were decorated with patterns and symbols of Chinese royalty – the phoenix and the dragon.

Fang Qin, head of the The Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics, told Xinhuanet that such large bell sets had never been found before.

Ancient bronze bells, bianzhong, of Jin Hou Su.

Ancient bronze bells, bianzhong, of Jin Hou Su. Wikimedia, CC

The complex includes a grouping of at least 30 tombs of various sizes. Other artifacts retrieved from the large burial pits are horses, chariots and weapons.

According to Haaretz, 28 chariots and 49 pairs of skeletal horses were buried in the tombs which belonged to high-ranking nobles. The horses and chariots were laid flat in the graves, a rare positioning.

Liu Xu, professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University told Haaretz, “This chariot and horse pit is different from those discovered previously along the Yangtze River. The chariots and horses were densely buried. Many of the wheels were taken off and the rest parts of the chariots were placed one by one."

The precious tomb artifacts date back thousands of years, and reveal to researchers the musical development of the period, and also prove that the Zeng state of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 B.C.) was a larger power than previously thought, writes

As researchers continue excavations in the tomb complex, further ancient Chinese mysteries are expected to be revealed.

A re-enactment of ancient traditional music performance

A re-enactment of ancient traditional music performance. The concert is given using reproduction instruments from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, interred ca. 438 B.C. At left and right are ancient versions of the guzheng. A frame of large bells lines the back, and at left a bass bell ringer holds his striker.  Wikimedia, CC

Featured Image: Detail, Song Dynasty (960–1279) version of the Night Revels of Han Xizai. The female musicians in the center of the image are playing transverse bamboo flutes and guan. Public Domain

By Liz Leafloor



rbflooringinstall's picture

Awesome article. Ancient music is something that I definitely don't read enough about.

Peace and Love,


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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