Xun – One of the Oldest Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

Xun made by Zhang Xun Fang

The Chinese xun is a vessel flute and one of the predecessors of the modern ocarina. It was first made around 7,600 years ago and was used as a traditional court instrument. At first, they were made from stone or bone, later from clay or ceramic.


Like all members of the ocarina family of wind instruments, its shape has almost no effect on its sound, which has lead to many different forms of the instrument. Some are spherical, while others are egg shaped, flattened or elliptical. Other have the form of a fish or a pear, which is the most popular today and resembles a modern ocarina.

On one end, the xun has a small opening to blow into and finger holes on its flanks. The only difference between an ocarina and the xun the lack of a fipple mouthpiece. A xun is played by horizontally blowing over the opening, much like blowing over the top of a bottle. In fact, the oldest instruments of this type had only one finger hole, allowing it to play only 2 notes overall.

Much like the ocarina, the xun comes in different sizes – large and small. Since ocarina physics is also true for the xun, the large version produces lower notes, whereas the small egg-sized version produces higher notes. The large xun is so big that it has to be played in a seated position.

Xun made by Zhang Xun Fang

History of the xun

Archaeological digs in Henan, Hubei and Shanxi have found that early xuns were spread mainly across central China. Although it is an ancient instrument, it is still popular to this day. Artists and musicians have continued to use the xun over the millenia and never allowed it to be forgotten.

Chinese Xun With DragonDuring the past few decades, however, the xun was overhauled into a more modern instrument that plays the known scales and voices. In other words, it can play modern melodies and is serve as an ensemble instrument. All of this was done without sacrificing its traditional sound.

Despite being the oldest Chinese wind instrument, it never found its way into the west. It is only due to the rising popularity of the ocarina and the work of a few passionate individuals like myself, who introduce others to the instrument.

Modern rise of the xun

Most people react with interest, especially ocarina players typically feel like trying the xun for themselves. It has a mellow yet strong sound that is often used in music to describe certain moods or amplify a special atmosphere. Their simple shape, hand painted design and beautiful sound has inspired many ocarina and music lovers to start a xun collection.

In 1984, Chinese musician Du Ciwen played the instrument in Los Angeles at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It was the first big event that made people aware of this eastern instrument.

And so, awareness for the xun is slowly growing, much like the ocarina at earlier times. As we have learned from the history of the ocarina, even a slow growth with special events in between can and will eventually lead to a place in popular culture and wide awareness of an instrument such as this.

Cultural Significance

The use of xun in the Chinese history was found mainly in the performance of palace music. However, the sound of xun is also associated as the symbol of respectable hermits, lady in sorrow, or heroes at the end of their strength, and is considered the best instrument to perform a heartbreaking tone, or to make solemn music within the royal court. The sound of xun represents a particular beauty, which combines with loneliness, desolate and elegance. It is the embodiment of the unique Chinese aesthetic conceptions. In a traditional Chinese orchestra, xun plays the important part of alto voice. Its soft, heavy voice makes high-pitch and low-pitch in a harmonious proportion. In this sense, xun represents also the idea of harmony, which is one of the main parts of traditional Chinese values.

Text by Allen

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Xun – One of the Oldest Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

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