Master of the Chinese Pipa: Wu Man

A Grammy Award nominee and the first traditional artist to be named Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America, Wu Man is widely considered the premiere soloist on the pipa, an ancient Chinese lute. Enjoy her virtuosic renditions of classical pieces meant to evoke Chinese sunsets, Buddhist chanting, and an ancient battle. This 1999 concert at the Freer Gallery concludes with a contemporary work written for her by composer Bung-Ching Lam.


Master of the Chinese Pipa: Wu Man

Wu Man, pipa

This concert was recorded live in the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery of Art on March 18, 1999, as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. The podcast is made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Title Time
Xi Yang Siao Gu (Flute and drum music at sunset)
Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush laid on ten sides)
Traditional, adapted by Wu Man
Siao Pu An Zhou (Chanting of the monk Pu An)
Bun-ching Lam
Run (1993)


Xi Yang Xiao Gu (Flute and drum music at sunset)

A handwritten score for this piece, with seven untitled sections, first appeared in 1875. It was later discovered in 1898 with subtitles among Chen Zijing’s handwritten collection of pipa music. The present score, having eight sections with subtitles, is taken from Li Fangyuan’s New Collections, dated 1895. The sections are titled:

The Sound of Bells and Drums from a Distant Temple along the River
Moon on the Eastern Mountains
Breeze over the Quiet Water
Shadows of Flowers
Clouds and Water Far Away Become as One
Fishermen’s Song in the Evening
Waves Lapping at the Shore
The Returning Boat


Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush laid on ten sides)

Perhaps the best known of all traditional pipa works, this piece is a grand opus of the martial school of pipa music. Structured in a traditional storytelling form, Shi Mian Mai Fu depicts the epic battle in 202 BCE between the kingdoms of the Han (ruled by Liu Bang) and the Chu (ruled by the warlord Xiang Yu). The Han army ambushed the Chu army on ten sides and finally defeated the powerful Chu leader Xiang Yu, who committed suicide. This defeat led to the establishment of the Han dynasty. The music describes how the armies set up camp, ambushed the enemy troops, and fought fiercely. The sounds of war drums, thundering horses, shouting soldiers, and the victors returning to camp in triumph can be heard in the music. Variations on a theme make use of tonal colors, and the timbres created by various fingering techniques evoke a range of mood images, from heroism and stoicism to despair and tragedy.


Xiao Pu An Zhou (Chanting of the monk Pu An)
Traditional, adapted by Wu Man

Pu An was a Buddhist priest who lived in the twelfth century and is said to have attained enlightenment by chanting sacred mantras. The first datable version of this piece is in a late-sixteenth-century score for the qin (seven-stringed classical zither). The first extant score for pipa is from 1818. Wu Man further adapted it to include an effect that imitates the clacking of temple woodblocks.


Run (1993)
Bun-ching Lam

The composer writes, “This piece was written specifically for Wu Man. The pipa is technically the most demanding of all the Chinese musical instruments. It makes use of many complicated finger techniques, the most difficult of which is the run. It is executed by using five (or four or three) fingers, taking turns to strike the string (or strings) rapidly and continuously, to produce an even, sustained tremolo. The Chinese character for run stands for ‘cycle’ and ‘cyclic’ among other meanings.”


The Pipa

The history of the pipa extends more than two thousand years. During the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE−220 CE), instruments with long, straight necks and round resonators with sound boards of snakeskin or wood were played with a forward and backward plucking motion that sounded like pi and pa to fanciful ears. Hence, all plucked instruments in ancient times were called pipa. During the Tang dynasty, by way of Central Asia and the Silk Road, a lute with a crooked neck and a pear-shaped body was introduced and contributed to the evolution of the pipa. Today’s instrument consists of twenty-six frets and six ledges arranged as stops. Its four strings are tuned to A, D, E, and A. Its many left- and right-hand fingering techniques, rich tonal qualities, and resonant timber give the pipa a music expressiveness and beauty that are lasting and endearing.

- Adapted from notes by Wu Man


Wu Man

Widely regarded as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and as a leading ambassador of Chinese music, Wu Man has carved out a career by creating and fostering projects that give this ancient instrument a new role in today’s music world—not only introducing the instrument to new audiences but also commissioning and premiering over a hundred new works to grow the core repertoire. A Grammy Award-nominated artist, her adventurous musical spirit has also led to her become a respected expert on the history and preservation of Chinese musical traditions, which is reflected in her recorded and live performances and multicultural collaborations.

Having been brought up in the Pudong School of pipa playing, one of the most prestigious classical styles of Imperial China, Wu Man is now recognized as an outstanding exponent of the traditional repertoire as well as a leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music by many of today’s most prominent composers, such as Tan Dun, Philip Glass, the late Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi.

Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied with Lin Shicheng, Kuang Yuzhong, Chen Zemin, and Liu Dehai at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa. Accepted into the conservatory at age thirteen, she was hailed as a child prodigy. She subsequently received first prize in the First National Music Performance Competition, among many other awards, and she participated in the premieres of many works by a new generation of Chinese composers.

Wu Man’s first exposure to western classical music came in 1979 when she saw Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing in Beijing. In 1980 she participated in an open master class with violinist Isaac Stern and in 1985 she made her first visit to the United States as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe. Wu Man moved to the United States in 1990 and was selected as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University. In 1999 Wu Man was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House.

Since 1993, Wu Man has performed and recorded with the Kronos Quartet, their most recent collaboration being the multimedia work A Chinese Home directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. Other recent projects have seen her rediscover the musical traditions of her homeland in a series she has dubbed Wu Man’s Return to the East. She has also collaborated with ethnomusicologist Rembrandt F. Wolpert of the University of Arkansas on deciphering music manuscript scrolls discovered in the Mogao Buddhist Caves in Dunhuang in the Gansu province of Central Asia and on lute versions of music dating from the Tang dynasty (618‒907) that had been preserved in Japan.

In 2009 Wu Man curated two concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival celebrating Chinese culture. Her efforts to bring musicians from rural China were documented in the film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China. Also, her exploration of matching the pipa and Chinese music traditions with music from other cultures resulted in the acclaimed ten-volume Music of Central Asia CD-DVD series coproduced by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In addition, she has performed as soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Austrian ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and her touring has taken her to major music halls, from New York’s Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, to the Great Hall in Moscow, the Opera Bastille, and the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls. Outstanding among her numerous recordings for various labels are the Grammy-nominated recording of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists on Black Onyx and You’ve Stolen My Heart, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.


This podcast, texts, and the slideshow were coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of public programs. It is made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Thanks to Andy Finch and SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Cory Grace for artwork images, and especially Wu Man for granting permission for this podcast of her performance at the Freer Gallery.

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