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The ruan (Chinese: ?; pinyin: ) is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument. It is a lute with a fretted neck, a circular body, and four strings. Its four strings were formerly made of silk but since the 20th century they have been made of steel (flatwound for the lower strings). The modern ruan has 24 frets with 12 semitones on each string, which has greatly expanded its range from a previous 13 frets. The frets are commonly made of ivory or in recent times of metal mounted on wood. The metal frets produce a brighter tone as compared to the ivory frets. It is sometimes called ruanqin, particularly in Taiwan.
The ruan comes in a family of five sizes:
The instrument can be played using a plectrum similar to a guitar pick (formerly made of animal horn, but today often plastic), or using a set of two or five acrylic nails that are affixed to the fingers with adhesive tape. Mainstream ruan players use plectrums, though there are some schools which teach the fingernail technique, similar to that of the pipa. Pipa players who play ruan as a second instrument also often use their fingernails. Plectrums produce a louder and more clear tone, while fingernails allow the performance of polyphonic solo music. The instrument produces a mellow tone.
In Chinese orchestras, only the zhongruan and daruan are commonly used, to fill in the tenor and bass section of the plucked string section. Occasionally the gaoyinruan is used to substitute the high-pitched liuqin.
Daruan soloists generally use the D-A-D-A tuning, as it allows for the easy performance of diatonic chords. Some orchestral players tune to C-G-D-A, which is exactly the same as cello tuning. The advantage of using C-G-D-A in orchestras is so that the daruan can easily double the cello part.
A ruan ensemble () consists of two or more members of the ruan family, for instance, an ensemble of the xiaoruan, zhongruan and daruan. The wide range covered by the ruan, its easily blended tone quality, and the variety of soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and contrabass instruments all make ruan ensembles very effective in playing polyphonic music.
Ruan may have a history of over 2,000 years, the earliest form may be the qin pipa (), which was then developed into ruanxian (named after Ruan Xian, ), shortened to ruan (?). In old Chinese texts from the Han to the Tang dynasty, the term pipa was used as a generic term for a number plucked chordophones, including ruan, therefore does not necessarily mean the same as the modern usage of pipa which refers only to the pear-shaped instrument. According to the Pipa Annals by Fu Xuan () of the Western Jin Dynasty, the pipa was designed after revision of other Chinese plucked string instruments of the day such as the Chinese zither, zheng (?) and zhu (?), or konghou (), the Chinese harp. However, it is believed that ruan may have been descended from an instrument called xiantao () which was constructed by labourers on the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty (hence the name Qin pipa) using strings stretched over a pellet drum.
The antecedent of ruan in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC), i.e. the Qin pipa, had a long, straight neck with a round sound box in contrast to the pear-shape of pipa of later dynasties. The name of "pipa" is associated with "tantiao" (), a right hand techniques of playing a plucked string instrument. "Pi" (?), which means "tan" (?), is the downward movement of plucking the string. "Pa" (?), which means "tiao" (?), is the upward movement of plucking the string.
The present name of the Qin pipa, which is "ruan", was not given until the Tang Dynasty (8th century). During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian () (about 684-704 AD), a copper instrument that looked like the Qin pipa was discovered in an ancient tomb in Sichuan (). It had 13 frets and a round sound box. It was believed that it was the instrument which the Eastern Jin () musician Ruan Xian () loved to play. Ruan Xian was a scholar in the Three Kingdoms Eastern Jin (?) Dynasty period (3rd century). He and other six scholars disliked the corruption government, so they gathered in a bamboo grove in Shanyang (, now in Henan  province). They drank, wrote poems, played music and enjoyed the simple life. The group was known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (?). Since Ruan Xian was an expert and famous in playing an instrument that looked like the Qin pipa, the instrument was named after him when the copper Qin pipa was found in a tomb during the Tang Dynasty. The ruan was used to be called ruanxian (), but today it is shortened to ruan (?).
Also during the Tang Dynasty, a ruanxian was brought to Japan from China. Now this ruanxian is still stored in Shosoin of the Nara National Museum in Japan. The ruanxian was made of red sandalwood and decorated with mother of pearl inlay. The ancient ruanxian shows that the look of today's ruan has not changed much since the 8th century.
Nowadays, although the ruan was never as popular as the pipa, the ruan has been divided into several smaller and better-known instruments within the recent few centuries, such as yueqin ("moon" lute, ) and qinqin (Qin [Dynasty] lute, ) . The short-necked yueqin, with no sound holes, is now used primarily in Beijing opera accompaniment. The long-necked qinqin is a member of both Cantonese () and Chaozhou () ensembles.
The famed Tang poet Bai Juyi () once penned a poem about the ruan, entitled ?:
A small pipa was found in murals of tombs in Liaoning () province in northeastern China. The date of these tombs is about late Eastern Han () or Wei (?) period (220-265 AD). However, the pear-shaped pipa was not brought to China from Dunhuang (, now in northwestern China) until the Northern Wei period (386-524 AD) when ancient China traded with the western countries through the Silk Road (?). Evidence was shown on the Dunhuang Caves frescoes that the frescoes contain a large number of pipa, and they date to 4th to 5th century.
During the Han period (206 BC-220 AD), Lady Wang Zhaojun (, known as one of the Four Beauties [?] in ancient China) departed mainland to the west and married the Grand Khan of the Huns. The marriage was meant to maintain peace between the two ancient countries. On her way to the west, she carried a pipa on the horse. Looking back today, her pipa must have been a ruan-type instrument with a round sound box, since the pear-shaped pipa was not brought to China until the Northern Wei Dynasty after the Han Dynasty. However, in almost all the portraits and dramas, Lady Zhaojun's pipa is displayed inaccurately. The pipa is usually shown with a pear-shaped sound box (as in today's pipa), rather than a round sound box.
Note that the frets on all Chinese lutes are high so that the fingers never touch the actual body--distinctively different from western fretted instruments. This allows for a greater control over timbre and intonation than their western counterparts, but makes chordal playing more difficult.
In addition to the plucked ruan instruments mentioned above, there also exist a family of bowed string instruments called l?ru?n and dalaruan (literally "bowed ruan" and "large bowed ruan"). Both are bowed bass register instruments designed as alternatives to the gehu and diyingehu in large orchestras of Chinese traditional instruments. These instruments correspond to the cello and double bass in range. Chinese orchestras currently using the laruan and dalaruan include the China National Traditional Orchestra and Central Broadcasting National Orchestra, the latter formerly conducted by the late maestro Peng Xiuwen ().
A famous work in the zhongruan repertoire is the zhongruan concerto "Reminiscences of Yunnan" by Liu Xing (, b. China, 1962), the first full-scale concerto for the zhongruan and the Chinese orchestra. This work finally established the zhongruan as an instrument capable of playing solo with the Chinese orchestra.
Some works for the ruan:
Some of Lin Jiliang's compositions for the ruan:
Some of Liu Xing's compositions for the ruan:
Some of Ning Yong's compositions for the ruan: