The liuqin is a four-stringed Chinese mandolin with a pear-shaped body. It is small in size, almost a miniature copy of another Chinese plucked musical instrument, the pipa. The range of its voice is much higher than the pipa, and it has its own special place in Chinese music, whether in orchestral music or in solo pieces. This has been the result of a modernization in its usage in recent years, leading to a gradual elevation in status of the liuqin from an accompaniment instrument in folk Chinese opera,like liuqin opera and sizhou opera in northern Jiangsu, southern Shandong and Anhui, to an instrument well-appreciated for its unique tonal and acoustic qualities. The position of the instrument is lower than the pipa, being held diagonally like the Chinese ruan and yueqin. Like the ruan and unlike the pipa its strings are elevated by a bridge and the soundboard has two prominent soundholes. Finally, the instrument is played with a pick with similar technique to both ruan and yueqin, whereas the pipa is played with the fingers. Therefore, the liuqin is most commonly played and doubled by those with ruan and yueqin experience.
Historically, the liuqin was commonly made of willow wood, while the professionals used versions constructed with a higher-quality red sandalwood or rosewood. In contemporary versions, however, the front board is made of tong wood and for the reverse side, of red sandalwood, as comparable to historical types.
The liuqin has gone by various names, firstly the liuyeqin , meaning willow-leaf-shaped instrument. This was the original term for the liuqin, which is visibly an abbreviation of the term liuyeqin. The other reference to the liuqin is the tu pipa , literally meaning unrefined pipa, because of the aforementioned diminutive size and resemblance of the liuqin to the pipa.
Throughout its history, the liuqin came in variations ranging from two (which only had one and a half[clarification needed] octaves) to four strings. However, the earliest precursor of the modern four-stringed version of the instrument appeared and experienced popularity during the Qing Dynasty . This version had two strings, and was only used for accompaniment purposes in traditional operas, as mentioned before.
The two-stringed liuqin remained in use for much of dynastic China from the Qing Dynasty until the late 20th century. With the modernization of traditional Chinese music in 1970s, the four-stringed liuqin was developed as an improvement to its musical range, and the body of the instrument was enlarged to allow the player to handle the instrument with greater ease.