The ruan is a 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.
With a history of over 2,000 years, the ruan has gone by several names: the qin pipa, ruanxian and ruan .According to the Pipa Annals by Fu Xuan of the Western Jin Dynasty, the ruan was designed after revision of other Chinese plucked string instruments of the day such as the Chinese zither, zheng and zhu,or konghou,the Chineseharp.Another suggestion is that it was descended from an instrument called xiantao which was constructed by labourers on the Great Wall of China during the late Qin Dynasty (hence Qin pipa) using strings stretched over a pellet drum.
In ancient China, the ruan was called Qin pipa (Qin Dynasty, 221 BC - 206 BC). Before the Song Dynasty, pipa was a generic term for a number plucked chordophones, and what distinguished Qin pipa from other pipas is that the Qin pipa had a long, straight neck with a round sound box while the pipa is pear-shaped. 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 inSichuan . 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 simply 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'sruan 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 inBeijing opera accompaniment. The long-necked qinqin is a member of both Cantonese and Chaozhou ensembles.