The Chinese dizi is a delicate instrument known for its whimsical, light tones. The dizi is a transverse flute, usually made of bamboo, which has six finger holes and an extra seventh hole, known as the “membrane hole”. This membrane hole is what makes the dizi so special. A fine covering, most often made out of paper or lightweight fiber, is wrapped over this hole to produce the unique buzzing noise that characterizes the dizi’s sound.
No one knows for sure when or where the flute came to China, but one thing is certain: flutes have been played in the Middle Kingdom for over 8,000 years! The oldest of these are ancient flutes made out of crane bones that were discovered near Jiahu in the Yellow River Valley. Many historians believe that a flute player, Liu Xi, designed the dizi during the Tang Dynasty. It is said that he added the extra membrane hole and thus named the instrument the “seven star tube”.
Dizi music became most popular during the Ming Dynasty as an accompaniment to Kungqu Opera. These days, there are two types of Chinese dizi music – the northern style that goes together with Bangzi Opera (this dizi is called a bangdi), and the southern style which Kungqu Opera (called qudi).
Almost all dizi are made out of bamboo, which is the most resonant and durable material for woodwind instrument-making in China. Some varieties of dizi have been made using other materials such as jade, iron, bone and other types of wood, but these are extremely rare and are usually collectors’ items, rather than for practical use.
Dizi can generally be played in three keys, though very skilful musicians can manage to elicit a larger arrangement of music from their flutes. Most players, though, prefer to keep a selection of several dizi on hand for switching keys. Nowadays, some flute makers have also produced adjustable dizi that have more finger holes (and can play in more keys), but these sometimes sacrifice resonance and tonal quality for convenience.