Alternative title


Physical description

The di, a transverse bamboo flute of the Han Chinese, is one of the most popular wind instruments used in various Chinese music genres such as folk, traditional theater (xiqu), and modern orchestral music. Through different periods and among various musical genres and regional dialects the di is also commonly known as the dizi, hengdi, zhudi, hengchui, and the chui.

The di is made from bamboo and has twelve open holes. Along the upper surface, there is an embouchure hole, a membrane hole, six finger holes (three for each hand) and two auxiliary tone holes. On the underside there are two tuning holes which may be decorated with a string or tassel. The membrane hole is covered by a piece of dimo, a thin membrane usually taken from the inner side of a reed. With a well-adjusted membrane the di can produce a specific buzzing or nasal timbre, a distinct characteristic which cannot be found in other types of flutes. Since the 1930s, some new types of di have been designed for special purposes. For instance, the xingzhudi (“new bamboo flute,” a flute with eleven finger holes without a membrane hole) and the giajiandi (a keyed flute with a membrane) were created for playing accurate equal-tempered scale pitches in modern Chinese orchestras, since the addition of holes or keys can help the flutist play semitones more easily.

Musical, Cultural, and Social Contexts

The di is one of the most widely used instruments in Chinese culture. It has been used in court and military music, and continues to be used in folk music and opera music ensembles as an important leading instrument since ancient times. The di has also been used for many different occasions such as celebrations, wedding ceremonies, funerals, festivals, private or public banquets, and accompanying singing or dancing. Di music was a very popular entertainment not only for ordinary people but for many ancient scholars. One can find numerous examples from Tan and Sun poetry and other literature mentioning the performance or aesthetics of di music.

In the course of the twentieth century, the di was gradually elevated as a solo instrument in concert music compositions and began to play an important role in modern Chinese orchestras. In the past two or three decades, the di started to be involved in various music genres such as popular music, rock, jazz, TV dramas, and avant garde music. Meanwhile, the di has been used by some contemporary composers to represent “Chinese-ness” or a kind of Chinese folk identity.

Historical background

There are many suggestions regarding the origin of the di. Some scholars assert that the di was imported from Xiyu (which now encompasses the Xingjiang province and part of Central Asia) during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Others endeavor to trace its history back to an earlier period by historical documents and archaeological evidence.

According to archaeologists’ recent discoveries, the oldest transverse bone flutes found in Wuyang County of the Henan province date back approximately 8,000 years. Archaeologists also found some forty bone flutes from 7,000 years ago during the Hemudu discovery, which was a site of Hemudu culture (formed in early Chinese Neolithic Age) discovered in Hemudu Village of Yuyao County, Zhejiang Province in 1973. (See Hemudu Site Museum’s website: http://www.hemudusite.com/index.html)

Some writers claim that, according to the ancient history book Shiji, the origin of the di can be traced back to 2698 BC. However, the first reliable documented Chinese transverse flute is the chi, which was used in the court music of the Zhou dynasty (1122-221 BC). As noted above, during the Han dynasty, the hengchui was imported from Xiyu and played in outdoor military ensembles. From the sixth century, transverse flutes became more commonly known as hengdi and later were employed in Tang (618–907) court entertainment ensembles.

The first membraned transverse flute, qixingguan (lit. “seven stars tube”), was mentioned in the early twelfth-century treatise Yueshu. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and Qin dynasty (1644–1911), the di, now known as the qudi and the bangdi, became a popular and leading instrument in kunqu and bangzi operas, as well as other traditional ensemble genres. Since the late 1920s, the modern di has experienced dramatic changes because of “the movement of national music improvement” advocated by Liu Tianhua (1895-1932). The roughly equidistant finger holes on the di were repositioned to adopt the equal-tempered scale and new techniques have been further developed to adjust to westernized musical ideas and modern compositions. Furthermore, the performance context of the di has been expanded from the core member of an ensemble to one of the most popular solo instruments today. (For detailed history, see also Thrasher 2005, 1978)

Playing technique

The techniques of the di can be categorized into three kinds: blowing, fingering and tonguing. Blowing is the fundamental technique—long and even breathing is the first step for di performers. Circular breathing, timbre changing and a variety of vibrato types are other frequently used blowing techniques. Fingering techniques include rapid-and-clear finger movement, trills, glissandi, tremoli, portamenti, and half-holing, among others. The basic tonguing techniques are flutter-tonguing and different kinds of staccati such as single-, double-, and triple-tonguing. (See also Lau 1991)

The use and combination of these techniques are based on the styles (ex. Folk, Silk and Bamboo or Operatic), schools (ex. Southern or Northern) and regions (ex. Shangshi province or Hebei province) of the di repertoire. However, contemporary conservatory-trained performers are generally required to integrate all techniques to achieve certain musical goals so that modern composers can freely apply these techniques according to their specific needs. 


In the ensembles of traditional folk music and xiqu, the gongchepu (Chinese character notation) was the dominant notation system used by di performers, as well as other traditional instruments. Nevertheless, di music was mostly taught orally by teachers’ demonstration and personalized melodic improvisation is very much encouraged. Today, most di performers use cipher notation and professional musicians can use staff notation as well, especially when performing in modern Chinese orchestras and playing contemporary compositions


The contemporary di is tuned to the equal-tempered scale and produced in varied keys, lengths, and sizes. The most common di, which is usually the first di for beginners, is the qudi (key of D), or the bangdi (key of G). Based on the six-hole construction, performers can easily play a heptatonic scale by using basic fingering skills; however, professional performers and experienced amateurs can also play all twelve semitones within an octave by using a half-holing technique.

The average range of the di is about two octaves, but it can be over two and a half octaves when played by skilled performers.


China, Han people


421.121.12 Open side-blown flutes with fingerholes


Chinese Music Ensemble


Bamboo, reed


Thrasher, Alan R. ‘Di’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed August 13 2005), http://www.grovemusic.com

-------  1978 “The Transverse Flute in Traditional Chinese Music.” Asian Music 10(1): 92-114.

Lau, Frederick. 2002. "Instruments: Dizi and Xiao." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 7. East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, ed. by Robert Provine, Yoshihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben, New York: Routledge, 183-86.

------- 1991 Music and Musicians of the Traditional Chinese ‘Dizi’ in the People’s Republic of China. DMA Diss.: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Po-Wei Weng (2005)


“Di,” Wesleyan University Virtual Instrument Museum 2.0, accessed May 21, 2024, https://wesomeka.wesleyan.edu/vim2/items/show/49.