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A sanxian on display at the Metropolitan Museum, with a yueqin to the left
  • Chinese/Japanese: 三線 (sānxiàn / sansen) or 三絃 (sānxián / sangen)

The sanxian is a Chinese tradition three-stringed plucked lute, from which the Ryukyuan sanshin developed, and the Japanese shamisen, in turn, from the sanshin. It shares with the sanshin a wooden body and snakeskin face, but is a larger instrument, with a longer neck.

There are two chief forms of sanxian today. A northern Chinese form is larger, and incorporates a thin metal plate inside the instrument to enrich the sound, while the southern Chinese form is smaller.

Like the sanshin and shamisen, and like the pipa within China's own traditions, the sanxian is often played as accompaniment to narrative song, and can be tuned specifically to accommodate a singer's voice, or range.


  • Gallery labels, Musical Instruments gallery, Metropolitan Museum.