It was once called the qin pipa, dating from the Qin dynasty between 221-207 BC or the yueqin which means a moon shaped short necked lute. The name is a shortened form of Ruan Xian, a musician and one of the "seven Sages of Bamboo Grove" of the 3rd century from the Six Dynasties. Pictorial evidence, excavated from a tomb of his time in Nanjing, depicting Ruan Xian's performance of this instrument, confirms that its construction was roughly the same as that of today.
The ruan is a Chinese plucked string instrument. It is a lute with a fretted neck, a circular body, and four strings. Its 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, metal mounted on wood. The metal frets produce a brighter tone as compared to the ivory frets.
The ruan is now constructed as a family of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, a development intended to increases its range and effectiveness in the modern Chinese orchestra. The alto and the tenor are commonly used. A plectrum is needed in performance. Mellow in tone quality, it is often seen in ensembles or in accompaniments, and as a solo instrument in recent years.
Zhong ruan (alto) tuning: A-d-a-d1 or G-d-a-e1 Range: A-a2
Daruan (tenor) tuning: D-A-d-a or C-G-d-a Range: D-e1
So anyway, I have one of these instruments that I brought back from China.
I made a Flash widget thingy that has sound, you can listen to here:
and even have a go at playing it for yourself.
More about the Ruan
The ruan is sometimes described as the Chinese "mandolin". It comes in several sizes, but only the zhongruan (alto) and daruan (tenor) are commonly used in orchestras.
The body of the ruan is made from 2 round pieces of soft wood of about 30 cm diameter for front and back, with a shallow rim of hardwood around them. The neck with a raised fretboard is joined to the body. Usually there are two soundholes (round or other shape) on the front.
The peghead is sickle shaped and ends in a curl to the front, with a special Chinese type of decoration, made of different woods. The frets are small strips of bamboo (or plastic), glued on the neck, in a normal western scale (12 frets to an octave).
The 4 long (grooved) friction pegs are with two on each side of the open pegbox. They have an invisible mechanisme inside the peghead, which turns the peg on the front of the closed peghead.
The 4 metal strings run over a loose bamboo bridge to a wooden stringholder at the bottom of the body. Tuning could be G d a e' (soprano) or C G d a (tenor).
The ruan is played with a plectrum. With sizes ranging from large, medium to small, the modern ruan is capable of producing a variety of tones that range from rich to delicate. It is often used in orchestral performances, as well as for accompaniment of folk operas.
The machine heads are inside the closed peghead, with large wooden or porcelain traditional looking pegs