The sanxian (or xianzi), having been passed down for generations, is one of China’s most traditional plucked-string instruments. Aptly named, the instrument has three strings. Due to its fretless long neck, the sanxian is capable of expressive glissando.
The sanxian was already used to accompany opera during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368). The large sanxian is usually used to accompany large drums of Northern China, and also in shuochang, which is a narrative, story-singing genre. The small sanxian can be found in the
Southern genre of Suzhou Pingtan, another kind of story singing, as well as folk ensemble (sizhu) music. In the Chinese orchestra, the large sanxian is usually used; it is capable of producing a very characteristic sound with strong projection.