World Music Instrument: The Vietnamese Kingdoms and the Dan Tranh

Vietnamese history, culture, and values live within the form and function of the dan tranh, a wooden zither with sixteen strings. Its musical traditions reflect the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Vietnam, reflecting Vietnam’s relationship with China and its cultural values.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Structure and Symbolism

The dan tranh has a curved top plate and a flat bottom plate with a sound hole. Together, they represent the ancient Vietnamese concept of the curved heavens and flat earth in harmony. Some scholars believe this symbolic shape migrated from China during one of its occupations of Vietnam, citing Confucian influence and similarities to the Chinese instrument called the zheng. Others believe this interpretation is a part of a broader tendency for Confucian scholars in Vietnam to attribute Vietnamese innovations to their northern neighbors.

Playing

Each string passes over a fixed bridge as well as a moveable bridge that players can position to tune the string. While playing, instrumentalists use their left hand to control the tension of the strings, often to create smooth pitch bends, and they pluck the strings with their right hand. Some players use their fingernails, but others choose to wear picks, typically made of ivory, hawksbill, turtle shell, plastic, brass, or steel.

Origins and Traditions

Archaeological evidence points to the first ancestor of the dan tranh being an instrument found in Van Phuc pagoda, dating to 1057. In the late middle ages, the dan tranh made its way into court music ensembles and was featured at royal banquets, theaters, dance performances, and other forms of entertainment. In the mid-sixteenth century, when Vietnam split into two political factions—the northern Trinh Lords and the southern Nguyen Lords—conventions of court music split with them into two traditions: hat cua quyen in the north and teh nhac Hue in the south.

Dan tranh also played a notable role in folk music, appearing in the phuong bat am (ensemble with eight sounds) for religious rituals, funerals, and other ceremonies. Music as a profession was widely frowned upon in Vietnam until the twentieth century, so there were very few professional dan tranh players. Most performers were tradesmen or nobles who did not need to work for money. Music was typically considered an expression of personal emotion. For this reason, performances tended towards intimate gatherings and small crowds instead of large concerts.

Confucianism and Nationalism

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the dan tranh became a symbol of a broader nationalistic reaction to French imperialism. The Nguyen Dynasty adopted an anti-western cultural agenda that included the expansion in Vietnam of Confucian influence, which had previously been frowned upon. For the dan tranh, this manifested in many forms. Confucian stories, including Chinese symbolism and fables, found a place in the instruments’ aesthetics. Additionally, the Chinese Confucians held instrumentalists in high esteem, considering music as a means for ethical and scholarly growth. The Vietnamese adopted this attitude. The Confucian view of music as a part of nature also became prominent, for example, the idea that the five main tones of music symbolize the five elements: water, metal, wood, fire, and earth. Although the dan tranh had historically been favored by female musicians, the number of well-known female dan tranh players significantly declined due to Confucian sexism. This standard began to change in the late 20th century when Vietnam abandoned many Confucian ideas during its modernization efforts.

Source: Le, Tuan Hung. 1998. Đàn Tranh Music of Vietnam: Traditions and Innovations. Melbourne: Australia Asia Foundation.

This instrument profile was contributed by CWM Volunteer Evan Ludington and reviewed by Dr. Timothy Rice. Source document provided by Dr. Alexander M. Cannon.