How to Play Xun

A Brief Introduction to the Chinese Pottery Flute

The Xun was a popular folk instrument in ancient and prehistoric China, going as far back to 5000 BC or earlier. After the time of Emporer Qin, about 2000 years ago, the instrument faded from use and was forgotten. When archeologists began to unearth an army of terra cotta soldiers near Xian in the late 20th century, many of these little egg-shaped wind instruments were found along with the statues, weapons, and tools. Interest in the instrument was rekindled, and today the Xun has taken its place once again among the instruments of Chinese formal and popular music.

The xun has a melancholy and nostalgic sound. The principle by which it produces pitches is just like that of an ocarina. A wonderful article by Ray and Lee Dessy, published in the March 2001 issue of "American Recorder" and available at, explains how ocarinas work in great detail. The xun differs from the ocarina in that an ocarina has a blowing pipe which directs the airstream. A xun player must focus the airstream directly with mouth and lips.

Ocarinas and xuns do not overblow upper harmonic tones, as flutes do. This limits the practical range of pitches that can be produced on these instruments.

Fingering, blowing, and playing the Xun

If you can produce a pitch by blowing across the mouth of a regular soda pop bottle, you can play the xun. To play your first note, hold the xun in both hands and place your lower lip against the rim of the blowing hole. The middle of your chin should touch the body of the instrument. To produce the lowest or "base" tone, make sure all finger holes are completely covered and well sealed. A large xun has eight or nine finger holes in addition to the blowing hole. The pictures below show where the fingers and thumbs are placed on a typical nine-hole xun.

Xun front

Xun back

right and left hand fingers

With all finger holes covered, blow gently straight across the blow hole. This should produce the "base" tone of the xun. Check the pitch against a piano or electronic tuner. My best xun (the one pictured) is conveniently marked with the name of its base tone "E" on its flat bottom, so I know what pitch I'm shooting for.

Pitches lower than the base tone are produced by blowing down into the xun and partially covering the blow hole with the lower lip. You will want to be able to control pitches down to an octave below the base tone. This may be difficult at first, as the lowest pitches will sound only faintly and will be hard to control. It's well worth the effort and practice, however, since as noted above the range of the xun will not extend upward by overblowing harmonics.

The position or placement of holes on a xun doesn't influence the pitch, as it does for flutes. If we ignore the angle of the windstream, the pitch is determined by the total area of open holes. This means that opening any one of the finger holes while playing the base tone raises the pitch, by a half or whole step depending on the size of the hole opened. Try it! Opening a second hole should raise the pitch again. Clearly, there will be many ways to "finger" each note, instead of just one fingering per pitch as we find on a flute. But to use the instrument musically, we should settle on a system of fingerings and use it consistently. The table below shows the fingerings I use on my E xun. For convenience, the pitches are named with their solfege (or jian pu) pitch numbers, rather than western note names. So my E is 1 (do), F sharp is 2 (re), and so on.

1All holes closed
2Open hole 1
3Open holes 1, 3
4Open holes 1, 2, 3
5Open holes 1, 2, 3, 5
6Open holes 1, 2, 3, 5, 7
7Open holes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
Open holes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Open holes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9
Open holes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

You might notice that pitches above 7 require you to lift all fingers. Don't drop the xun! You must shift your hand around so the instrument is still supported, without covering the finger holes.

Click here for a rendition of an ancient Chinese melody, Phoenix-Shaped Hairpin, played on the xun in E.