Middle Eastern harps and "harp" in Eastern Central Asia

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There is an abundance of ancient harps archeologically recovered from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas.  Just in the Tarim Basin alone, there are 23 harps dating to the first millennium BC:

Yánghǎi 洋海 (east of Turpan, just south of the foothills of the Flaming Mountains at the broad, pebbly ("gobi") terrace embouchement of the Toyuq Gorge) — Uyghur Yankhi, Yanghi, Yangkhe, Yangxé. Uyghur Wikipedia has Yanqir; Turkic Yarghol (5 harps dating from 999-250 BC)

Zhāgǔnlǔkè 扎滚鲁克 (village in Toglaklik Township, Chärchän / Qiemo County) — Uyghur Zaghunluq (3 harps dating 600-300 BC)

Àisīkèxiáěr 艾斯克霞尔 (southern cemetery, along the lower reaches of the Baiyang / White Poplar River [originally a Mongolian name transcribed in Sinitic as Nàmùguōlè 纳木郭勒] in the vicinity of Qumul / Hami) — Uyghur Eskişehir, Eski Sheher ("Old City") (11 harps dating 8th-5th c. BC)

Qūmàn 曲曼 (Zankar cemetery near Tashkurgan) — Chushman (2 harps dating 6th-3rd c. BC

Yú'érgōu 鱼儿沟 (west of Turpan about a hundred miles and south of Ürümchi about a hundred miles, in Dabancheng District — modern Uyghur name is Iwirghol or Éwirghol (1 harp dating 3rd c. BC)

Chärchän / Qiemo District Museum (1 harp collected from the people)

The word for "harp" in Sinitic is kōnghóu 空侯 / 箜篌.  This is obviously a transcription and has the look of a foreign borrowing.  In Shǐjì 史記 (The Grand Scribe's Records; ca. 94 BC), "Fēngshàn shū 封禪書" (Treatise on Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth), it was attested (111 BC) in the form 空侯 (Old Sinitic *kʰoːŋ ɡoː) during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BC).  Later, bamboo radicals were added to the two characters, hence 箜篌.  The same word also has the early form kǎnhóu 坎侯 (Old Sinitic *kʰoːmʔ/*kʰoːms ɡoː).

Compare Sogdian cngryʾ /čangaryā/ and cyngryʾ /čingaryā/, both names of this instrument in the Sogdian language, as well as Persian چنگ‎ (čang) and the Turkic harp çeng. (source)  Thus we have both the actual instrument and the borrowed Sinitic transcription of an apparently Iranian name for it.

The Iranian word is:

Possibly related to the meaning of “claw” and “talon”, from Middle Persian cng /čang/ (“harp”). Cognate to Parthian šng /šang/ (“harp”), Sogdian cyngry’ /čingaryā/, cngry’ /čangaryā/ (“[a kind of] musical instrument; [a kind of] harp”); also related to Arabic صَنْج‎ ṣanj, a Middle Persian borrowing.


In Georgian we have:

ჩანგი čangi, a Georgian traditional instrument called the changi


Fatemeh Shams Esmaeili:

One of the meanings of چنگ  in Persian is harp and چنگ‌نواز  means harpist.  See here.

It might not be relevant to the “harp”, but چنگ in Persian also means hands (claws as well) and fingers   پنجه و انگشتانand چنگ کشیدن  or چنگ زدن as a compound verb means to scratch something (with claws or nails). As a musical instrument the word could be frequently traced in medieval Persian poetry. You can find some of the Persian examples listed here.  Several compound verbs and nouns have been mentioned there in the Dehkhoda dictionary that might also be helpful. I am not sure about the roots of the word itself, but naming the “harp” چنگ might have to do with the unique method of involving hands and fingers in playing the instrument.

Martin Schwartz:

The Turkish word is unquestionably from the Persian.  The Persian word is homophonous with Pers. 'claw', but the Sogdian word reminds me of the Avestan for 'elbow' , čVnka∂a- vel sim., ref. to L-shape? — was a reconstruction (maybe mine, maybe not) *čanka∂a- 'elbow', from attested cia, zauuatō, a typically corrupt entry in the Avestan-Pahlavi lexicological text Frahang ī Ōīm, glossed arašn čand 'the size of an ell', where the Av. is gen. of an adj. in -uuant-. The voiced spirant ∂ could become Bactrian l, and this could give Sogdian r. My a in the word represents a with a Polish nasal hook under it. NB Pers. čangal = 'fork', while Book Pahlavi (Zor. Middle Persian) agrees with Persian čang, Manichean Middle Persian has •šang, spelled šnng. The Av. is Frahang i Oim 3, 8. The delta is reconcilable, as an East Middle-Iranianish form, with Pers. L.

Mehmet Olmez:

quŋhau , quŋkyu, quŋqayu , qungqau < chin. 箜篌 kong hou Germ. Laute, Harfe // French. Une sorte de guitare, luth, ou cithare. Chinois k’ong-heou BT IX, XXXVII, after James Russell Hamilton: HamTouen, HamKP.

Mostly M. Räsänen dealt with the problem.

From my side čengi and čang ('Glocke') some different instruments, difficult to compare both words.

[çaŋ < ? (cf chin. 鐘 zhong ?) ‘ Glocke’ BT III, VII, VIII, Totenbuch, TorStūpa]

Nişanyan is at following link:


The Persian word is mostly compared with 'nail (or claw').

James Russell Hamilton, ed. and tr., Manuscrits ouïgours de Touen-Houang:  Le conte bouddhique du bon et du mauvais prince en version ouïgoure. (Mission Paul Pelliot. Documents conservés à la Bibliothèque Nationale, III.) [ix], 204 pp. Paris: Klincksieck, 1971.

Marcel Erdal:

Chang is the word for 'harp' in Turkic, also in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) which, together with Soghdian cngry' / cyngry', make it pretty certain that the Turks borrowed it from Iranian.

Peter Golden:

Čenk (čeng) is found in Middle Qïpčaq and clearly comes from Persian.

Talya Fishman:

While the  word "kinor" is used in modern Hebrew for "violin", it meant a "lyre" in biblical Hebrew.


Michael Carasik:

Hebrew כנור and Akkadian kinnāru both mean “lyre” and look somewhat similar.

Jing Wen:

The ancient Egyptian word for harp is benet. We do not know how for sure how it was pronounced because ancient Egyptian does not write vowels. This word was used as early as the 22nd century BC.

Another word is djadjat. It is more likely to be lyre rather than harp.

Jen Wegner:

The word for harp in Egyptian is bn.t or bjn.

Philip Jones:

The words variously for harp or lyre in Sumerian are:


Appendix:  Lyres and harps

My initiation into Oriental Studies writ large was due to my good fortune in coming to the University of Pennsylvania where our grand department with that name covered everything from Northwest Africa through the Near / Middle East (Southwest Asia), South Asia, East Asia, and Northeast Asia.

A major expansion of my knowledge about Oriental Studies occurred during a summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology held by DOALL (at least that's what we jokingly called it — the Department of Oriental and African Languages and Literatures) of the University of Texas (Austin) in 1990, where I attended a superb five-week summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology.  The institute was organized by Edgar Polomé (1920 [b. Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, Brussels, Belgium]-2000) and Winfred Lehmann (1916 [b. Surprise, Nebraska]-2000) and was supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It was there that I learned the difference between a lyre and a harp.  In a harp, the strings enter directly into the hollow body of the instrument, whereas on a lyre, the strings pass over a bridge, which transmits the vibrations of the strings to the body of the instrument.


Bo Lawergren:

I view harps historically.  Then the difference between harps and lyres becomes clear.  Many organologists imagine that harps developed from hunter’s bows.  Arched harps emerged ca. 3000 BC in Ur, and (much later) in the Odyssey. It says that Odysesus tested the tension of his bow by listening to its pitch.  At that time harps had bow-shaped designs.  But around 2000 BC that shape was abandoned, and harps adopted triangular designs (“Angular Harps”).  The shape remained into the Hellenistic period.

Lyres were introduced in the Sumerian world, and caught on greatly in the Greek world. They accompanied Homeric song.  It is remarkable how segregated, and ethnic, ancient music was!  One finds no lyres in China.  The construction of lyres and arched harps were different: at the top lyres had a yoke.  You could adjust the string tension by turning a contraption around the yoke.

Your "Tarim instruments” were, no doubt, horizontal harps.  That type of angular harp was already prominent in the Old Babylonian period. They were played in a horizontal fashion and existed already in the Ancient Near East.  (The Palace Reliefs in the British Museum show many such harps, but also vertical angular harps (King Assurbanipal’s banquet scene).  There are many horizontal angular harps in Xinjiang, about 20.  During the Spring semester 2019 I lectured in Music Archaeology at Shanghai.  There I got to know He Zhiling, who had done a PhD on the 20 horizontal angular harps of Xinjiang.  Nobody in the West knows about them.  But I know the editor of the Galpin Society Journal and arranged for it to publish her summary.

Here is a problem.  The horizontal harps were confined to the Ancient Near East, ca. 2000 – 500 BC.  During that period there were no vertical angular harps in China (and surrounding regions). Horizontal harps disappeared from China, but vertical ones came instead, ca. 500 CE- 1100 CE. The latter were associated with Buddhism; every Buddhist kingdom in Tarim had to show vertical harps.  The latter were called konghou in China, but were the former also konghou?  They looked so different, and came from different regions.

Maude de Schauensee:

You ask about the harps and lyres from Ur. Yes, they are quite different in their construction as you point out. Lyres have a yoke and two arms while harps have only one to which the strings attach and descend to enter the sound box. The strings of a lyre wrap around the yoke, descend over a bridge and appear to enter the soundbox through a very small slit in it. Impressions of strings at this location are seen on the silver sheet covering the boat shaped lyre in the UPenn Museum and the silver lyre in the British Museum.

The terminology does matter as they are different instruments. I don't remember the Sumerian names for lyre and harp but Steve Tinney (stinney.upenn.edu) should be able to help you here. Anne Kilmer, who specialized in Sumerian musical instruments and their sounds, etc. has retired [VHM:  she was a PhD graduate from Penn; became emerita at UC Berkeley years ago]. Steve may know how to contact her. I list some of her articles in the bibliography of my book, perhaps some of those might be helpful to you. Music was very important to the Sumerians so there are quite a few texts about them, their sounds, their resonance, their music, musical notation system, tones, and so forth.

Lyres seem to have been made in three sizes: easily portable, a "table model", and a large size that would have sat on the floor and needed steadying from another person. This type is represented on the front panel of the large wood lyre with the lapis bearded bull's head in the UPenn Museum. Harps and lyres are both shown on contemporary cylinder seals. Two harps, both in the Brtitish Museum, and nine lyres were excavated in the Royal Cemetery. Two lyres, or parts from them are in the Baghdad Museum, three in the British Museum, and four in the UPenn Museum. The UPenn Museum does not have a harp or any parts from one.

The information above comes from my book on the two lyres from Ur that the UPenn Museum conserved in the late '90s-early 2000s.

The boat shaped lyre and the gold and lapis bull's head and shell front panel from the big "floor model" lyre as well as the copper bovine head and shell panel from the front of a "portable model" (not from a harp) are on exhibit in the Penn Museum.

Returning to the archeologically recovered harps from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas, they were in graves.  And, the Tarim Basin being what it is, they are extremely well preserved.  But, compared to the magnificent specimens from Ur, these are plain and highly portable, as befits the nomadic people who brought them there.

From top left to bottom right:

  1. Replica of an extant steppe harp at Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, 350 BC.
  2. Extant steppe harp at Olbia, northern shore of the Black Sea, 400-200 BC.
  3. Extant steppe harp at Zaghunluq, Qiemo county, Xinjiang Autonomous Region (southern edge of the Tarim Basin), item 20 in tomb M14, length = 87.6 cm, 400-200 BC.
  4. Extant Steppe harp at Zaghunluq, object 27 in tomb M14, length = 61.6 cm, 400-200 BC.
  5. Extant Steppe harp at Yanghai, Shanshan county, Xinjiang (northern edge of the Tarim Basin), first millennium BC.

Based on Bo Lawergren, "Western Influences on the Early Chinese Qin-Zither," BMFEA 75 (Stockholm 2003), 79-109, Fig. 11 on p. 107.

Appendix:  Reconstruction of the Old Sinitic sounds of kōnghóu 空侯

Diana Shuheng Zhang:

Let’s first forget about the semantophores that were added later.

OC > EC (Han interregnum, your target era?) > MC:

空 khˤoŋ  > koŋ > kuŋ

【坎 khˤom > something like khˤəm > kham】

侯 gˤro> go > ɣ(ə)u

John Carlyle:

I'd reconstruct something like /*kʰôm(ʔ).gô/ for the earlier one and  /*kʰôŋ.gô/ for the later forms. It's not clear if this assimilation happened over time. I'd actually wager not. Western dialects of Old Chinese did not distinguish velar and bilabial codas after certain vowels (seemingly *-u- and *-ǝ-, but perhaps also *-o-). I suspect it was /*kʰôŋ.gô/ all along. It certainly does look like a loan word. I'd except a native binome to either be alliterative rhyming, which doesn't seem to be the case here, even though the vowel reduplicates. One other thing to note is that I'm using the circumflex for type A the way Schuessler does, but I consider type A to represent uvularization (or pharyngealization / facaulization) like Jerry Norman proposed. In Han times, it seems to be the case that this uvularization affected initials as well as rimes such that OC velar initials were realized as uvulars in type A syllables. We can see this in early Sinitic loans in Bai, Hmong-mien, and Kam-sui languages. So maybe to get more specific, we may be looking at something like [qʰoʶɴ.ɢoʶ] phonetically.  I can't say if this goes back to any PIE (or more to the point Tocharian) root for sure, but the uvulars definitely don't rule out the possibility. A popular theory in PIE replaces the usual palato-velars with plain velar and velars with uvulars. Tocharian is a "centum" language (i.e., it did not palatalize the palato-velars of PIE like neighboring Indo-Aryan languages). It's not wild to think that the early ancestor of Tocharian language could have maintained a distinction between uvulars and velars.

One last thing to add. I had a go at trying to find a PIE root that might match this word. This should definitely be taken with a grain of salt since it is really out of my expertise and it's just one potential cognate.

These roots might fit if we suppose noun derivation with an -ō suffix and vowel ablaut:

*kenk ~ *keng "bind/gird"

*ḱenk ~ ḱonk "hang" (also found in a root *kenk that has derived terms for "peg" and "hook")

Of course, there's no way to know for sure that Chinese borrowed this word from a descendant of PIE or is such a descendant was spoken in the Tarim Basin at the time the word was loaned. This is just speculation for fun.

VHM:  I like John Carlyle's second suggestion very much, since it fits with some of the data about the origins of the relevant Iranian roots that were supplied above.  Note that John used a tool provided by the University of Texas Linguistics Research Center to arrive at the PIE roots he suggests.


Selected reading

"'Clear' and 'turbid' in Chinese phonology" (11/29/20)

"'Clear' and 'turbid' in Chinese phonology, part 2" (12/4/20)

"'Clear' and 'turbid' in Chinese phonology, part 3" (12/4/20)

"Texas German" (4/25/20)

"University of Texas Linguistics Research Center" (4/24/20)

Victor H. Mair, ed., The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man Inc. in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, 1998).  2 vols.

J. P. Mallory and Victor H.Mair,The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West (London:  Thames & Hudson, 2000).

"Early Indo-Europeans in Xinjiang" (11/19/08).

Victor H. Mair, ed., Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2006).

Victor H. Mair, "Language and Script: Biology, Archaeology, and (Pre)History," International Review of Chinese Linguistics, 1.1 (1996), 31a-41b.

J. P. Mallory, " The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective", Sino-Platonic Papers, 259 (Nov. 2015); free pdf, 63 pp.

Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, "The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music", Expedition Magazine, 40.2 (1998): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1998 Web. 30 Nov 2020 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=5425>  For Pages Numbers please consult the PDF version.

Maude de Schauensee, Two Lyres from Ur (Philadelphia:  distributed for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

[Thanks to Eric Schluessel, Lü Enguo, Peter Zieme, Yipaer Aierkin, Kevin Kind, Kahar Barat, Isabel Cranz, and Makan Map]


  1. martin schwartz said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

    The corrupt Avestan word is spelled čia˜kazauuatõ, where my
    a˜ is a nasalized a, usually transliterated with a Polish underhooked
    a. I extract from this Av. *[čanka∂a-] 'elbow' comparable inter alia
    to the Sogd. words for 'harp' and cognate with Pers. 'claw'
    and 'elbow'. Long story. The PIE etymon of Eng. hang, having palatal k, can't be related. The go-to book on Heb. kinnōr etc.
    is John Curtis Franklin's Kinyras, the Divine Lyre which is recommend strongly for info on ancient string instruments.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Chris Button said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 11:48 pm

    Regarding the *-ŋ in the 空 of 空侯 and the *-m in the 坎 of 坎侯, it's presumably the assimilation of the velar feature of *g- in 侯 to the preceding nasal endings of 空 and 坎 that allows both of them to be used as transcriptions.

    çaŋ ← ? (cf chin. 鐘 zhong ?)

    Interesting idea. I had always just assumed it was onomatopoeic like "(ding) dong" in English. The Old Chinese form would have been something like *tàŋʷ. Pulleyblank's Early Middle Chinese form is *tɕuawŋ.

  3. R. Fenwick said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 2:31 am

    On the topic, Viacheslav Ivanov's 1999 paper "An ancient name of the lyre" (Archiv Orientální 67: 585-600) is also a nice little summary regarding various terms for the instrument in western Asia. Not all of his suggestions should be taken at face value, though (I find it difficult to accept, for instance, the idea that the Hattic element *-zinar in ḫunzinar ‘large lyre’ and ippizinar ‘small lyre’ – which is almost certainly cognate with Semitic forms going back to Eblaite kinnārum ‘id.’ – has anything to do with Proto-Circassian *pʧʰə́na ‘any musical instrument’).

  4. Nicky said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 3:01 am

    Does anyone know whether Turkic word qomus/komuz/khomus, describing jaw harp in many Turkic languages, is related to discussed words?

  5. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 6:56 am

    The reading of the Avestan word čiąkazauatō (Altiranisches Wörterbuch 584) was corrected to čiąkaδauatō by Henning, BSOAS 11-3, 1945, 471, n. 3 (“Sogdian Tales”), referring to Reichelt’s remarks (WZKM 14, 1900, 179) that: “The writing of the Avestan words needs special mention. In both MSS (i.e. M6 and K20) the Avesta characters δ and z are written so much alike that the distinction can only be possible on grounds of etymology or translation (into Pahlavi) [tr. fr. Ger. HK]. As the Pahlavi translation “as much as an ell (elbow)” shows, the word is a Gsg. form in -vatō “having” attached to the nominal čąkaδa- “elbow”.

    Thus the correct writing in the modern standard transcription would be
    cąkaδauuatō (Klingenschmitt, Diss. 64 gives the form *ciṇkaδauuatō). Henning, ibid. further refers to Paštō cangal “elbow, forearm” and Saka tcaṃgalai. This last form (actually tcaṃgala- + -ī “his”), however, may not belong here. See my article in Emmerick, Skjærvø, Studies in the Vocabulary of Khotanese II, Wien 1987, 48f.

  6. Chris Button said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 7:53 am

    I consider type A to represent uvularization (or pharyngealization / facaulization) like Jerry Norman proposed. In Han times, it seems to be the case that this uvularization affected initials as well as rimes such that OC velar initials were realized as uvulars in type A syllables. We can see this in early Sinitic loans in Bai, Hmong-mien, and Kam-sui languages.

    So this seems to follow Norman while simultaneously not following Baxter & Sagart, who also follow Norman but separately reconstruct their own separate series of uvulars (including pharyngealized uvulars!). At the same time, the idea that type A velar onsets in Old Chinese correspond with uvulars in Sinitic loans follows an idea by Pulleyblank (1982) in his "Loanwords as evidence for Old Chinese uvulars paper". However, Pulleyblank suggests that original Sino-Tibetan uvular onsets in type B syllables might have fronted to velars before the high vowels that emerged in that environment.

  7. Kahar Barat said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 1:06 pm

    1. Traditionally any instrument named with one character are considered Chinese. If it is with two characters, it will be from foreign. I agree the 箜篌 is not orginally Chinese instrument.

    2. 箜篌 in Middle Chinese should be about [*qong hou]. 箜 is 溪东切。The initial 溪 belongs to alveolar group 見溪窮泥, correctly
    [jian, qi, qiong, ni], not [jian, xi, qiong, ni].

    3. In Uighur, "Chang" is a string instrument, lay flat, beat with two sticks. It is popular in Iran and surroundings, calle it Santur. In China it is called Yangqing 扬琴. perhapse from 洋琴。

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