The xun is one of the oldest musical instruments in China with a history of at least 7000 years. It was one of the most important elements of “palace music” in ancient China. The xun is an egg-shaped aerophone with a blowing hole on top and up to eight smaller finger holes (one for the index, middle, and ring fingers of each hand, and one for each thumb). It is predominantly made of clay but there are also maybe other materials like, stone, bones, and ivory decorating the instrument.
The invention of the xun was closely associated with labour. It emerged from a hunting tool called "Stone Shooting Star". In ancient times, people tied a ball-shaped stone using a rope and bound the rope with a stick. They tossed the stone to hunt animals. The stone balls tended to be hollow, therefore when they were being tossed the holes rubbed with the air and let out a distinct sound which fascinated those who heard it, thus causing them to blow into the holes and in the process creating the prototype of the xun.
The xun took a long time to fully develop. Originally it only had two sound holes and until 700 BC, the xun had had six sound holes and people could use it to produce a complete five-tone scale and seven-tone scale. The xun also comes in various shapes and sizes with each shape having different tones and producing different sounds.
Although there is long history of the xun, there is only one official musical score book for the instrument: "Tanghu Xun Music". It was edited and finished during the Qing Dynasty.
In the Chinese musical system there is an "eight-tone" classification of musical instruments (based on whether the instrument is made from metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, earth, hide, or wood) and the xun is the only instrument that comes under the “earth” category. The gentle yet heavy sound it creates balances the high and low pitch that the instrument produces, thus creating a harmonious result, according to experts. This makes the xun an important instrument in Chinese culture, as harmony is an important value to possess.
The sound it produces is unique with it being deep yet delicate and elegant. Due to the characteristics of its sound, it was used in palace music performances, rituals and other solemn occasions. It is also considered to be the most suitable instrument to express heartbreak as well as other themes like death, women's sorrow and the demise of a hero.
To this day, many people are learning how to play the instrument. In the Forbidden City, Beijing, there is a special xun which was used in the royal court during the Qing Dynasty called "the Dragon in the Cloud with Red Paint". It has been saved and studied for musical research purposes.