Ambush from ten sides: history and analysis of a masterpiece from Cina

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Mario Friscia

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Ambush from ten sides: history of a Chinese masterpiece for pipa

Ambush from Ten Sides (Chinese: shimian maifu) is traditionally regarded as one of the most difficult classical pieces written for the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute whose origin dates back to 2000 years ago.

Unfortunately, we don’t know who is the author of this composition.

What we do know is the true story behind it.

Ambush from ten sides transpose in music the story of the battle of Gaixia (southeast of today’s Linbi County, Anhui Province) that took place in 202 BC between the General Xiang Yu and his rival Liu Bang.

Xiang Yu was the general of the Chu army while Liu Bang captained the troops of the Han state.

The music of this piece is a masterpiece full of vigor and military zelous.

It is emotionally rich and technically demanding, full of sudden shifts in tempo, timbre and volume.

Changes in dynamic are the core of this piece of music and serve the purpose of building a sense of agitation and fear.

Transitions from joy into despair are frequent.

There is another musical piece for the pipa that has in common with Ambush from ten sides the same subject matter: The King Doffs His Armor.

The two compositions have the same plot but tell the story from different perspectives: while “The king doffs his armor” focuses entirely on Xiang Yu’s defeat, Ambush from ten sides gives us an overall report of the fight, highlighting the power of Liu Bang’s army as well.

To see the first written evidence of a piece of music for pipa bearing the title “Ambush from Ten Sides” we must wait until 1818, when a collection of pipa music scores was published by Hua Qiuping.

The publication is called Nanbei Erpai Miben Pipapu Zhenzhuan and represents one of the most important publications in Chinese music history.


Narrative structure of the musical composition

Ambush from All Sides is built in accordance with a multi-sectional structure, consisting of a series of short sub-sections.

Each section has its own title and depicts a specific part of the fight between the armies of Chu and Han.

The SOAS website helps us to reconstruct the subtitles of the series of scenes included in Ambush from ten sides.

They can be listed as follows:

1. Setting Up Camp
2. Beating Drums
3. Sounding Horns
4. Firing Canon
5. Calling the Rosters
6. Manoeuvring Troops
7. Laying Ambush
8. Skirmish
9. The Major Battle
10. Farewell to the Concubine
11. Suicide
12. Screaming
13. Surrounded
14. Rout

It is possible to group the scenes within 3 main narrative themes:

1. The magnificent and glorious description of the powerful array of the Han Army
2. The vivid and fierce representation of the battle between the armies of Chu and Han.
3. The sad and mournful depiction of Xiang Yu’s suicide, committed at Wujiang River after being defeated by the troops of his rival Liu Bang

Contemporary pipa players are used to intervene on the overall structure of the composition by removing some of the sections in accordance with their own artistic goals and performing skills.

One of the most vigorous, effective and intense musical performances of Ambush from ten sides comes from pipa master Liu De-Hai:



Another powerful example of live performance of Ambush from ten sides is provided by virtuoso soloist Liu Fang during a solo recital in the Pierre-Mercurre Hall of the Centre Pierre-Peladeau, on March 27, 2002, in Montreal:




Ambush on ten sides is one of the most deservedly popular instrumental pieces of all Chinese classical music.

It is most famous for its martial energy and technical difficulty.

In fact, it has been written in the “Wu”style which means “martial”.

The entire composition grows out of small melodic motifs and obsessively repeated rhythmic patterns.

The different sections of the musical piece are connected by a kind of eroic and tragic journey: triumph, despair, rage and delicacy are perfectly depicted by the various sounds of the pipa, whose versatile timbre plays a major role in helping the interpreter to tell the war story upon which the composition is based.

The piece starts with the musical depiction of the preliminary phases of the battle between the two armies. The author’s intention here it is not to construct large musical sentences but to highlight the unpredictable and bursting atmosphere of a battle field, where people have to take action fast and overthinking can lead you to death.

Sometimes the wild atmosphere of war is replaced by a series of more peaceful and relaxed melodic ideas, which are more lyrical compared to the other sections of the composition, that were almost entirely based on percussive bursts and the continuous repetition of one or two notes enriched by trillos.

As you approach the end of the piece you’ll notice how melody disappears completely and the pipa is almost entirely treated as a percussion instrument.

From this percussive explosion the effect is so powerful and dramatic that you can almost feel the feelings of the warriors, ranging from fear and despair to fury and cruelty.

The musical themes are presented not developed, in a phenomenological firework of moments whose beauty depends on their uniqueness.

What appears once never comes back.

There are numerous and unpredictable exchanges between percussive and melodic sections and these changes contribute to create that feeling of tension which is most appropriate when it comes to describing the thoughts, emotions and events that occur in a battle field.

As the piece reaches its end, it enters a furious finale with one of the most powerful onomatopeic sections ever written.

The melodic ideas are not allowed to flow and are frequently interrupted by the un-sensitive logic of war, made of beating, pushing, fighting, harming and dying.

What makes this piece of music so unique is the way in which the pipa player uses the instrument to describe the different phases of a fight.

The pipa is treated quite often like an orchestra and its versatility allows the interpreter to showcase one’s ability in presenting the most subtle variations in volume, tempo and timbre.

No wonder this piece continues to be one of the most famous and popular of all time among the chinese pipa players.


Arrangements for other musical instruments

On Youtube you can find various experimental arrangements of Ambush from ten sides trying to adapt the composition to other musical instruments, sometimes to a whole orchestra.

Let’s start with this arrangement for classical guitar:



Here you can see an example of Ambush from ten sides arranged for guzheng:



Let’s continue with another example coming from a duet for violin, played by Chuanyun Li, and piano:



The last example focuses entirely on the physical gestures involved in performing Ambush from ten sides: there is no pipa, only the music and a musician, Yunxiang Gao, who moves her fingers in the air as if the pipa was there, into her arms:



In 2004 the classical masterpiece became part of the soundtrack of “House of Flying Daggers“.

The composition was arranged by Shigerueru Umebayashi who simplified its complex structure in order to fit the melody to the actual needs of the movie scenes:



Another powerful arrangement of Ambush on all sides comes from the Chinese Orchestra of Hong Kong:



The Silk Road ensemble did something similar and adapted the traditional melody to the sounds of a large orchestra:




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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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