The pipa, a fretted lute with four strings, is a close relative of the European lute, the Middle Eastern lutes and the Japanese biwa. It came to China from Central Asia by way of the "Silk Road" in the 11th-5th century. During the golden age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the pipa gained favour over the elegant qin and often served as a lead instrument in the music of the sophisticated Tang court. The pipa has undergone the most dramatic changes of all Chinese instruments today. The upright playing position has gradually replaced the horizontal position of the Tang and plucking with the fingers has replaced the use of a plectrum. The number of frets on the body of the instrument has gradually been increased from 4 to 30, a straight head has replaced the crooked Tang style and the traditional silk strings have been replaced by steel.
The pipa is highly versatile, sharing with the qin an important historical role in the self-cultivation of the elite and the aristocracy of the imperial dynasties, yet it also features prominently in the earthy folk styles of, for example, the Silk-and-Bamboo ensembles of the Shanghai tea houses and the Nanguan narrative singing of Fujian on the southeastern coast. Pipa music is famed for its unique richness of expression.