The suona (唢呐, suǒnà) ​​is a Chinese conical oboe that is used in a variety of  outdoor festivals and rituals mainly in the north of China such as weddings and funerals. These rituals can run quite long, therefore the virtuoso suona player also plays lighter and even funny intervals to lighten the atmosphere.

The double reed of the suona is inserted into a thin metal pipe that rests on a pirouette. The reed is completely put into the mouth and the musicians often use circular breathing which allows uninterrupted play.

The body of the hardwood instrument is pierced with 7 holes plus a thumb hole. Usually, the pipe is decorated with ornamental ripples between the holes. A metal bell is adjusted to the bottom of the instrument.

The suona exists in different sizes and has regional variants. The instrument is usually called suona, but laba, haidi, aizai, ... are also possible.

The conical oboe is widespread from North Africa to Korea. Its name is derived from the Persian sorna and is recognizable in its variants zurna, surnai, zurla, and of course suona in China. There exists also a family of cylindrical oboes, including the duduk in Armenia and the guanzi in China.

It seems that the suona arrived in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as a military musical instrument before being successfully adopted by the population. Its powerful sound makes it an outdoor instrument, perfect for military use as well as for processions, operas or parties.

In some peasant families, all men play the suona and work in the fields only when they are not called to animate rituals or feasts.

The second half of the twentieth century saw a movement to improve traditional instruments. This led to the creation of a keyed suona based on the Western model and aimed at playing in equal temperament. The keyed suona is only used in symphonic orchestras, while popular musicians continue to use the traditional suona.


Claire Chantrenne

Translation: Fiona Shotter



0698, before 1881, offerd by H.Serruys, Consul General of Belgium in China
AC0134, before 1989
Musicians in Shanghai, early 20th century. Old postcard. MIMICO.ACP.050