Antique Asian Works of Art from Ancient East
Antique Okinawan Snakeskin Lute, or Sanshin, 18th C.

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Directory: Antiques: Regional Art: Asian: Japanese: Folk Art: Pre 1800: item # 677076

Please refer to our stock # MS56 when inquiring.

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Ancient East
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Antique Okinawan Snakeskin Lute, or Sanshin, 18th C.
DESCRIPTION: A rare and quite old Japanese lute, or sanshin, originating from the island Okinawa. The sanshin (literally meaning "three strings") is an Okinawan musical instrument, and the precursor of the Japanese shamisen. Often likened to a banjo, it consisted of a snakeskin-covered body, neck and three strings, and was known for its calming tune. This instrument has an ancient history of Chinese origin, and originally came to Japan via the Ryukyu Islands (present-day Okinawa) in the Muromachi Period (1392 – 1568). Since snakeskin was hard to come by in Japan, the later instruments were covered in either dog or cat skin (which would be distinctly distasteful in today’s society). In Japan, these instruments were particularly associated with geisha performances, the kabuki theater and the Japanese bunraku puppet theater.

This sanshin, dating from the 18th C., Edo Period, has a rounded wooden body covered with the original snakeskin on both sides, amplifying the sound of the strings. At the end of the long, banjo-like neck are three wood tuning forks, one still having the original ivory inlays on its tip. The neck is removable from the snakeskin body.

CONDITION: Some snakeskin loss on back edge (shown in photo) but the skin is still tightly stretched and taunt; inlays missing on ends of two tuning forks. DIMENSIONS: Total length is 42” (107 cm); snakeskin wood body is 6” wide (15.3 cm) x 7” long (17.8 cm).

To hear this instrument being played, go to: and type in either “shamisen” or "sanshin" in the search box.

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