The music I chose is the signature piece for this instrument. It is called 十面埋伏, or "Ambush from ten sides"*. The story behind this piece of music is quite well known in China because it is a famous piece of history. It is the final battle between 劉邦 Liu Bang and 項羽 Xiang Yu. Following the end of the Qin dynasty's end around 206 BCE, the country fractured and returned to the warring states situation before Qin united the country. Slowly, two dominant forces emerged: Chu, with Xiang Yu at the helm, and Han, with Liu Bang at the helm. History regarded them as two great men who were destined to eliminated each other. Liu was the undergo at the beginning, but slowly he gained more momentum and eventually triumphed, setting up the Han dynasty that flourished and brought a period of prosperity and advancement to China.
In the decisive battle, Xiang's army was actually larger and superior in number, but Liu out-maneuvered him using various deceits and tricks. This song is about the final battle, where Xiang found himself at the end of the road, seeing his own demise looming, isolated from his army, and then all of sudden, he realized that he was surrounded by enemy troops. The panic, anger, despair, and finality are the essence of this piece of music.
According to wiki, the first official score for this music appeared in 1818, but I am going to guess that the music predated that written version and was played by artists far longer than that. Musically, this is a very difficult piece to play. Only experts in pipa can manage to play this in solo. It is not uncommon for beginners or intermediates to play this piece as an ensemble piece.
And for those playing at home, this is the same story that inspired the Chinese opera piece, 霸王別姬 Farewell My Concubine. The titular character (word-for-word translation is Warlord Leaving Concubine) is Xiang Yu and in almost all the songs, stories, and operas about him, he was depicted as a tragic hero. His demise was always attributed to not his personal faults, but that he was born at the wrong time, matched against a man (Liu) who was really no match to him in terms of military talent, but who won because he (Liu) had the Mandate of Heaven. You can say that this is a very propaganda narrative: do not go against the Mandate, for see, even a hero like Xiang must perish in the fool's errand.
At any rate, I will actually provide 2 renditions here. If you only have time for 1, view the first one. The performance *rocked*. It's almost.... metal. The purists will say that she's too showy, and that her plucking techniques are not as clean as the one showcased in the second piece. But by gods, she was entertaining to watch, and dare I say, sexy, in a way that rockstars are sexy. The second piece was performed by a classic pipa artist agreed to be one of the best of our time. You can hear the restrain and the technique, I think, and it's more refined than the first piece. It's still great, but, alas, it didn't rock.