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Even more Guzhengs () cropped.jpg
Several guzheng on display in a store
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Literal meaningancient zheng

The zheng (Chinese: ?; Wade-Giles: cheng) or guzheng (Chinese: ; literally: "ancient zheng"), also known as the Chinese zither, is a Chinese plucked string instrument with a more than 2,500-year history. It has 16 (or more) strings and movable bridges. The modern guzheng usually has 21 strings, and is 64 inches (1.6 m) long. It has a large, resonant cavity made from wutong wood. Other components are often made from other woods for structural or decorative reasons. Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks, made from materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, resin or hard plastic, on one or both hands.

The guzheng is ancestral to several other Asian zithers, such as the Japanese koto,[1][2][3] the Korean gayageum,[2][3] Mongolian yatga,[3] and the Vietnamese ?àn tranh.[2][3] The guzheng should not be confused with the guqin (another ancient Chinese zither without moveable bridges).

An early guzheng emerged during the Warring States period (475-221 BC),[4] largely influenced by the se.[5] It became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221-206), and by the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the guzheng may have been the most commonly played instrument in China.[4] The guzheng was originally developed as a bamboo-tube zither according to the Shuowen, but this came to be replaced by a larger curved wooden board with movable bridges.[6]

Strings, once made of silk, are almost always steel coated in nylon (increasing the instrument's volume and changing its timbre).


Seated woman playing a guzheng
Guzheng player

The guzheng is plucked with plectra attached to four fingers of one or both hands. Traditional playing styles use the right hand to pluck notes and the left hand to change the pitch and produce vibrato by pressing the strings. Modern styles or advanced players use both hands to strike notes.

Ancient picks were made of ivory and, later, of tortoiseshell. Musical ornamentation includes a tremolo, with the left thumb and index finger rapidly plucking the same note. Another common ornamentation is a wide vibrato, achieved by repeatedly pressing the string to the left of the bridge with the left hand. This technique is used extensively in Chinese music and Korean gayageum music.

The guzheng is usually tuned in a major pentatonic scale with five notes to an octave.

Performers and styles

Animated chart of the development of the guzheng
During the guzheng's more than 2,000-year history, its number of strings has gradually increased.

Two broad playing styles (schools) are identified as northern and southern, although many traditional regional styles also exist. The northern styles are associated with Henan and Shandong provinces and the southern style is connected to Chaozhou and the Hakka people of eastern Guangdong province. High Mountain and Running River and Autumn Moon over the Han Palace are from the Shandong school and Jackdaw Plays with Water (Han Ya Xi Shui) and Lotus on Water (Chu shui lian) are part of the Chaozhou and Hakka repertories, respectively.

Many pieces have been composed since the 1950s with new techniques, such as the playing of harmony and counterpoint by the left hand. Pieces in the new style include Harvest Celebration (Qing Feng Nian, Zhao Yuzhai, 1955), Fighting the Typhoon (Zhan Tai Feng, Wang Changyuan, 1965) and the guzheng concerto Fantasia of Miluo River (Li Huanzhi, 1984). Experimental, atonal pieces have been composed since the 1980s.

A modern playing technique, influenced by Western music, uses the left hand to provide harmony and bass notes; this gives the guzheng a more flexible musical range, permitting harmonic progression. It has its limitations, preventing the subtle ornamentation provided by the left hand in traditional music. Guzheng students who take the Central Conservatory of Music examinations are required to learn traditional and modern pieces.[]

Notable 20th-century players and teachers include Wang Xunzhi (, 1899-1972), who popularized the Wulin zheng school based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang; Lou Shuhua, who rearranged a traditional guzheng piece and named it Yu Zhou Chang Wan; Liang Tsai-Ping (1911-2000), who edited the first guzheng manual (Nizheng Pu) in 1938; Cao Dongfu (1898-1970), from Henan; Gao Zicheng (born 1918) and Zhao Yuzhai (born 1924), both from Shandong; Su Wenxian (1907-1971); Guo Ying (born 1914) and Lin Maogen (born 1929), both from Chaozhou; the Hakka Luo Jiuxiang (1902-1978) and Cao Guifen and Cao Zheng (, 1920-1998), both of whom trained in the Henan school. The Cao family of Henan are known as masters of the guzheng.[]

Notable 21st-century Chinese guzheng players include Xiang Sihua, Wang Zhongshan, Yuan Sha, Chang Jing and Funa.[] Although most guzheng music is Chinese classical music, the American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) played and composed for the instrument. Contemporary guzheng works have also been written by the non-Chinese composers Halim El-Dabh, Kevin Austin, David Vayo, Simon Steen-Andersen, and Jon Foreman.

The guzheng has been used in rock music by Chinese performer Wang Yong of Cui Jian, the English musician Jakko Jakszyk on the 2011 Jakszyk, Fripp & Collins album A Scarcity of Miracles), J.B. Brubaker of August Burns Red on "Creative Captivity" from the 2013 album, Rescue & Restore, and the virtual band Gorillaz on "Hong Kong" (from the 2005 Help! A Day in the Life compilation). Jerusalem-based multi-instrumentalist Bradley Fish used the guzheng with a rock-influenced style and electronic effects on his 1996 collaboration, "The Aquarium Conspiracy" (with Sugarcubes/Björk drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson), and is the most widely recorded artist of loops for the instrument. In 1980, the guhzeng was featured on The Korgis hit single 'Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime'.

It was played by Zhang Yan (, 1945-1996), performing and recording with Asian American jazz bandleader Jon Jang. Other musicians playing in non-traditional styles include Wu Fei, Xu Fengxia, Randy Raine-Reusch, Mohamed Faizal, B. Mohamed Salim, Mei Han, Bei Bei He, Zi Lan Liao, Levi Chen, Andreas Vollenweider, Jaron Lanier, Mike Hovancsek, Chih-Lin Chou, Liu Le and David Sait. Koto player Brett Larner developed innovative works for the guzheng and played the instrument in a duet with electronic musician Samm Bennett on his CD, Itadakimasu.

In popular culture

In the television drama series My Fair Princess, actress Ruby Lin's character Xia Ziwei plays the guzheng (although she mimes to the music). It is featured in the 1980 pop hit, "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime", by the Korgis.

In the film Kung Fu Hustle, the assassins known as The Harpists play the guzheng to generate bladed and percussive attacks.

Guzheng and art

The guzheng fuses Chinese history and culture as an instrument and decorative art. Artists created unique cultural and artistic content on the instrument, reflecting poetry and the relationship between painting and calligraphy. Decorations include carved art, carved lacquer, straw, mother-of-pearl inlays, painting, shell carving (jade) and cloisonné.

See also


  1. ^ Deal, William E. (2006). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 266-267. ISBN 0-8160-5622-6.
  2. ^ a b c "Hugo's window on the world of Chinese zheng". Chime. Leiden: European Foundation for Chinese Music Research. 16-17: 242. 2005. Throughout the centuries, the zheng became the parent instrument of the Asian zither family as it spread from China to a number of adjacent countries giving birth to the Japanese koto, the Korean kayagum and the Vietnamese dan tranh.
  3. ^ a b c d Howard, Keith (1995). Korean musical instruments. Oxford University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-19-586177-8. The kayagum, the most popular South Korean instrument, is a 12-string half-tube plucked zither (H/S 312.22.5) (Plate 7). It resembles the Chinese zheng, Mongolian yatga, Japanese koto, and Vietnamese dan tranh. All these instruments descend from a common model, the ancient zheng.
  4. ^ a b "The Sound of History". Archived from the original on 2012-11-18.
  5. ^ Sharron Gu (2011). A Cultural History of the Chinese Language. McFarland & Company. p. 14. ISBN 0-7864-6649-9.
  6. ^ Kaufmann, Walter (1976). Musical References in the Chinese Classics. Detroit Monographs in Musicology. Harmonie Park Press. p. 101. According to the Shuo Wen the cheng was a bamboo-tube zither. [...] The bamboo tube eventually was replaced by a larger curved wooden board and while in one or two zither types fixed or movable bridges were used, the noble ch'in remained an unfretted instrument. Despite the fact that the cheng is not mentioned in the Classics, it is mentioned here because of its old age. The movable bridges which allowed variable tunings linked the cheng securely with popular music. It still exists side by side with the distinguished ch'in and se. Since the fourth or third centuries B.C. there existed another form of the se, a zither with five (to thirteen) strings, called chu (M 1375). The instrument is not mentioned in the Classics.

Further reading

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