Several guzheng on display in a store
The guzheng or gu zheng (Chinese: 古箏; pinyin: gǔzhēng, pronounced [kùt͡ʂə́ŋ]), also simply called zheng (箏, gu 古 means "ancient"), is a Chinese plucked zither. It has 18 or more strings and movable bridges, and the modern guzheng usually has 21 strings and bridges. The picks (called "DaiMao") used by performers to play guzheng are often made out of the shells of hawksbill turtles.
The guzheng is the ancestor of several Asian zither instruments, such as the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. The guzheng should not be confused with the guqin (another ancient Chinese zither with no moveable bridges).
The early types of guzheng emerged during the Warring States period (475 to 221 BCE). It was largely influenced by the se. It became prominent during the Qin period (221 to 206 BCE), and by the Tang Dynasty (618 CE to 907 CE), the guzheng was arguably the most commonly played instrument in China. Musicological studies in the late 20th century indicate that early bamboo tube zithers might be one of the prototypes of the guzheng, koto, gayageum, and the đàn tranh.
The modern zheng is very different from ones made centuries ago, mainly due to natural evolution influenced by local as well as historical environments but also because of the adoption of Western musical styles. Strings were once made from silk but now they are almost always metal-nylon which increased the instrument's capabilities, volume and timbre.
Playing styles and performers
There are many techniques used in the playing of the guzheng, including basic plucking actions (right or both hands) at the right portion and pressing actions at the left portion (by the left hand to produce pitch ornamentations and vibrato) as well as tremolo (right hand). These techniques of playing the guzheng can create sounds that can evoke the sense of a cascading waterfall, thunder, horses' hooves, and even the scenic countryside. Plucking is done mainly by the right hand with four plectra (picks) attached to the fingers. Advanced players may use picks attached to the fingers of both hands. In more traditional performances however, plectra are used solely on the right hand, reflecting its use for melodic purposes and its relative importance in comparison to the left hand which is used solely for purposes of ornamentation. Ancient picks were made of ivory and later also from tortoise shell. Ornamentation includes a tremolo involving the right thumb and index finger rapidly and repeatedly plucking the same note. Another commonly used ornamentation is a wide vibrato, achieved by repeatedly pressing with the left hand on the left side of the bridge. This technique is used liberally in Chinese music, as well as in Korean gayageum music.
In arrangements of guqin pieces, harmonics are frequently used, along with single-string glissandi, evoking the sound of the guqin. Harmonics are achieved by lightly placing the left hand in the middle of the string while plucking on the right end of string.
The guzheng's pentatonic scale is tuned to Do, Re, Mi, So, and La, but Fa and Ti can also be produced by pressing the strings to the left of the bridges. Well known pieces for the instrument include Yu Zhou Chang Wan (Songs of fishing boats at dusk), Gao Shan Liu Shui (High mountains flowing water), Mei Hua San Nong (Three variations of the Plum Blossom theme) and Han Gong Qiu Yue (Autumn Moon Over the Han Palace).
Two broad playing styles (schools) can be identified as Northern and Southern, although many traditional regional styles still exist. The Northern styles is associated with Henan and Shandong while the Southern style is with the Chaozhou and Hakka regions of eastern Guangdong. Both Gao Shan Liu Shui (High mountains flowing water) and Han Gong Qiu Yue (Han palace autumn moon) are from the Shandong school, while Han ya xi shui (Winter Crows Playing in the Water) and Chu shui lian (Lotus Blossoms Emerging from the Water) are major pieces of the Chaozhou and Hakka repertories respectively.
Important players and teachers in the 20th century include Wang Xunzhi (王巽之, 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 teaching manual, Nizheng pu in 1938; Cao Dongfu (1898–1970), from Henan; Gao Zicheng (b. 1918) and Zhao Yuzhai (b. 1924), both from Shandong; Su Wenxian (1907–1971); Guo Ying (b. 1914) and Lin Maogen (b. 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 from Henan are known for being masters of the guzheng.
Many new pieces have been composed since the 1950s which used new playing techniques such as the playing of harmony and counterpoint by the left hand. Pieces in this new style include Qing feng nian (Celebrating the Harvest, Zhao Yuzhai, 1955), Zhan tai feng (Fighting the Typhoon, Wang Changyuan, 1965) and the guzheng concerto "Miluo River Fantasia" (Li Huanzhi, 1984). Contemporary experimental atonal pieces have been composed since the 1980s.
A more modern playing technique is using the left hand to provide harmony and bass notes, heavily influenced by the theory of Western music. This allows for greater flexibility in the instruments musical range, allowing for harmonic progression. This however also has its limitations, as it prevents the subtle ornamentations provided by the left hand in more traditional music. Students of the Guzheng who take the Beijing Conservatory examinations are required to learn a repertoire of pieces both traditional and modern.
In other genres
The guzheng has been used by the Chinese performer Wang Yong in the rock band of Cui Jian, as well as in free improvised music. Zhang Yan used it in a jazz context, performing and recording with Asian American jazz bandleader Jon Jang.
Other zheng players who perform in non-traditional styles include Wu Fei, Xu Fengxia, Randy Raine-Reusch, Mohamed Faizal B. Mohamed Salim, Mei Han, Bei Bei He (Bei Bei), Zi Lan Liao, Levi Chen, Andreas Vollenweider, Jaron Lanier, Winnie Wong, Mike Hovancsek, Chih-Lin Chou, Liu Le, and David Sait. Koto player Brett Larner developed innovative works for the guzheng utilizing longitudinal mode vibration of the strings: he also played guzheng in a duet with electronic musician Samm Bennett on his CD Itadakimasu. English rock musician Jakko Jakszyk played guzheng on the 2011 album A Scarcity of Miracles.
Jerusalem based multi-instrumentalist Bradley Fish is the most widely recorded artist of loops for the guzheng. Fish is known for using the guzheng with a rock-influenced style and electronic effects on his 1996 collaboration "The Aquarium Conspiracy" with Sugarcubes/Björk drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson. The virtual band Gorillaz also used the guzheng in their song "Hong Kong" from the Help!: A Day in the Life compilation (2005).
The American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) played and composed for the instrument. Contemporary works for Guzheng have been written by such non-Chinese composers as Halim El-Dabh, Kevin Austin, David Vayo, Simon Steen-Andersen, and Jon Foreman.
In popular culture
- List of guzheng performers
- Traditional Chinese musical instruments
- Koto (musical instrument)
- Đàn tranh
- Se (instrument)
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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.
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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.
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