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The guzheng (Chinese: 古箏), 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 (1,600 mm) 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 inspired other Asian zithers, 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 without moveable bridges).
An early guzheng emerged during the Warring States period (475–221 BC), largely influenced by the se. It became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221–206), and by the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), guzheng may have been the most commonly played instrument in China. Late-20th-century musicological studies indicate that early bamboo-tube zithers may have been prototypes of the guzheng, koto, gayageum and đàn tranh.
The modern guzheng differs from those made centuries ago due to local influences and the adoption of Western musical styles. Strings, once made of silk, are almost always steel coated in nylon (increasing the instrument's volume and changing its timbre).
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.
Performers and styles
Two broad playing styles (schools) are identified as northern and southern, although many traditional regional styles also exist. The northern styles is 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 (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 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 (曹正, 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.
It was played by Zhang Yan (张燕, 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.
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.
- List of guzheng performers
- Traditional Chinese musical instruments
- Đàn tranh
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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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