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Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 古箏
Simplified Chinese 古筝
Japanese name
Seated woman playing a guzheng
Guzheng player

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, tortoise shell, resin or hard plastic, on one or both hands.

The guzheng inspired other Asian zithers, such as the Japanese koto,[1][2][3] the Korean gayageum[2][3] and the Vietnamese đàn 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 BCE),[4] largely influenced by the se.[5] It became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221–206), and by the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), guzheng may have been the most commonly-played instrument in China.[4] Late-20th-century musicological studies indicate that early bamboo-tube zithers may have been prototypes of the guzheng, koto, gayageum and đàn tranh.[6][7][8]

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 (increasing the instrument's volume and changing its timbre).


The guzheng is plucked with the right hand or both. The left hand changes the pitch and produces vibrato by pressing. These techniques can evoke a cascading waterfall, thunder, horses' hooves and a 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 the right or both hands. In traditional performances, plectra are used only on the right hand. Ancient picks were made of ivory and, later, of tortoiseshell. Musical ornamentation includes a tremolo, with the right thumb and index finger rapidly plucking the same note. Another common ornamentation is a wide vibrato, achieved by repeatedly pressing the left side 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. Notable pieces for the instrument include Evening Song from the Fishing Boat (Yu Zhou Chang Wan), High Mountain and Running River (Gao Shan Liu Shui), Plum-blossom in Three Movements (Mei Hua San Nong) and Autumn Moon over the Han Palace (Han Gong Qiu Yue).

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.

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 (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 (曹正, 1920–1998), both of whom trained in the Henan school. The Cao family of Henan are known as masters of the guzheng.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Performers and styles[edit]

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.

Notable Chinese guzheng players include Xiang Sihua, Wang Zhongshan Wang, 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 (Bei Bei),"MusicDish*China Sounds Pod2 - Opening The Year Of The Tiger". Mi2N Music Industry News Network. Retrieved 28 February 2016.  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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]


  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 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. ^ Le, Tuan Hung. Dan Tranh Music of Vietnam : Traditions and Innovations. Melbourne, Tokyo : Australia Asia Foundation, 1998. ISBN 0958534306 (hard back); ISBN 0958534314 (paperback), pages 5-8
  7. ^ Kusano Taeko. "Classification and Playing Technique: A Study of Zithers in Asia", in Asian Musics in an Asian Perspective. editors, Koizumi Fumio, Tokumaru Yoshihiko, Yamaguchi Osamu ; assistant editor, Richard Emmert. Tokyo : Heibonsha, c1977, page 131
  8. ^ Kaufmann, Walter. Musical References in the Chinese Classics. Detroit Monographs in Musicology. Detroit : Information Coordinators, 1976, page 101

Further reading[edit]