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Guzheng 2020 by Glenn Francis.jpg
Guzheng display at "The NAMM Show" 2020
Traditional Chinese古箏
Simplified Chinese古筝
Literal meaningancient zheng

The zheng (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhēng; Wade–Giles: cheng) or guzheng (Chinese: 古箏; pinyin: gǔzhēng; lit. 'ancient zheng'), is a Chinese plucked zither. The modern guzheng commonly has 21, 25 or 26 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m) long, and is tuned in a major pentatonic scale. It has a large, resonant soundboard made from Paulownia wood. Other components are often made from other woods for structural or decorative reasons. Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory 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 and ajaeng,[2][3] Mongolian yatga,[3] the Vietnamese đàn tranh,[2][3] the Sundanese kacapi and the Kazakhstan jetigen. The guzheng should not be confused with the guqin, a Chinese zither with 7 strings played without moveable bridges.

The guzheng has gone through many changes during its long history. The oldest specimen yet discovered held 13 strings and was dated to possibly during the Warring States period (475–221 BC).[4] The guzheng became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). By the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) the guzheng may have been the most commonly played instrument in China.[5] The guzheng is played throughout all of China with a variety of different techniques, depending on the region of China and the time period. It has beautiful timbre, broad range, rich performance skills, strong expressive power, and has been deeply loved by many Chinese people throughout history.[6]


Animated chart of the development of the guzheng
The number of strings on the Guzheng has gradually increased over its 2,000 year history.

There are varied accounts for how the guzheng came to be. An early guzheng-like instrument is said to have been invented by Meng Tian,[5] a general of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), largely influenced by the se.[7] Some believe the guzheng was originally developed as a bamboo-tube zither as recorded in the Shuowen Jiezi, which was later redesigned to be more like the se and made from larger curved wooden boards and movable bridges.[8] A third legend says the guzheng came about when two people fought over a 25-string se. They broke it in half, one person receiving a 12-string part and another the 13-string part.[9]

Strings were once made of silk. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) the strings transitioned to bare wire such as brass.[9] Modern strings are almost always steel coated in nylon. First introduced in the 1970s these multi-material strings increased the instrument's volume while maintaining an acceptable timbre.

The guzheng is often decorated. Artists create unique cultural and artistic content on the instrument. Decorations include carved art, carved lacquer, straw, mother-of-pearl inlays, painting, poetry, calligraphy, shell carving (jade) and cloisonné.

Styles and Techniques[edit]

The guzheng is plucked by the fingers with or without plectra.[9] Most modern players use plectra that are attached to up to four fingers on each hand. Ancient picks were made of mundane materials such as bamboo, bone, and animal teeth or by finer materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, and jade.[9][10]

Traditional playing styles use the right hand to pluck notes and the left hand to add ornamentation such as pitch slides and vibrato by pressing the strings to the left of the movable bridges. Modern styles use both hands to play on the right side of the strings. There are many techniques used to strike notes. One iconic sound is a tremolo produced by the right thumb rotating rapidly around the same note. Other guzheng techniques include harmonics (Fanyin) where one plucks a string while tapping it at the same time, producing a note in a higher octave.[10]

Techniques can be borrowed from other instruments. For example, Lun is a borrowed technique. In Lun, all five fingers pluck on a string to produce a tremolo sound similar to the Pipa.[11]

Techniques can also vary in Northern and Southern China, producing different sounds and styles.

Northern China[edit]

Northern styles include songs from the Shandong and Henan regional schools.

Songs from Shandong include "High Mountain and Flowing Water [Shandong Version]" (Gao Shan Liu Shui) and "Autumn Moon Over the Han Palace" (Han Gong Qiu Yue). Songs from Henan include "High Mountain and Flowing Water [Henan Version]" and "Going Upstairs" (Shang Lou).[10]

According to Samuel Wong, songs from Henan are fiery.[10] Left hand slides and vibrato are used frequently and tremolo is done with the thumb.[12][13] Meanwhile, Shandong songs are "glamorous...melodic lines often rise and fall dramatically...Its music is characteristically light and refreshing.[10] Slide descending notes are not used as often as Henan.[12] Glissandos are always on beat.[10]

Southern China[edit]

Southern styles include Chaozhou and Kejia (Hakka) regional styles. Another prominent school is the Zhejiang regional school in the southeast.

Southern songs include "Jackdaw Plays with Water" (Han Ya Xi Shui) from Chaozhou and "Lotus Emerging from Water" (Chu Shui Lian) from the Hakka School. Famous songs from Zhejiang include "The General's Command" (Jiang Jun Ling).[10]

Chaozhou and Hakka songs are similar but according to Mei Han, “Hakka melodies are similar to but less highly embellished than those of the neighboring Chaozhou school.”[14] Songs from Chaozhou use even less descending notes and glissando are free rhythm. Chaozhou songs have "irregular beats, and alternate between hard and soft taps on the strings."[10] Zhejiang songs use technique similar to the Pipa. Frequent tremolo is used with left-hand glissando. Other techniques include sidian, where 16th notes are played used thumb, index finger and middle finger in quick tempo.[15]

The guzheng is played on a pentatonic scale, with notes "fa" and "ti" being produced by bending the strings. The scale can change with using "flat", "natural" and "sharp" notes. Chaozhou songs use multiple scales, using both "flat" notes or both "natural" notes. The tone of the song can change based on the scale.[14]

Modern Guzheng Music[edit]

Woman playing guzheng in Taipei. 2010

Many pieces composed since the 1950s use new techniques and also mix elements from both northern and southern styles, ultimately creating a new modern school.[10]Examples of modern songs include "Spring on Snowy Mountain" (Xue Shan Chun Xiao) by Fan Shang E, and Fighting the Typhoon (Zhan Tai Feng) by Wang Changyuan.[10]

New techniques include playing harmony and counterpoint with the left hand.[16]

Experimental, atonal pieces have been composed since the 1980s. For example, "Ming Mountain" (Ming Shan) and "Gloomy Fragrance" (An Xiang) are contemporary songs that do not use the traditional pentatonic scale.[10][17]

Notable people[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Notable 21st-century Chinese guzheng players include Xiang Sihua, Wang Zhongshan,[18] Yuan Sha, Chang Jing and Funa.[citation needed] 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.

Zhang Yan (张燕, 1945–1996) played the guzheng, 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. Also, 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]

Guzheng in a Chinese New Year celebration (2016) in Dublin, Ireland

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.

More Chinese guzheng in a shop

In the film Kung Fu Hustle, the assassins known as The Harpists play a long zither to generate bladed and percussive attacks. The instrument has raised bridges like a guzheng but its body is shaped like a guqin. The sound is that of a guzheng.[19]

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. Mandopop singer-songwriter and music producer Lay Zhang is known for using traditional Chinese instruments such as the guzheng.

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 d Howard, Keith (1995). Korean musical instruments. Oxford University Press. pp. 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. ^ So, Jenny (2000). Music in the Age of Confucious. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. p. 152. ISBN 0-295-97953-4.
  5. ^ a b "The Sound of History". Archived from the original on 2012-11-18.
  6. ^ "Zithers of East Asia: Extension of Silk Strings and Diversity of Sounds". Yearbook for Traditional Music. 40: 207–208, 221.
  7. ^ Sharron Gu (2011). A Cultural History of the Chinese Language. McFarland & Company. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-7864-6649-8.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b c d van Gulik, R.H. (1951). "Brief Note on the Cheng, the Chinese Small Cither". Toyo Ongaku Kenkyu : The Journal of the Society for the Research of Asiatic Music. 1951 (9): 10–25. doi:10.11446/toyoongakukenkyu1936.1951.en10.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Wong, Samuel Shengmiao (2005). Qi: An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra. Singapore: Teng. pp. 69–83. ISBN 9789810540128.
  11. ^ Han, Mei (2001). Historical and contemporary development of the Chinese zheng (Thesis). University of British Columbia.
  12. ^ a b Kao, Shu Hui Daphne (2003). The Development of the Modern Zheng in Taiwan and Singapore (Doctoral thesis). Durham University.
  13. ^ Han, Mei (2013). The emergence of the Chinese zheng : traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity. University of British Columbia. OCLC 1033223795.
  14. ^ a b Han, Mei (2001). Historical and contemporary development of the Chinese zheng (Thesis). University of British Columbia.
  15. ^ Han, Mei (2013). The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity. University of British Columbia. OCLC 1033223795.
  16. ^ Han, Mei (2001). Historical and contemporary development of the Chinese zheng (Thesis). University of British Columbia.
  17. ^ Kao, Shu Hui Daphne (2003). The Development of the Modern Zheng in Taiwan and Singapore (Doctoral thesis). Durham University.
  18. ^ "王中山_360百科". Retrieved 2019-11-08.
  19. ^ "Kung Fu Hustle (2004)". 24 November 2013. Retrieved 7 December 2018.

Further reading[edit]