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History of Guzheng

The guzheng, or gu zheng (Chinese: 古筝; pinyin: gǔzhēng) or zheng (筝) (gu- means “ancient”) is a traditional Chinese musical instrument. It belongs to the zither family of string instruments.

The guzheng is the parent instrument of the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.

A modern guzheng should not to be confused with the guqin, another ancient Chinese zither but without bridges.


The modern-day guzheng is a plucked, half-tube zither with movable bridges and 21 strings, although it can have anywhere from 15 to 25 strings (a customized version exists with more than 34 strings). The guzheng’s strings were formerly made of twisted silk, though by the 20th century most players used metal strings (generally steel for the high strings and copper-wound steel for the bass strings). Since the mid-20th century most performers use steel strings flat wound with nylon.


The guzheng has a large resonant cavity made from wu tong wood (Paulownia tomentosa). Other components may be made from other woods, usually for structural and decorative purposes.



The guzheng has existed since the Warring States Period and became especially popular during the Qin dynasty. The ancient guzheng had 12 strings, which gradually evolved into it current forms.


Until 1961, the common guzheng had 18 strings. In 1961 Xu Zhengao together with Wang Xunzhi introduced the first 21-string guzheng after two years of research and development. In 1961, they also invented the “S-shaped” left string rest, which was quickly adopted by all guzheng makers and is still used today, whether in the shape of the letter “S”, “C”, etc. The 21-string zheng is the most commonly used, but some traditional musicians still use the 16-string, especially along the southeastern coastal provinces of China and in Taiwan.


The guzheng is tuned to a pentatonic scale; the 16-string zheng is tuned to give three complete octaves, while the 21-string zheng has four complete octaves.

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 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. Ancient picks were made of ivory and later also from tortoise shell.


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 (Singing at night on fishing boat), Gao Shan Liu Shui (High mountains flowing water) and Han Gong Qiu Yue (Han palace autumn moon).


Two broad playing styles (schools) can be identified as Northern and Southern, although many traditional regional styles still exist. The Northern style 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 (1899–1972) who popularized the Wulin zheng school centered in Hangzhou in Zhejiang, Lou Shuhua rearranged a traditional guzheng piece and named it Yu zhou chang wan, Liang Tsai-Ping (1911-2000) edited the first guzheng teaching manual Nizheng pu in 1938, Cao Dongfu (1898–1970) from Henan, Gao Zicheng (1918- ) and Zhao Yuzhai (1924- ) from Shandong; Su Wenxian (1907–71), Guo Ying (1914- ) and Lin Maogen (1929- ) from Chaozhou, the Hakka Luo Jiuxiang (1902–78), and Cao Zheng (1920-1998) who trained in the Henan school.


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.

The guzheng in other genres

The guzheng has been used by the Chinese performer Wang Yong (王勇) 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 Randy Raine-Reusch, Mei Han, Zi Lan Liao, Levi Chen, Andreas Vollenweider, Jaron Lanier, Mike Hovancsek, and David Sait. The American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) played and composed for the instrument. 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 used the guzheng in their song “Hong Kong” from the Help: A Day In The Life compilation. The Canadian composer Kevin Austin has written several pieces for guzheng and electroacoustic sounds

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