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A modern guzheng

The guzheng, also spelled gu zheng or gu-zheng ( )(gu-, 古 means "ancient") came from a traditional instrument called zheng(箏) Chinesemarker musical instrument. It belongs to the zither family of string instruments.

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

The guzheng should not to be confused with the guqin (another ancient Chinese zither but without bridges).

The Guzheng came from a traditional Chinese musical instrument called Zheng. Guzheng was a new instrument of China that evolved from Zheng. It has been changed so the sound would have the same key as a modern musical note.


The modern-day guzheng is a plucked, half-tube zither with movable bridges and 21 strings. However the number of strings may range anywhere from 15 to 25. A customized version even exists with more than 44 strings. The strings were formerly made of twisted silk, but at the turn of the 20th century most players used metal strings (generally steel for the high strings and copper-wound steel for the bass strings). Currently most performers use steel strings flatwound with nylon.

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


The ancestry of the guzheng can be traced back to two other Chinese plucked zithers, the se. The guzheng has existed since the Warring States Period and became especially popular during the Qin dynasty. The number of strings on the guzheng has always fluctuated, as we have as few as 6 to as many as 23 strings during the Tang dynasty. The earliest record of the guzheng in Shi Ji is attributed to the historian Sima Qian in 91 BC.

A guzheng with 16 metal strings
Until 1961, the common guzheng had 16 strings, although by the mid-20th century 18-string guzhengs were also in use. 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. This curve allows for greater ease in tuning the strings and, combined with strings of varied thickness, allows for greater resonance in both the deeper and higher pitch ranges. 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, 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 but is used only rarely in the music of the Japanese koto.

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 (Singing at night on fishing boat), 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 Henanmarker and Shandongmarker while the Southern style is with the Chaozhoumarker and Hakka regions of eastern Guangdongmarker. 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) andChu 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 Hangzhoumarker, Zhejiangmarker; 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.

Twelve Girls Band is a contemporary Chinese instrumental group that features the guzheng as well as other traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu and pipa. They perform traditional Chinese music as well as Western popular and classical music.

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 (of Pointless Orchestra), Chih-Lin Chou, 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 (2005).

Contemporary works for guzheng have been written by such non-Chinese composers as Halim El-Dabh, Kevin Austin, and Jon Foreman.

In the television drama series Huan Zhu Ge Ge, actress Ruby Lin's character plays the guzheng, although she mimes to the music.

See also


  • Han, Mei. "Guzheng." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London, 2001).

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