There are always those few instruments that, when initially seen, you have no clue as to what they’re called or even used for.
At first, this is what I thought of the guzheng, an instrument of Chinese heritage with a lifetime of more than 2,500 years, also known as the zheng or Chinese zither.
It’s now one of my favorite Chinese string instruments, due to its ability to be played as a solo or accompanying voice, as well as its versatility in sound, many resembling aspects of nature.
It is a part of the plucked (as opposed to bowed, struck, or combined) string instrument family.
Made of 16-26 strings with movable bridges and 64 inches in length, it sits like a piano and plays like a guitar.
It’s come to be known as the perfect balance between a harp and zither. The sounds are smooth and melodious; they drift down your spine like tiny water droplets.
Although similar, the guzheng can easily be confused with the guqin, which is a Chinese zither that is significantly smaller and only contains seven strings that don’t move.
It is a parent to other Asian zithers including the Japanese koto, the Vietnamese đàn tranh, and the Sundanese kacapi.
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There are multiple accounts of how the guzheng came to be. The earliest accounts are found during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
The instrument actually gained prominence when a guzheng-like instrument is said to have been invented by Meng Tian, a member of the Qin dynasty.
Meng’s invention was most likely influenced by the se, another ancient Chinese plucked zither.
Not long after the guzheng became prominent in China, the instrument spread to Japan and Vietnam.
Before 1961, the guzheng had only 18 strings.
After two years of research, Xu Zhengao and Wang Xunzhi developed one with 21 strings, along with the left string rest, which is now used across all instrument makers’ development methods.
While the 21-string guzheng is the most widely used, there are still provinces in China and Taiwan that stick true to their roots with 16 strings.
How do you play the guzheng?
When it comes to playing the guzheng, there are multiple techniques. Depending on the musician, they may perform basic plucking actions on the right side while pressing on the left side.
To do this, performers use their right hand with four plectra, also known as picks, which are attached to their fingers. This form of playing generates a sound similar to a soft waterfall, boisterous thunder, or the sound of an open landscape.
You can also play the left side, the guzheng’s pentatonic scale. This is tuned to Do, Re, Mi, So, and La.
Traditionally, playing included using only the right hand to pluck notes while the left hand added ornamentation like pitch slides and vibrato, using the strings located on the left of the mobile bridges.
Modern-day playing includes using both hands to play on the right side of the strings.
An emblematic sound, called a tremolo, is produced when the right thumb twirls quickly on the same note. Even more present-day techniques include playing harmony with the left hand.
Depending on personal preference and with a little experimentation, you can really make the guzheng become your own sound.
As for playing styles, there are two broad forms.
The Northern, which includes pieces like High Mountain and Running River, and the Southern, which includes pieces like Lotus Emerging from Water.
Nowadays, these two playing styles are often combined, achieving a more modern-like sound.
The guzheng has a large, deep cavity made of wu tong wood while the rest of the instrument is made of other woods. It’s often decorated to suit the likeness of the user.
Decorations range from carved art, paintings, shiny finishes, straw, pearl inlays and gemstones, and poetry and calligraphy.
The possibilities are endless as long as you take into account how decoration could affect the sound.
Before the 20th century, performers were playing on guzheng strings made of twisted silk. The string element then shifted to metal, and now, most musicians use steel strings flat wound with nylon.
To combat the damage to performers’ fingers, they often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, or ivory.
Before those materials became available, picks were made from bamboo, bone, and even animal teeth.
There are many notable 20th-century guzheng players including Wang Xunzhi, who made the Wulin zheng school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, accessible.
Xunzhi, with the help of his students, took note of a large number of guzheng music and transcribed them from traditional Chinese to modern music sheets.
As mentioned before, he also completely redesigned the instrument, making it 160 centimeters and with 21 strings, making it sound more like a piano.
Additionally, his only daughter Wang Changyuan, composed Fighting Against Typhoon (Zhan Tai Feng) in 1965, a musical story centered around the fight of the Shanghai harbor proletariat against the impacts of nature.
The song was significant, as it further developed zither playing techniques. Not only was the left hand freed to do both plucking and pressing actions, but swaying and sweeping movements were established to enhance the sound.
Ever since, the Chinese string instrument has been used to depict and imitate sounds of dramatic countrysides, thunderstorms, horse hooves, and rapid water streams.
Liang Tsai-Ping is considered one of the 20th century’s most important players for his editing of the first manual, Music of the Cheng.
Other notable players during this era include Cao Dongfu, Gao Zicheng, Zhao Yuzhai, Su Wenxian, Guo Ying, Lin Maogen, and Hakka Luo Jiuxiang.
Amidst the 21st century, new memorable players began to stand out including Xiang Sihua, Wang Zhongshan, and Yuan Sha.
Although the guzheng was predominantly played by Chinese heritage, Lou Harrison, an American composer also put his name into the ring.
Other non-Chinese composers include Halim El-Dabh (Egyptian American), David Vayo (American), Simon Steen-Andersen (Danish), and Jon Foreman, the lead singer and guitarist of Switchfoot.
Although the instrument may not be widely known, the guzheng is used in renowned films like My Fair Princess and some of the best songs of all time like “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” following every chorus.
Wang Yong, a Chinese rock music performer, and Jakko Jakszyk, the lead singer for King Crimson, both use the instrument in their musical performances.
Interestingly, the sheet music used to play the guzheng depicts numbers rather than notes. Higher notes have dots at the top of the number while lower notes have dots designated at the bottom.
The dots represent the octave that should be played. While you may read the numbers like 1, 2, and 3, players read them as Do, Re, and Mi, and there are no 4 or 7 strings!
The future is bright for Western and Chinese music, with developments and integrations becoming ever more popular.
As ethnomusicologist Lindy Mark said, “Soon there isn’t really a consciousness that ‘this is Chinese’ and ‘this is Western’, only that ‘this sounds good’ and ‘this sounds bad.’
Touché Lindy, touché.
How much does a Guzheng cost?
The price of a Guzheng varies significantly, from $300 to $20,000. For entry-level players that want a good quality instrument, you should be looking in the $350 to $800 range.
Is Guzheng easy to learn?
The difficulty of learning a new instrument will largely depend on your previous musical experience and ability. The guzheng is similar to the piano, within two years you should be playing fairly proficiently. However, it becomes more difficult when progressing from intermediate to advanced levels.
What is the difference between a Guzheng and a Koto?
The main difference between a guzheng and a koto is the strings. Typically, a koto has 13 strings whereas a guzheng has 21. Guzheng strings are of various thicknesses and tension, range a little over 4 octaves, and are made of metal. Koto strings are approximately the same thickness and tension, range a little over 2 octaves, and were traditionally made of silk, but today plastic. When it comes to sound, the Guzheng has a more deep resonance and longer extending note decay. Compared to the koto which has less resonance and the notes decay much quicker.
What is the difference between a Guzheng and a Guqin?
The main difference between a guzheng and a guqin is the number of strings. Typically, a guzheng has 21 strings whereas a guqin has 7. Guqins are much smaller in size also. Despite the differences in strings, the guqin produces the same range of sounds. It’s also much harder to learn and master compared to the guzheng.