What is Guzheng?

The zheng (pinyinzhēngWade–Gilescheng) or gu zheng (Chinese古筝pinyingǔzhēnglit. ‘ancient zheng’), is a Chinese plucked zither. The modern guzheng commonly has 21, 25, or 26 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m; 5.3 ft) 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 a fingerpick made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on one or both hands.


There are nylon steel strings, steel strings, silk strings, etc., depending on the genre. Now, the most common guzheng is 21 strings guzheng. The high-pitched strings of the guzheng are close to the player, and the low-pitched strings are on the opposite side. The strings’ order from the inside to the outside is 1 to 21.

The guzheng is ancestral to several other Asian zithers such as the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum and ajaeng, Mongolian yatga, the Vietnamese đàn tranh, the Sundanese kacapi, and the Kazakhstan jetigen.[ The guzheng should not be confused with the guqin, a Chinese zither with seven 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. The guzheng became prominent during the Qin dynasty. By the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), the guzheng was perhaps the most commonly played instrument in China. 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 a light timbre, broad range, rich performance skills, and strong expressive power, and it has been deeply loved by many Chinese people throughout history.


The guzheng has various accounts for its origin. An early guzheng-like instrument is said to have been invented by Meng Tian, a general of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), largely influenced by the se.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

Strings were once made of silk. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) the strings transitioned to only wires such as brass.[10] 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.[citation needed]

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, paintingpoetrycalligraphyshell carving (jade), and cloisonné.[citation needed]

Guzheng music has similarity with folk songs, it is developed on the basis of people’s life. Through the performance of performers, it reflects the production and life of people at that time.

Styles and techniques

The guzheng is plucked by the fingers with or without plectra.[10] Interestingly, among the 21 strings of Guzheng, although no strings are specifically assigned to play F or B, those pitches can be produced by pressing E and A instead, respectively. 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 ivorytortoiseshell, and jade.[10][12]

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.[12]

Many guzheng techniques have been 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.[13]

Techniques can also vary in Northern and Southern China, producing different sounds and styles.[citation needed][14]

Northern China[edit]

Northern styles include songs from the Shandong and Henan regional schools.[citation needed]

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).[12]

According to Samuel Wong, songs from Henan are fiery.[12] Left hand slides and vibrato are used frequently and tremolo is done with the thumb.[15][16] Meanwhile, Shandong songs are “glamorous…melodic lines often rise and fall dramatically…Its music is characteristically light and refreshing.[12] Slide descending notes are not used as often as Henan.[15] Glissandos are always on beat.[12]

Southern China

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

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).[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[12] 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.[17]

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.[13]