Why Guzheng Alive?

There are thousand of works written about the guzheng in Chinese languages but quality English language sources are hard to find. Let's change that.

It is my desire to make the guzheng accessible to a wider audience. One way to do that is to create a place where people can discover the instrument at their own pace. I work to detail the history of the guzheng, its music, and the people who make up its past and present. Yet, I am only one person. I have and will continue to put my best effort into this, but to truly tell these stories I need and welcome the community's help.

If you have history, stories, or experiences, please send me an email. There's a form at the bottom of every page to do so. If you know of books or publications, tell me about them! Even if you have only your own experiences and a few moments to share your story, please, please do so! I would be happy to speak with you. I alone am incapable of telling this instrument's story but together, through many shared voices, we can make something wonderful.

To keep this undertaking manageable I have two guidelines. 1) I focus on English Language resources. It's easier for me to understand and it prevents me from being overwhelmed with the massive bulk of historic and contemporary writings in Chinese. 2) I am trying not to create teaching material. You can and should learn to play the guzheng!  But there are already teachers all over the world who are ready, willing, and able to provide lessons in person or online. I hope this website becomes a reference for knowledge of all sorts, but you will need a true teacher to guide you to understanding.

-JB

Why aren't there more (English) books?

One big issue limiting how many people learn about the guzheng is how rarely the instrument is mentioned in English-language books. So why is that? Well, the first challenge is that the majority of events surrounding the guzheng took place in China. China, my friends, is very big(*). China has many native languages, none of which are English. Writers seeking to describe the history and culture of China need a person (or a team) who can operate in all relevant Chinese languages. If they assemble that team they discover China is overwhelming in its culture, history, and size. With so much to learn and so much to explain, well, some things fall by the wayside.

But there's a bit more to it then that. Western audiences have regarded music from China as an exotic oddity to be stared at and dismissed.(1) When we humans encounter something that is different enough, we tend to believe that the different thing is lesser. We see this wherever cultures encounter difference; it's the negative connotation beneath the word "foreigner". With enough exposure humans do get past the "it's not like mine" and enjoy other culture on their own merits, but it's been difficult for English speakers to gain enough exposure to the history and culture of China to get over that resistance. 

That is changing.

Modern technology has made mountains of information accessible to people with an internet connection. Travel to China is newly accessible with improved visa agreements, and flights to China can fall to incredibly low prices in the off seasons. A project like Guzheng Alive was not possible 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago this would have been challenging to the point of overwhelming. But today is a different story. Join me on this journey.

Notes

(*): Citation needed.

(1) there are researchers who have acted as exceptions but they prove the point: When you can only point to a handful of respectful, factually accurate works, it highlights just how few exist.

SYYzheng.jpeg

What about Wikipedia and other websites?

There are sources about the guzheng on the internet but most aren't in English, lack depth, contradict each other, or area a combination of all three. You can see it for yourself: type "guzheng" into your favorite search engine and see what turns up. I will bet the first ten results are either Wikipedia, digital storefronts selling guzheng, or pages of guzheng musicians. The Wikipedia article is a disappointing ramble that sources very little and confuses more than it informs. All the other pages offer incomplete tidbits that, even taken together, provide what I believe are inaccurate impressions of the history of this instrument. The musicians' pages are more interesting and coherent than the storefronts but cut their explanations short. That's understandable but it leaves a massive gap. Deeper in the search results you'll find enthusiasts' pages extolling the virtues of the instrument, but they are too low in the search results for people to find them. Such is the challenge: Unless you are selling something or are Wikipedia, primacy in search is a hard nut to crack.

Speaking of that wonderful, terrible, most accessible resource in the world, you may wonder why I don't improve Wikipedia's guzheng article myself. Mainly: the limitations. Wikipedia has guidelines which force articles to become boring. More broadly, Wikipedia is not intended to be a gathering place for communities. It tries to separate facts from people in a way I think harms the conversation around parts of life where the people are so integral.

Other issues: Wikipedia discourages or outright prohibits referencing theses, offering speculations, and reporting on original work. The most informative English-language sources are currently theses and I do enjoy me some speculation, so Wikipedia and I would clash. Further, there is the specter of editors with conflicts of interest coming in and distorting information to their gain, which is part of the reason why the Wikipedia article is currently such a mess. I don't want this resource to be at the mercy of anonymous promoters.

All that said: Since about 2009 the English Wikipedia Guzheng page has averaged upwards of 300 views a day, and currently sits at about 10k+ user views per month. I'm not opposed to helping those visitors learn more, but I don't want to focus my efforts there.

About the Author, JB:

I am an enthusiast, a non-professional player of this instrument. The impetus and the challenge of this undertaking has been the search for answers to my own questions. I couldn't find the answers I wanted so I kept digging. It has been my good fortune to find or be given the work of brilliant scholars the world over. My limited knowledge of Chinese languages is a barrier - wouldn't it be great if I could just translate everything from interviews with primary sources? But, we work with the skills we have and try our hardest.

The people I reference have put years of effort into the work I pull from. Some have invested their whole lives. I owe each and everyone of them a heartfelt thank you. You can find out more about them on the Experts page. 

Join me in this adventure! Music is about community, about sharing knowledge and insight across generations. In today's age it's also about sharing across cultures and continents. I would love to see this story grow to include more perspectives. Please correct any wrongs you find, offer insight, or ask questions of your own through the form at the bottom of this and every page. You can use it to send me an email! Thank you for all that you offer.

On Affiliation and Support:

This project and the author are not affiliated with any of the entities mentioned on this site. I have not received any financial or in-kind support from any of the people, places, or organizations I mention. I create and maintain this site on my own. The businesses I link to are there because of the information they share, be those words, photographs, or videos. I mention Carol Chang and ChineseZither.net extensively because she has been one of the most thoughtful sources of publicly available information, both through her company and through various communities and forums. She is active and present as well; while most sources are now reference books for the ages, she continues to explore and provide more information through her business.

It may seem strange that I offer so much praise for someone with commercial interests in promoting the guzheng. Perhaps because of that interest, Carol Chang has been one of the greatest contributors to people who are new to the instrument and its music. From a commercial side, her business is the best-establihed guzheng retailers in the United States, and the only Online storefront that I know of that puts the guzheng first.

There are other sellers out there; I am sure there are real world guzheng stores with wonderful professionals at the helm who would be more than happy to offer what they know, and I know of domestic storefronts based in California, Washington D.C., and at least two in Canada, but I don't see them sharing their knowledge. Carol Chang's work, on the other hand, is extensive and accessible. I owe her a debt of gratitude for the work and care she puts into what she does, and I seek to recognize how much I have relied on her contributions to the community across this site.

Show me another English-language storefront with an equally wholesome approach and I will celebrate them too. Until then, thank goodness for Carol Chang!