18 Strings, Steel, Custom
As the government pushed for traditional instruments to take on a new form in post-war China, instrument makers added strings to the then common 16. Here is one example of such an instrument. Built in the 1980s in Hong Kong at the request of the current owner, this slightly miniaturized guzheng is a bit different from the 21-stringers you'll see today. First up is its size: at just 46 inches or 116cm long, it falls far shorter than the common ~63 inches (160cm) of the full size 21 stringers of today. That and the foreshortened head compartment were intentional, as the commissioner requested something that was easier to travel with. The tuning pins are enclosed in the head compartment, another modern touch.
The instrument has 18 steel strings, adding two bass strings beyond the range of the 16 strings, but none of the bass strings have the windings that emphasize their depth. Both bridges are straight, there is no curve or angle on the bride in the tail. And all of that is a lot of difference! But there are three other remarkable differences that set this instrument apart from all others I have yet had the privilege to see in person:
1) The soundboard is finished. Most of the guzheng coming from Shanghai and other northern factories have soundboards that are mostly raw - that is, not much if any protective coating is added to their surface. This is intentionally omitted to influence the sound the instrument produces, but comes at a maintenance cost - if the surface is left raw water can easily penetrate it, causing local swellings that distort the sound of the instrument, and if left both raw and rough, dust can be trapped on its surface, muffling the sound. It's fascinating, then, to see one zheng maker go in a different direction. This instrument's soundboard has been coated to give it a furniture-like shine and some protective qualities, at the theoretical cost of part of its timbre.
2) The bridges have flat-mounted tips. Again looking at modern bridges, most today have inset tip materials, commonly in rectangular or triangular shapes. These bridges have tips that span the full width of the bridge. (They also have holes drilled for a string and tassels, but those have been removed.)
3) The entire instrument is finished in a faux-wood veneer. This together with the combination of modern and older elements (18 strings but steel, tuning in head compartment) suggest this instrument was designed to be a modern take on the instrument. Faux-wood veneers have largely gone out of style, but at the time, I'm betting this was quite the neat creation.
Many thanks to Mr. Tang of Washington for allowing me time with this instrument.