The Guzheng Story
The guzheng is a fascinating mix of new and old. The modern instrument is a product of the 1960s - but like the electric guitar it traces its origins to earlier instruments. Unlike the electric guitar, its predecessors date from 6th century BCE in China or earlier. That's 2600+ years of history to tell you!
We'll jump from background, to legends, then to ancient history, and on to the events in the 1950s and beyond that led to the incredible piece of art known and loved today. Grab yourself a comfy chair and a nice glass of something because we are digging in! I've focused on events in what is now mainland China. History from other countries will come later. (1) If dates and lists of details are more your speed, head over to the Guzheng Timelines page.
Dr. Ferguson: Ferguson, D. L. (1979). Modern Performance Techniques for the Chinese Zither Cheng. University of California Los Angeles Master's Thesis.
Gaywood: Gaywood, H. R. A. (1996). Guqin and Guzheng: the historical and contemporary development of two Chinese musical instruments. Durham University Master's Thesis
Dr. Han: Han, M. (2013). The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity. University of British of Columbia PhD Thesis
Dr. Chen: Chen, Y.-Z. (1991). The Zheng: A Chinese Instrument and Its Music. Brown University PhD Thesis
筝 Zheng Background 筝
Our story begins long, long ago in a land far, far away-or maybe right where you are sitting. Someone tied thin strands between two points and plucked them. They made a sound. By tightening and loosening the strands they found they could change the pitch. By changing the material the strings were made of, and by changing what they were attached to, they realized they could make a whole variety of noises.
This happened all over the world. Untold numbers of people discovered the magic of wringing sound from taut lines. In China, it happened so long ago we don't know the earliest origins. But we do know that sometime in the past people were playing musical instruments capable of astounding music.(2) Some of the instruments might remind us of the guitars and banjos of today - but others were more like planks or platters with strings of different lengths and materials producing a whole range of notes. "The guzheng!" you might cry! Well, you'd be half right.
To talk about the guzheng we have to clear something up. The name "guzheng" is two characters, 古 and 筝 (Gǔ and zhēng). Gǔ means ancient and zhēng means zither. Those early board and string instruments were definitely zithers, but they were probably very different from the 古筝 of today. Early writings use "zheng" to mean "zither"; they aren't specific. At some point zheng came to mean the guzheng and its direct predecessors. Keep that in mind as we explore: I use zheng for guzheng predecessors and zither for the broad category that includes many different instruments.
Two such instruments are the sè (瑟) and the qín (琴). Think of them as two ends of a zither spectrum. The sè is on the large and complex side of the spectrum. It was longer and deeper than a modern guzheng and has featured 25-50 strings over its history.(3) The early qín was on the simpler side. It had around 5-7 strings, no moveable bridges, and was far smaller. The wonderful guzheng, sitting now at 21 strings, fits right in the middle. These three instruments developed along intertwining paths. To talk about their history we need to figure out at what point their predecessors diverged to become qín, sè, or guzheng... or if they ever did. It's surprisingly difficult.
A source from around 1060 CE says the sè was a zheng, while a source from around 1580 CE says the qín and zheng were exactly the same.(4) In modern times we use the smallest differences in size or shape to distinguish one instrument from another. If only we had a time machine...
To apply the classification conventions of today without time travel we'd need the ancient writers and their sources to explain the differences between these instruments down to the smallest detail. We'd need them to explain it like experts today might explain the differences between a fiddle, a viol, and a violin. Unfortunately, the records we have struggle to distinguish between a violin and a cello. Instruments were instead described more holistically and subjectively; instrument varied maker to maker and region to region, so why bother trying to standardize all that? Ancient records also used the same characters to refer to multiple instruments we now consider different, so figuring out what exactly any given reference is referring to can be challenging.
One metric we modern folk get hung up on is the number of strings on the instrument. That's a decent enough strategy on the standardized instruments of today, but it doesn't really work for identifying instruments in the past. Writings claim the sè has had 50, 27, 25, 23, and 19 string varieties, while the qín has had 5, 7, and possibly 10 strings. If that's not challenging enough, there are references in English-language sources from the 18 and 19 hundreds to zithers that had 30, 13, and 10 strings. Even if we limit ourselves to the best English-language guzheng resources out there, Gaywood cites guzheng predecessors growing from 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 14-string variants to 16 or 21strings in the 1900s. Dr. Han cites 5, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 or 18-string variants across time culminating in variants available today with 21-26 strings. Al of this means: String are fun to count but don't prove anything.
Let's set some rules then. From here on out, "guzheng" will refer to the modern, post 1965-version of the instrument as that is how it's known outside of China. "Zheng" will refer to the various zithers that eventually became the modern instrument. So, "zheng" is a general term, "guzheng" is more specific. (5)
Let's go back to the oldest discussions of instruments we have access to: Legends!
The legend of the zithers begins with the Yellow Emperor (黄帝, Huángdì). It is said that he sought entertainment after establishing his kingdom back in the 2600s BCE and so he found himself listening to a woman playing a large, 50-stringed zither. So moved was he by her incredible performance that he ordered the musical instrument broken in half - and so the 25-string sè was born. (I can't speak to why the Emperor felt breaking an instrument was the correct response to emotion, but then, neither could Peter Townshend.)
A second legend says that two people fought over a 25-string sè and broke it in two, creating both a 12 and a 13-string zither. According to Dr. Han this legend was told in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), though multiple versions exist. (She mentions that modern scholars agree the guzheng came about as a separate instrument in the 5th century BCE but doesn't explain why.)
A third legend says the famous general Méng Tián (蒙恬) from the Qin dynasty had a hand in shaping what would become the zheng. My Chinese is not good enough to relate the story, so all I can say is that Méng Tián added string(s) and/or changed the shape of an existing instrument to improve its function and possibly use it for psychological warfare. He died around 210 BCE so the timelines don't quite line up, but if we choose to believe, perhaps he encountered a split sè and got to thinking?
From Legend to History
In the northern parts of China, fragments of broad board zithers were discovered and dated to the late Warring States period, 475-221 BCE. They were recovered in the area controlled by the State of Chu, a large state that included the location of modern-day Shanghai. (6) Dr. Han places the first written mention of the 12-string zheng at around 265 CE, so about 500 years after the Warring States and Méng Tián, but still roughly 1750 years ago:
Its [zheng’s] upper part is convex like the vault of heaven; its bottom flat like the earth; its inside is hollow to accommodate the six points of the compass; and its twelve strings with their bridges symbolize the twelve months of the year” (7)
That's our starting point. From them we know that sè, zheng-like instruments, qíns, and their oft-forgotten hammer-struck relative the zhù (筑) gained popularity across their plurality. The zhengs became favored for banquets and celebrations, while the qín became a scholar's meditative tool thanks to its praise by Confucius and its subsequent inclusion in the practice of his philosophy, Confucianism. The qin gained great prestige as a tool for meditation amongst the higher classes in the thousand years that followed from the Qin to Tang dynasties (206 BCE to 906 CE). The zhengs stayed in the realm of entertainment, rising and falling in popularity.
Sometime between the end of the Tang dynasty (a great time for music in China) and the beginning of the Ming (not such a great time for music) the people in nowadays Vietnam were sharing musical ideas with nowadays China. Who made it first I don't know, but the end result was a southern-style of the Chinese zheng and what we now know as the Vietnamese Đàn tranh came to look near identical. You can still find zhengs made in this style, even though- But ah, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back north.
Over the next few centuries the banquet music that included zhengs faded in popularity. By the beginning of the Ming dynasty, about 1368, banquet music and the zhengs were abandoned by the upper classes completely. They were kicked out of the hallowed and somewhat restricted halls of the rich and became an instrument of the people. This fall from grace is a big deal, and a large part of why we have the guzheng today. Freed from the restrictive protocol of the courts the zheng's player base, repertoire, and (I'm guessing here) play style expanded. When new musical styling came up in the next few centuries or a new type of performance called for musical accompaniment, the zhengs joined the growing library of Chinese instruments adapting to that demand. They pursued those changes without unifying standards, allowing 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16-stringed instruments to exist and spread in multiple regions simultaneously. The qin, by contrast, was guided by the Confucius-based ideas that held it to 7 strings and a generally similar shape.
Let's fast forward a few hundred years to the 1800s. The 7-stringed qin is firmly enshrined as one of the most important instruments in China. Europeans and Americans are so impressed by the instrument that they spend pages of their books describing its construction, design, history and play style. The other zithers are largely ignored. For example, an 1848 text spent 280 words describing the qin, yet only offered a side mention of other instruments: "There are other instruments similar to the [qin] one with thirty, and another with thirteen strings, played with plectrums." (8)
So things continued until the 1900s when 23 years of conflict covered China. Civil war took place from 1927-1937 and resumed from 1946 to about 1950, interrupted by the Japanese invasion and occupation that took place during World War 2. One key issue of the civil wars became China's identity. The side in power by the end of 1950 decided China's identity was damaged by the upper classes and had to be repaired by the lower classes. Items seen as upper class were seized, destroyed, and the owners were publicly humiliated, exiled to years of hard labor, or worse. The qin was a veritable symbol of upper class refinement and was therefore a target. The zheng, cast out of the courts 600 years earlier, was not.(9)
That separation from the upper classes made the zheng a candidate for standardization and redesign. Its use could connect the modern times to what was viewed as the positive aspects of the past without bringing in the negative aspects. As active hostilities wore down zheng-related events moved quickly.
The government used music to promote its positions after the civil war. It formalized musical education, recast old songs with new lyrics, and redesigned instruments to better fit its intended presentation of the country. A system of Conservatory schools was started. Musicians who had been studying western musical instruments were instructed to learn traditional Chinese instruments instead.
All this pressure and focus led to changes to traditional instruments, including:
- the addition of 5 more strings to the popular 16-string guzheng, making it capable of covering 4 octaves without retuning.
- changing the strings from metal wire to nylon-wrapped wire.
- replacing the straight fixed bridge at the tail of the instrument with a curving "S"-shaped bridge.
All of these changes are captured by the Shanghai-based Dūnhuáng (敦煌) brand that patented the new, combined design in 1965.
Alongside the physical changes, zheng music and play styles were changing as well. Musicians Wáng Chāngyuán (王昌元) performed the guzheng solo "Battling the Typhoon" at a concert attended by Jiāng Qīng (江青), the wife of the Chinese Leader Chairman Mao, who favored the piece. Jiāng Qīng used her power to promote it. "Battling the Typhoon" was scored and rescored for multiple instruments, and became one of the most played and consulted pieces of music during that time. This, in turn, led to a massive increase in the guzheng's popularity.
In the last few decades the guzheng has continued to receive a lot of attention and experimentation. Mechanisms were added to make key changing and diatonic scales possible, string counts and bridge arrangements have been adjusted, and there has even been a multi-year effort to build an electric guzheng. Head over to the Guzheng Varieties page to have a look at all these ingenious changes for yourself! And if you know more about the events I've missed, or have photos of different instruments that you would like to share, please email me through the form below!
(1): It seems every country in East and Southeast Asia has had some interaction with zheng-like instruments somewhere in their history. From Mongolia to Korea and Japan to Singapore, different people have created different techniques and have their own perspective on the instrument. With the community's help, I hope to expand this site to cover more countries. If you have information and sources to point me to, please send me an email through the form below.
(2): The oldest guzheng-like instrument found so far dates to about 598 BCE and was discovered in Guxi county in Jiangxi province in Southern China in 1979 (贵溪, Guìxī, 江西, Jiāngxī). A few years later, depictions of a zither were found in a tomb excavated in Zhejiang, about 200 miles away (浙江, Zhèjiāng). That's as far back as any physical record I know of, but that's more than enough of a starting point.
(3): Hearsay on the internet is that the 大同樂會 (Dà tóng yuè huì, a musical collective/program set up in Shanghai from 1920-1937) sourced a 50-string sè. I haven't confirmed this, though I do have a picture on the Other Zithers page.
(4) Referenced by Chen 1991 on page 19 and 20:
(a) (Xin Tang Shu: Li Yue Zhi (The New Standard History of the Tang Dynasty: Essays on the Rites and Music) found on p. 464 of Volume 2 of Ou-Yang Xiu and Song Qi, Xin Tang Shu (The New Standard History of the Tang Dynasty), 20 vols. (completed in the Song Dynasty, 1060, in 225 vols.; rpt. Beijing: Zhonghua Publishing House, 1975)
(b) Tang Shun-Zhi, ed., Jing-Chuan Bai Bian (The Miscellanies of Jing-Chuan) (completed in the Ming Dynasty, 1581; rpt. Taipei: Xinxing Book Co., Ltd., 1972), Vol. 5, p. 2894.
(5) To identify zhengs in sources I've looked for the character (筝), the romanizations "Zheng", "Cheng", or "Tseng", and for sources to articulate that the instrument they are talking about is neither a qín nor sè. More generally speaking, if the source talks about a zither that has less than 20 strings and wasn't a qin, I've assumed it's a zheng. If the source was a language I couldn't read, I've relied on secondary translations and the expertise of those who have come before me. If you'd like another, in-depth discussions of the origin of zithers in China, check out John Thompson's website Silk Qin.
(6) From Ferguson, page 11
(7) Cited in Han 2013 (page 132) originally by “Fu Xuan 傅玄. c. 265. Zheng Fu Xu [Poetic Essay on the Zheng] 箏賦序 in Yiwen Leiju [Collection of Literature Arranged by Categories]艺文类聚. ed. Ouyang Xun 歐陽旬624.” (cited as Ou-Yang Xun et al., eds., Yi Wen Lei Ju, a reference book of literature and arts, 4 vols. (completed in the Tang Dynasty, c. 624; rpt. Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Publishing House, 1965) in Chen 1991)
(8) 1848: "The Middle Kingdom : a survey of the geography, government, education, social life, arts, and history of the Chinese Empire and its inhabitants", Volume 2, Chapter 16, Section on Musical Instruments
(8): Chinese history is complex; in depth discussion is, unfortunately, far outside the scope of a website about a musical instrument. For those interested in a longer take, consider Lazlo Montgomery's China History Podcast. The civil war is covered in 4 parts in episodes 119-122.
Header photo: "United by Music" taken from the Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago. Used under Fair Use exemption of US Copyright law.