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Guzheng in 90 Seconds

Guzheng Overview

The Name:

Guzheng is the romanization of 古箏. 古 (gǔ) means old or ancient. 筝 (zhēng) refers to a zither-type instrument, something with strings stretched between two bridges. The two together, "guzheng", means a zither with fixed bridges on both ends and moveable bridges in the center. 

The Shape:

The typical guzheng you will see is based on a 1965 design patented by the Dūnhuáng company (敦煌). It is broad enough for 21 strings and the bridge at the tail is in the shape of an “S”. It is the most popular version in part because of the elegant utility of its design.

The Sound

Guzhengs are commonly tuned to the pentatonic scale. The two most common keys are The key of D: ABDEF# and the key of G: ABDEG. C and F notes are achieved by pressing a B or G(or F#) string when it is struck.

The Origin:

The guzheng traces its roots to China before the 6th century BCE. The oldest zheng found so far dates to about 598 BCE. It was found in Guìxī county (贵溪) in Jiāngxī province (江西) in Southern China in 1979. 

Scholars debate how guzheng came about. Some say it was based on a zither made out of a single board, some say it was based on one made from bamboo, and others say it developed independently.

The Strings:

Most modern guzheng have 21 or more strings but 16 and 18-string guzheng are still made. 100 years ago instruments with 16 metal strings were the most popular. Nylon-coated metal strings were invented in the 1950s and are the current favorite.

You can find zithers today with anything from 12-26 strings. Chinese zithers as a category have ranged from 5 to 50 strings and used to be strung with silk. 

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Eastern Classification

Chinese Instruments are classified by the material they were made of. For those made of multiple materials the sound-producing material seems to be what ruled.  The categories are: 

Silk (絲 sī, simplified: 丝), Bamboo (竹, zhú), Wood (木, mù), Stone (石 shí), Metal (金, jīn), Clay (土, tǔ or 匏, páo), and Skin/hide (革, gé).

The guzheng falls into the silk category because its strings were once made of silk. The silk category is further divided into those instruments that were plucked, struck, or required a bow. The zithers, the guzheng among them, are plucked. An example of a struck instrument is the Yángqín (揚琴) which is similar to a hammer dulcimer. An example of a bowed instrument is the èrhú (二胡).

Western Classification

A guzheng is considered a heterochord half-tube zither in the chordophone category by Hornbostel-Sachs, an exhaustive system for classifying instruments.

A chordophone is any instrument that makes music with strings. A heterochord instrument uses one material for the soundboard and a different material for the strings. A zither is an instrument with strings stretched between two points. A half-tube zither has a soundboard that is curved. Put all that together and you get: heterochord half-tube zither, a type of chordophone.

There are zithers all around the world. The piano is a zither! It's a "True Board Zither with Resonator Box".

Fun With Names

The historic name for this type of instrument is “zheng”. Various variants have been made and named around Asia. These are often labeled “(word)-zheng”. Examples: Butterfly Zheng, Multitonic Zheng, Centipede Zheng. Think of these like guitars: Acoustic guitar, Classical guitar. Electric guitar. The phrase you see nowadays, “Guzheng” is a bit of a branding effort by the powers that be. It was felt that adding the character for ancient or old to the name gave it more prestige. Yet… the designs were updated significantly just 60 years ago. The instrument is ancient but it is also modern.

Common Confusions

Try not to make these mistakes when describing the guzheng to others. I'm ashamed to say I've already made all of them. Please be better than me!

1) The guzheng if often described by westerners as a Chinese harp. There already is a Chinese harp: the Kōnghóu! It's better to call a guzheng a Chinese zither. A harp has a soundboard or resonating chamber that is perpendicular to the strings, while a zither has a soundboard that is parallel to its strings.

2) The instrument is not gender-restricted. Both men and women have played and mastered it for centuries. Gender confusions go both ways; in modern times it is easy to assume the instrument is for women as they are most commonly featured in photos. Yet at one point in the early 1900s some in China said the instrument was for men only. Let’s not be silly. It’s for everyone.

3) The guzheng is not "The Piano of China" nor is it "The most popular instrument in China". That's a lazy comparison. A, the piano is the piano of China; it was firmly entrenched prior to the popularity of the modern zheng. B, how do you even determine popularity? The qin was more prevalent and had a higher status for centuries prior, the pipa and erhu were and have been everywhere in their own right, and most every western orchestral instrument has a large group of players in China. You can say instead that the guzheng is massively popular. Estimates of the number of living people who actively play the guzheng or have taken lessons range from 20-50 Million. That is bigger than the population of some countries... but remember that China's cities hold about 800 Million people. Anyways, determining popularity by a count of who has or could once play an instrument would force us to proclaim that the recorder is the most popular instrument in America. It's better to steer clear of that absolute.

4) Guzheng music is not "Asian" music. "Asia" is a region of 4.4 BILLION people. If you ever say "All Asian people _____" you're wrong. If you say "Asian Music" you're tying all people in Asia to this one particular instrument. The uncountable cultures and variations that make up the 40+ countries of Asia are worth recognizing. Even in China there are so many different cultures it's unfair to say the guzheng or its music represents them all.

Avoid this misstep by being specific. Avoid sweeping statements about "Traditional Chinese" or "Chinese Folk" music. Specify that you are talking about just one instrument that existed alongside many, many others. Use the instrument's name, talk about Guzheng Music, but don't lump everything in Asia or even in China all together.

To put it another way, does the violin represent every aspect of European music? Of course not. What about the woodwinds, the percussion, or the horns? No, the violin is part of a much larger picture just like the guzheng.