Source: "Short Notes on Chinese Instruments of Music NB Dennys, 1874
The Pre-Modern timeline is mainly from Cheng 1991 with small additions from other sources; the Modern timeline comes from events described in Mei Han 2013. Cheng has many sources but they are almost exclusively in Chinese, limiting my ability to provide context. I've kept all his mentioned variants of zhengs in. I have also taken his method of dating events to be both indicators of time and of region, as dynasties denote both years and border changes. To help your mental map I'v labeled locations "North" if most of their territory sat above modern Hangzhou, approximately north of 30°31'N, and South if the bulk was below. East/West/Central refer to relative location in modern-day China.
The instruments shown are those that have been tied to the time period but should not be taken as the only type of zheng that was in use during that time. Instruments based on earlier designs were likely still in use in different regions, and there may have been additional designs not captured here. If you know of any, get in touch through the contact form at the bottom of the page!
Cheng 1991: Cheng, T. (1991). Zheng, Tradition and Change. University of Maryland at Baltimore County PhD Thesis
Chinese News Analysis: China News Analysis. (1961). Music, 1949-1961 (Part One). China News Analysis, 1(381), 7.
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
Pre-Modern, ~600 BCE to early 1900s
Spring and Autumn Period
Region: South, Eastern, modern day Guixi County, Jiangxi province
Event: a tomb is created and two 13-string zheng-like instruments buried within it. It was uncovered in 1979.
Spring and Autumn Period
6th or 5th century BCE
Region: South, Eastern, in modern day Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province
Event: Bronze model of musician's ensemble is placed in what came to be called Tomb 306 in the Yinshan Royal Tomb of the Yue Kingdom (印山越国王陵, Yìnshānyuè guówáng líng). The ensemble features two musicians on zither like instruments, one plucked, one struck. It was uncovered in 1982.
Zeng 'state' inside Chu State
Warring States Period
Region: Just barely 'North', Eastern, in modern day Suizhou, Hubei province
Strings: Se: 25, Qin: 10, Zhu: 5
Event: Se, qin, and zhu instruments are placed in the tomb of Marquis Yi of the Zeng sub-state. The tomb was uncovered in 1977.
Qin State, pre-unification
Warring States Period
Region: North, Eastern; modern-day Shaanxi province
Event: ~237 BCE earliest written reference to an unspecified zheng instrument by Li Si, attributed in “Li Si Liezhuan”, the Biography of Li Si.
Qin Dynasty, post unification
Region: North and South, Eastern
Usage: Existing zhengs are used for dinner parties and festivals
Western Han Dynasty
206 BCE - 9 CE
Region: South, Eastern, stretching to Central
Strings: 5, 10, and 13 (5-string pictured)
Events: ~168 BCE se and qin zithers are placed in Tomb 3 of what is now known as Mǎwángduī (马王堆) in Changsha, Hunan Province. They were discovered in 1972. Emperor Wu (孝武皇帝, Xiào Wǔ Huángdì, reigning from 141-87 BCE) sets up the Music Bureau (possibly 乐府, yuèfǔ) to collect and classify folk songs. He marries off one of his daughters with a zheng and zhu accompaniment played on horseback.
Usage: Dinner parties and festivals as before, but is also introduced to the court, and used at weddings, and funerals.
Eastern Han Dynasty
25 - 220 CE
Region: South, Eastern, stretching to Central
Events: Writer Hou Jin composes "Ode to the Zheng" to express his admiration for the instrument.
Cao Wei Dynasty
Three Kingdoms Period
220 - 265 CE
Region: Northern, Eastern
Changes: Chinese Catalpa wood (Catalpa ovata) is listed as the material used to make zhengs.
Southern and Northern Dynasties
Changes: 512 AD sees the first paulownia wood used in its construction. It's commonly used in modern instruments.
Region: North and South, Eastern
Strings: 12, 13
Region: North, South, East, and West
Strings: 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13
Events: Zheng types differentiate widely. Labels are added such as wo zheng, zou zheng, and tan zheng. Other instruments are included as "zheng" but are not, such as ya zheng and tuosou zheng. Every region has its own relationship to and version of the zheng. See Cheng 1991 page 5 for full description.
Emperor Xuánzōng (唐玄宗) (reign: 713-756 CE) creates a musical school and titles the best musicians "plucking masters", elevating the social standing of musicians in general.
The 13-string zheng is introduced to Japan where it became known as the koto.
Usage: 13-string zhengs were the most popular in courts and outside; 12-string zhengs were used to play a type of music called "qing yue". (Cheng 1991 translates it as "plain music"; Dr. Han defines it as a genre of Hakka music)
Northern Song Dynasty
Region: North and South, Eastern.
Strings: 7, 12, 13
Event: The instruments are reduced in size from their Tang dynasty predecessors, possibly for ease of travel; the 13-string was the most popular.
Usage: Musicians would play zheng solos to mark grand occasions. Zhengs accompanied operettas, story telling traditions, and played as part of ensembles.
Southern Song Dynasty
Region: South, Eastern.
Strings: 12, 13
Events: The 7-string variant had lost popularity by this time.
Usage: Zhengs continued to accompany operettas, story telling traditions, and to be played as part of ensembles.
Region: Practically all of modern China, but extending more north.
Strings: 12, 13, 14
Events: The instrument popular in this time resembles the se. A 14-string version appears for the first time.
Usage: The Mongolian rulers who made up the Yuan dynasty revived Han Dynasty-era music to improve their popular support. That music included roles for zhengs played in the imperial palace.
Region: Most of Modern China, though does not extend as far west. Smaller than Yuan.
Strings: 12, 13, 14, 15
Events: 13-string instruments resembling Song and Tang-style instruments popular. 15-string is introduced.
Usage: The zheng began the Ming Dynasty as a popular instrument but declined over time. Zhengs continued to be played in imperial court music and by soloists who sang or told stories while they played.
Region: Modern China, plus Mongolia.
Strings: 13, 14, 15, 16
Events: 14-string considered the definition of a zheng and used in the imperial palace. Palace zhengs were heavily ornamented with carvings, paintings, and ivory. Their soundboards were made of paulownia wood and their frames and structures were made of red sandalwood.
Different regions favored different variants. The 13-string was popular in the north while the 15-string was popular in the south. A 16-string variant with copper strings became popular in coastal areas in both the north and south such as modern day Guangdong, the province around Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
Physical styles ranged from the Tang-inspired instruments passed down from the Ming Dynasty to Song-inspired shorter zhengs, which were quite popular.
Region: Modern china, up to and including Qing dynasty borders.
Strings: 13 (silk string), 14, 16 (steel), 16 (copper)
Events: The 16-string shown at left gains popularity. It has 16 steel strings or wires, with the lowest two wound in copper to emphasize the bass notes. This instrument bears a striking resemblance to the present day Vietnamese Đàn tranh. The soundboard is far more curved, suggesting it developed from a tubular bamboo-based instrument, rather than a wooden plank-based instrument.
Modern Changes: 1900s to Present
So that brings us to the 20th century. A lot happened and we have better records, so get ready for the deluge.
In the 1900s 23 years of sustained war broke out in China. Civil war took place in two pieces, from 1927-1937 and from 1946-1950, while an invasion from Japan occurred in the middle, alongside their actions in World War 2. One key issue of these conflicts became China's identity. The side in power in 950 decided China's identity had been 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 smaller, more popular qin zither was one such symbol and became a target. The zheng had centuries before become a folk instrument, an instrument of the lower classes, and was therefore largely saved from persecution.(3)
Once active hostilities wore down music became seen as key tool for unifying the country. Powered by government initiatives zheng-related events moved quickly. Here's a breakdown, taken from Dr. Han, Dr. Cheng, Gaywood, and Chinese News Analysis:
1946: Liang Tsai-Ping (Liáng Zài Píng) (梁在平), a guzheng performer, produces Zheng Manual (筝谱, Zhēng Pǔ), the first formally published book that discussed and described guzheng technique and music. Another leading man in the zheng world, Cáo Zhèng (曹正), produced his instructional book later that same year. His is titled Guzheng Manual (古筝谱, Gǔzhēng Pǔ). (4)(5)
1948: Cáo Zhèng holds zheng classes at Nanjing National Academy (possibly known as the Nanjing National Music Academy) marking the first time classes were held in a school of higher learning.
1949: The Chinese Government establishes National and Provincial music schools to begin shaping identity through music. (from Dr. Han, find second source)
1950: Cáo Zhèng establishes the first formal zheng curriculum at the Lu Xun Academy of Arts in Shenyang. (6)
1951: The Chairman of the Chinese government urges the people to "create new through old". The music schools and government react by formalizing zheng classes in the conservatories, to create a new form of music using old instruments.
1954: The first Forum on Instrument Reforms is held in Beijing. It is declared what parts of folk instruments had to be standardized and improved. 16-string zhengs, the most common at the time, are determined to have too small a range to accompany large orchestras. It is decided they need to be expanded.
1955: Zhào Yùzhāi, (赵玉斋) a teacher at Shenyang Conservatory of Music, composes "Celebrating the Harvest" (慶豐年, Qìng fēngnián) demonstrating what is perhaps the first major instance of harmonies played with the left hand while the right hand played the melody.
1956: Wèi Zhònglè, (衛仲樂, simp: 卫仲乐), a Shanghai-area musician well known for performing 'serious' music with traditional Chinese instruments, speaks at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 中国人民政治协商会议), saying that while it was true the Central conservatory had established a 'Chinese Folklore Music Department' it was a miserable enterprise with few teachers and very few students. In other words, 5 year on, the classes created in 1951 weren't getting anywhere. (Chinese News Analysis paraphrased from translation, # 381, page 7, citing 大公報, Takungpao, 天津 (Tianjin) February 10, 1956)
1957: Zhào Yùzhāi suggests and oversees the addition of a fourth octave to the popular 16-string zheng, creating a 21-stringed zither.
Late 1950s: Wèi Hóngníng, (魏洪寧) a zheng student from Shanghai and his teacher as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Wáng Xùnzhī, (王巽之) invent a new form of string. Instead of silk or bare metal wire, they create a string with a metal core, a silk coating, and a nylon winding. Compared to the old strings their new string is stronger, louder, and less prone to changing its tone over time. (cited by Dr. Han from personal correspondence)
1958: The Chinese government institutes "Nationalization" (民族化, Mínzú huà), a series of reforms that included directing players of western instruments to learn traditional Chinese instruments instead, possibly in response to the lack of success with the previous music programs (see 1951, 1956).
1960: Xú Zhèngāo (徐振高) of the Shanghai Musical Instrument Factory and the zheng instructor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Wáng Xùnzhī add the curving "S" bridge on the left of the instrument to a 21-string zheng. The tuning pegs were also changed from exposed wooden pegs on the top of the instrument to metal pegs hidden inside the instrument. Visit the Guzheng Varieties page to see those changes for yourself.
1963: Zhāng Kūn (张昆), a zheng maker at the Shenyang Musical Instrument Factory, created the first functional modulated of Key-Changeable zheng. Mechanisms near the head of the instrument, by the player's right hand, could change the tension of strings. The action also changed other aspects of the sound and not in a good way; the instrument was never mass produced. Modulated zhengs received 20+ years of separate development; head over to the Guzheng Varieties page to read about their advancement.
1965: The 21-string S-bridge zither is patented under the name Dūnhuáng (敦煌), setting the stage for large scale production.
In 1972 Wáng Chāngyuán (王昌元) plays Battling the Typhoon, a solo guzheng piece as part of a larger concert for the wife of the Chinese Leader Chairman Mao, Jiāng Qīng (江青). Jiāng Qīng subsequently declares "Battling the Typhoon" worth promoting and did so. (Mei Han p159) The piece was scored and rescored for multiple instruments, and became one of the most played and consulted pieces of music during that time.
In my current understanding, "Battling the Typhoon" marked the turning point for the guzheng, sending it off on its own vector. Before this point it was just another instrument from the past pushed as part of a larger program. Once Wáng Chāngyuán showed it could stand on its own, promotion and usage increased. BUT! I'm sure there is more to the story. What do you know of its rise in popularity? What happened between then and now to make the guzheng as big as it is?
Changes continued after Wáng Chāngyuán's performance, bringing the guzheng into its current status today. Innovations continued to take shape:
1975: The nylon-wrapped metal string, also named Dunhuang, was officially designated as the standard string for guzhengs. Nylon-wound strings are now the most common.
1997: The original Dunhuang string is reclassified as "Type A" and a new standardized "Type B" string is announced to allow for higher string tensions.
2005: A "Type C" string standard is announced capable of even higher tensions, and is used for tuning instruments in the diatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. It requires extra care, so all you pentatonic guzheng enthusiasts, don't just go switching out the strings!
And there we have it! Visit the Guzheng Varieties page for a visual look at the many branches of the zheng family tree. Much has been done!
And if you know of events I've missed, send me an email through the form below to tell me about them!
(3): 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.
(4): Liang Tsai-Ping previously wrote an earlier work titled "Proposed Zheng Manual" (拟筝谱, Nǐ Zhēng Pǔ) in 1938. Depending on definitions that could be considered the earliest produced instructional guide, but I am under the impression it did not get a wide release. Also, Dr. Han lists Cao Zheng's work as being "unpublished" but available in the Library of the Chinese National Academy of the Arts; Dr. Te-yuan Cheng makes no distinction.
(5): It's important to note that the character "谱" (pǔ) translated here as "Manual" also means "guidebook", "reference", or can be shorthand for "musical score". Both Liang Tsai-Ping and Cao Zheng's books were all of these, from what I understand. I have yet to see a copy myself.
(6): The Luxun Academy of Arts was founded in 1938 by Chinese leaders in Yan'an, Shaanxi province. It was moved in 1940 to Shenyang, Liaoning Province. The music department was spun off as Shenyang Conservatory of Music in 1958.