Pictures of guzhengs across time. A useful visual reference.
You'll find the 21-string guzheng everywhere you search for 古筝 but there's more to the story. Many variants have been pushed, pulled, theorized and discussed. Here are some of those versions. The Other Zithers page has instruments that you might think area guzheng but actually aren't. And if you know of one we've missed, Email G筝A and we'll add them.
Images on this page are used under Creative Commons licenses or under Fair Use provisions of the respective government's copyright laws unless otherwise noted.
One of the oldest depictions of a Zheng-like instrument, created from remnants found in a tomb in Changqiao,Wu Xian, Jiangsu Province. The tomb was dated to the fifth century BCE. It had twelve strings, was made of wood, and was coated in lacquer. It's 132.8 cm or ~52 inches long.
Source: Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. The Smithsonian Institute further attributes the image to Huang Xiangpeng 1996, Zhongguo yinyue wenwu daxi, volume on Jiangsu/Shanghai: 248-51, Zhengzhou: Daxiang Press.
From the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, USA comes this wonderful image.
Purchased in 1916 and believed produced in the 1800s in Guangzhou, China, this guzheng is constructed in the Song Dynasty style. It has 16 strings and 16 tie-off pegs on the far right. But only 15 triangular bridges are visible. Why? Because the 1st bridge is actually on the far side of the instrument, pushing the string almost perpendicular to the soundboard. This instrument is so close to a Vietnamese Dan Tranh it would be so easily confused, but the museum and the Chinese Characters on the tail of the instrument say otherwise.
From the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium we have this Carmentis record of a 14-stringed zither made sometime before 1900, coming in at 141.2cm or ~55 inches in length.
I don't know enough to date the instrument, but its style dates from before the modern changes and seems to be closer to the Tang Dynasty style, though it's proportionally closer to the Japanese koto. An earlier black and white photo shows this particular instrument before its strings broke, at which time it had 14 visible bridges.
Source: Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium
Steel Strings - Taiwanese Zheng
The guzheng developed on its own path in Taiwan due to a policy of limited interaction between the conflicting groups after 1950. That meant the 1965 S-bridge guzheng with 21 nylon strings didn't make it over until much later. Below are some examples of the types of zhengs that were created on the island during that time.
This zheng was purchased around 1985 in a less developed area of Taiwan before being brought to Canada. It spent most of its years in storage and is visually in excellent condition.
It has 16 steel strings, two of them being bass strings wound in copper. Its fixed bridges are both straight. Instead of a hinged compartment holding tuning pins, this instrument's head is just part of the frame. The tuning pins are actually posts on the tail of the instrument. A wooden handle is needed to turn them; that is what is attached to the case's lid. Taken together with the instrument's straight backboard, it appears this instrument was built in an older style, but there is much yet to learn. Have you seen anything like this? Let me know!
Photographed by author in 2017. Used with permission of owner.
The original source and age of this zheng is unknown as its current owner purchased it at anonymous auction, but a flyer in its tuning pin compartment advertised a concert in Taipei in 1988.
This instrument has two straight fixed bridges and 16 strings of steel with 2 of the bass strings wound with copper. The backboard is curved but appears to be made of very thin plywood. The tuning pins are inside a hinged compartment. The moveable bridges have holes in their center and are threaded together on a string.
Photographed by author in 2017. Used with permission of owner.
Steel Strings - Hong Kong Zheng
Below are two 18-string, Steel zheng from Hong Kong. While not the only type of zheng in Hong Kong, they offer a wonderful example of the step between 16 and 21 strings.
During the instrument reforms of the 20th century instrument makers tried to address issues musicians had with their instruments. One issue was the need to reposition bridges to switch to a different key. It's a time consuming action that must either be done between songs or by having multiple zhengs involved in a performance. What if key changes could be faster? Enter the Modulated Zheng. Various mechanisms were added to the head of the instrument to change the pitch of multiple strings all at once. One common method was to change the tension of the strings.
Unfortunately the mechanisms made the instruments heavier, increased their maintenance costs, were more complicated to produce, and had the unfortunate side effect of detuning the instrument overtime. While significant development occurred through the 1970s the modulated zhengs fell behind the 21-string guzheng in terms of popularity. I've found one for sale in California but otherwise they are relatively rare. Why pay more money for a heavier instrument that has its own complications when you can buy a simpler instrument with better sound for less?
Timeline of Modulated Zhengs:
Zhāng Kūn (张昆), a zheng maker at the Shenyang Musical Instrument Factory, created the first functional modulated Key-Changeable zheng. Mechanisms near the head of the instrument, by the player's right hand, could change the tension of strings. Unfortunately the action also changed other aspects of the sound and not in a good way; the instrument was never mass produced. Alas, I have no photograph of it!
In 1964 or 65 Zhāng Kūn released an updated version of his modulated zheng with a smoother action. It had 22 metal strings and could shift the instrument through all 12 musical keys by shortening the length of the strings. It was dubbed Model 65 and was put into production - however the added mechanical action detuned strings more quickly than other zhengs and added significant weight.
In that same span of time the Yingkou Manchuria Musical Instrument Factory releases three modulated instruments: First was the Dōngfāng hóng (东方红, translated as Oriental Red, or "The East is Red") in 1964. Then in 1965 came the 5-mode 35-A and the 6-mode 35-B. All three modulated pitch by changing the length of the string, bringing with them similar problems as previous zhengs.
Image: The Model 65 key-changeable zheng from Han 2013
Zhāng Kūn's factory released another modulated zheng, this one called Model 72. It had a somewhat flatter soundboard which made it easier to play, and featured a simpler modulating mechanism.
Yingkou Musical Instrument Factory releases another modulated zheng, this one providing buttons for the performer to press rather than levers to move as had been the case in earlier models. It was lighter than previous modulating zhengs, but was still heavier than the soon-to-be ubiquitous Dunhuang guzheng.
Image: Dr. Han's Yinkou modulated zheng. Source: Han 2013
Work continued. Just as a Celtic lap harp has one place in society and a pedal-actuated concert harp has another, instrument designers saw an opportunity in the world of zhengs. Perhaps the advantages of mechanical modulation could justify additional weight and complexity. And so were made:
Worthy of its own mini-timeline is the pedal-modulate zheng. Inspired by western concert harps, zheng makers attempted to add the harp's range and techniques to the humble zheng. Pedal-zhengs stood on special pedestals instead of stands. Mechanisms hidden in the pedestal and head of the zheng would change the tension on the strings, shifting their pitch. This sped up the process of adjusting the zheng's tuning, and models with increased string counts and diatonic tunings were created to emphasize those gains. Unfortunately, the tuning mechanism would shift the movable bridges overtime, ultimately requiring a laborious re-tuning process. Here are some examples:
Created in 1972 by Zhang Ziyue of the Suzhou Musical Instrument Factory of Jiangsu province, pedal actuated zhengs came onto the scene to solve the same problems as the earlier modulated zheng - and had some of the same limitations.
This is a 36-string zheng made around that time, tuned in the western diatonic scale.
Image Source: Music Research Institute via Han 2013.
A 1972 guzheng created by Zhang Ziyue of the Suzhou Musical Instrument Factory of Jiangsu province. It had 44 strings tuned to the diatonic scale.
Image Source: Music Research Institute via Han 2013.
In 1974 another instrument maker, Zhang Kun of the Shenyang Musical Instrument Factory, made a 21-string pedal-modulated zheng. This one was tuned to the pentatonic scale.
Source: Music Research Institute via Mei Han 2013.
In 1978, Hé Bǎoquán (何寶泉) from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music created the Butterfly Zheng, (dié shì zhēng, 蝶式筝). Still produced today, it has 49 strings in an amazing arrangements of fixed bridges and moveable bridges.
While far more versatile than the 21-string zheng, allowing players to pick from a wide variety of scales without retuning anything, all that versatility led to complication. A player had to relearn hand patterns and adjust their spatial memory of where different notes were found. It has yet to reach the popularity of the 21-string guzheng.
Image Source: HKzhengart.com Used under Fair Use exceptions of US and China Copyright law.
Similar to the Butterfly Zheng, the W sought to offer greater versatility without changing tunings. Dr. Mei Han attributes its creation in 2000 to Pan Haixin and Pan Haiwei from Hebei province. It has one side arranged in a diatonic scale, and one side in a pentatonic scale. This makes more sense to me than the Butterfly, but time will tell its popularity. I do not yet grasp how vibrato techniques would work on this. I'm not sure how many strings it has or even how to count them... possibly 29?
Image source: guzheng58.com Used under Fair Use exceptions of US and China Copyright law.
The Multi-tonic Zheng 多聲弦制箏 (Duō shēng xián zhì zhēng) or Duō shēng zhēng for short (多聲箏) seems to have been made in 2011 by Professor Lǐ Méng (李萌), though my sources are not good.. It's effectively two zhengs combined; there are 21 strings tuned to the diatonic scale for the right side, with 16 additional strings tuned to the pentatonic scale on the left side. The range of the two sides is roughly the same, with the 21-stringed side having a deeper A and the 16 string has a higher D.
Source: Taiwanese store stmusic.com.tw.
The S-Bridge is not the only tail bridge used in modern guzheng and strings are not limited to 21. There are modern instruments made with 18, 23, 26, and other string counts in production; there are C bridges, diagonal bridges, and separated bridges where different groups of strings terminate at different points. Below are examples of a few. These are all modern instruments. Most are from companies' websites or trade shows. There are many permutations.
This is an 18 Steel string guzheng from instrument brand JinYun. It features straight steel and wound copper strings and that sweeping C-Bridge at the tail. I have seen a similar, 21 and 23-string instruments made by the same maker with nylon strings.
Google is throwing security warnings when I try to visit their website, so I won't link directly to them from here. But you can see their url in the photo and I can tell you that the product numbers are:
- 18 strings - 01157
- 21 strings - 01018B
- The 23-string instrument was reportedly a limited edition; I saw one for sale in California but could not find a product number.
Made by manufacturer JinYun, this one has 21 nylon strings- and most notably, the fixed bridge at the tail is split into four separate bridges. It mimics the different lengths of string the S-bridge creates, but (I assume) has a different set of tradeoffs. I have yet to see the difference this choice makes first hand. If you have any experience with one of these instruments, please email me! I have also seen the tail bridge in three parts, so please don't think four is the only way to go.
From manufacturer JinYun. Google is raising security alerts when I visit their website so I won't link directly, but this one's product number is 01118.
This is a 26-string zither from Taiwanese guzheng maker Cai Yuanhong, created under the Songbo brand. Intended for those who want a greater range on their instrument, this one yields an additional pentatonic octave or can be tuned to just shy of four full diatonic octaves.
Most guzheng music is composed for instruments with less strings. Most pieces don't require simultaneous access to all parts of even a 21-stringed instrument's range. Improvisers, songwriters, and those looking to push the instrument beyond its historic bounds may find a lot of worth in an instrument like this one, but until such compositions become mainstream I wouldn't expect the string count on the average guzheng to increase.
Source: ChineseZither.net storefront. Used with permission.
This has been around for a few years. The informative Eason Music store in Singapore did a brief impression of it back in 2011. It's been a few years and it's making its way into more stores. This picture is from the 2015 Chinese Music trade show/ expo in Shanghai.
This works on similar principles to an electric guitar. Played without amplification it's reportedly very quiet, making it an interesting prospect for those who need to practice more than their family or neighbors can stand. Then plug it in and you get the sound level you'd expect.
Unfortunately I have not played one of these personally so I don't know what range of customization it might have.
If you're looking for just amplification you could of course put a mic system inside an acoustic guzheng, but that would not allow you to quite the instrument, nor, presumably, modify the output.
I look forward to playing this one day!
Source: ChineseZither Facebook Used with permission.
Here are a few grand creations that offer quite a sight!
The 4-By-Butterfly: for the guzheng ensemble that wants to add that extra flair.
Seen at the 2008 Music China event, the annual Music instrument trade fair and expo held in Shanghai every fall. It was made by the Dunhuang company. I've seen pictures of this from 2010 as well; I have the impression it's been on display several times over the years.
Don't have enough space for a grand piano but still desire a beautifully impressive instrument? Look no further because here is the one-of-a-kind piano zheng! Well, really, it's a guzheng that sort of... fell into an empty piano... but it's still quite a sight to see!
Seen at Music China 2013, the annual Music instrument trade fair and expo held in Shanghai every fall.
Source: Guzheng Forum Used with permission.
And there's the sample. If you have photos of instruments you'd like to see on here, please send in an email!