Import Issues And Restrictions

Jump to: Overview | Traveling with Instruments | Buying Internationally | Grandfathered Instruments | Buying Domestically | Importance of CITES

The guzheng has long been made of controlled species. It’s important to be aware of these when purchasing and especially when traveling with the instrument.

Legal Restrictions Added January 2017

In January 2017, all woods of the genus Dalbergia were added to “the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora" (CITES) as species restricted under Appendix II. Most woods used in guzheng frames are from that genus. Most countries in the world adhere to CITES.

What This Means

The listing under Appendix II means instruments containing Dalbergia wood harvested after January 2017 CANNOT be shipped internationally by a company or business. As it takes several years of drying for wood to be ready for (quality) guzheng, I estimate it will take 5 years before instruments show up on the international market with wood harvested after January 2017.

Specifics are uncertain but GZA predicts increased prices and alternative woods gaining in popularity guzheng purchased after 2022. Instruments may become harder to find.


1) CITES bans commercial exporting but allows personal-use exemptions by weight. This means you can ship an instrument you bought in one country to another so long as you are not selling it in the new country and the amount of the controlled wood used is less than a certain weight. I'm unclear how that affects internet sales, but if you travel to China in person and buy a Dalbergia guzheng you are allowed to ship it to your home in a different country.

2) Chinese authorities can declare that wood has been harvested in a sustainable manner and thereby exempt instruments or instrument makers from CITES restrictions. If they do this, we may not notice a difference in price or availability. If they don’t then Dalbergia instruments may become less common.

Keep reading for specifics on how this impacts you.

Traveling Internationally with Guzheng

If you cross an international border with a guzheng you are technically importing/exporting it and thus under the realm of CITES. The American League of Orchestras has a thorough breakdown of how CITES affects traveling musicians on their website. But if you need a quicker summary:

At the bottom of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web page is the very important Appendix II, Annotation 15: "All parts and derivatives are included, except:... b)  Non-commercial exports of a maximum total weight of 10 kg. per shipment". This means that if the total weight of protected woods used in your instrument are less than 10kg AND it's being shipped for a non-commercial purpose, you're fine! You have to prove that it's a non commercial export, but hey, at least it's possible!

The most likely way someone would take advantage of this would be to travel with the instrument. Maybe you're moving, maybe you received a gift while visiting with a friend, maybe you traveled to a country, bought a guzheng, and are now bringing it with you to keep. However it happened, once you become the owner of the instrument and you have no intent to sell it, you are export/importing it for a non-commercial purpose.

You still have to document ownership, point of sale, and do your darnedest to certify that the instrument does not break any laws - but it is perfectly permissible to cross borders with an instrument if it is for your own personal use. HOWEVER: For those among you buying tickets to China to buy your luxury guzheng, remember: This exemption gets you out of CITES but you still have to pay duties, also known as import tax. As of 2010 that fee is 4.6% of the items total value/purchase price in US Dollars. So if you bring your $1000 guzheng home from Asia, be aware you’ll owe $46 when crossing the border.

If you need to cross borders frequently, some border control organizations offer 'passports' to prove you've already paid all relevant taxes. The USA version is about $75 and takes 2-3 MONTHS to get approval. It's intended for musicians living in the US who travel internationally frequently. Plan ahead

CITES and You: Buying Internationally

In order to cross a border, that is to import and export an item made of a protected species, the person responsible must apply for permits with evidence the creation of the item did not negatively impact the species. That law is aimed at companies. If you are buying a guzheng or other item that is made of protected woods from another country, it is the seller's responsibility to apply for and file all the relevant paperwork both as an exporter from their country and an importer to yours. But as a buyer, realize that if the international retailer doesn't file the proper certifications and your purchase gets impounded at a border crossing, you might be without both your money and the instrument. Make sure the seller knows what they are doing.

CITES and You: Grandfathered Instruments

One key thing for collectors, buyers, and sellers to know about CITES and guzheng: CITES does not restrict woods retroactively. Instruments made of restricted wood that were created prior to the date the species was added to the agreement are exempt. That important date is called the "Convention Date". If you can prove that your guzheng was produced prior to 1992 (if Brazilian Rosewood) or prior to 2017 (for most other Dalbergia species) you can theoretically still cross borders. If you have questions, contact your country's customs, border, or conservation agents. For those of you who just bought instruments: Get your bill of sale copied, time stamped, and keep it with your instrument at all times. You may be thankful you have a way to prove the age of your instrument in the future.

CITES and You: Buying Domestically

The big sigh of relief: If the guzheng is already in your country the seller does not have to file for CITES-related permits. You can just buy it. Yay! In the case of many European countries, borders are often ignored. If the instrument is already in an European country and the the buyer is in an European country, no CITES permits should be required. Yay! Please note: I use "European" generically. You'll have to look up the trade agreements between the relevant countries to be safe.

The Larger Impact of CITES and Endangered Species

Guzheng importing is going to get interesting. Quality woods are typically harvested and dried for several years prior to usage in an instrument. Theoretically, the date it was harvested is what would determine if it was a Pre-Convention piece. With Dalbergia at large added to CITES in 2017, I estimate the mass market will run out of pre-convention timber by about 2022, save for low-output makers with significant stocks. At that point, what happens? I honestly don't know.

CITES is written such that Scientific Authorities of a relevant countries can certify the wood was harvested in such a way that it did not damage or threaten the continuation of the species. Perhaps countries with money in the mix continue certifying woods for export without vetting the impact. That adds some paperwork and logistical headaches, but keeps business as usual for all of the good and bad that entails. If that happens, species populations continue to decrease and we see shortages in future decades.

If people are serious about conserving the threatened and endangered species and thus kept their standard for certification high, supply of woods would decrease, forcing price up. There is room for that in the guzheng market. We are spoiled with absolutely wonderful instruments for less than $1000. The owners of cellos, violins, and other fine western instruments can tell you - compared to their $3,000, $5,000, and $10,000+ medium-grade instruments, we are well off. While I hope prices for entry-level guzheng never mimic that of the cello or violin, the US market could stand the price increase.

A higher price would be unpleasant, but if it meant that in 20 years we'd still have wood readily available and thus quality guzheng at a reasonable price, it would be well worth it. Remember, unlike violins guzheng tend to lose their finer sound qualities with time. There is a pressure on guzheng players; we're all going to face this.

As to what you should make of all these woods being listed as having some cause for concern, well. It's important to know what impact we have on others. Yes, you can buy instruments made of endangered species, but by doing so, you are contributing to their destruction. Do you really want to be part of the reason why a future generation can't experience the the joyful sounds or appearance of some of these fine woods?

You have a few choices:

Option 1) Buy instruments that aren't made of endangered species. African Blackwood, African Padauk, Burmese Padauk, Bubinga, and Pau Rosa are Not Threatened and are used on medium and high-quality instruments. You can still get a beautiful instrument that sounds and looks amazing without contributing to the extinction of a species!

Option 2) Make sure your seller/producer is harvesting sustainably cultivated trees. If they own their own or buy exclusively from tree farms that use the same land to grow and regrow their tree crops, then you can rest assured they are not having a net damaging effect. Going out into the wild and cutting down trees? Not so good. Yes, this is a harder option, but if you are up to the challenge you'll rest assured.

Option 3) Contribute a sizable amount of money to conservation efforts specifically aimed at restoring the populations of trees that your instrument is made out of. I'm talking 30-50% of the cost of your instrument. Big money. By buying that instrument you are creating an economic pressure to cut down more trees. You have to create an even greater economic pressure to counteract that and keep trees standing or get new ones planted. The most cost-effective way would be to buy a tree, to give someone enough money so that the tree is more valuable if left standing. I don't know how to do that, practically. Giving to conservation and regrowth efforts is another option, but every step you are removed from the actual laborer cutting down the tree, the more of your money gets shunted off into bureaucracy and the less get's to the actual worker. Therefore, you'll have to give a greater amount to actually get enough money to that forester and its company to convince them to change how they harvest.

Option 4) Help expand the types of woods that are considered for guzheng production. There are many species with interesting qualities out there, even some in the USA. Remember, the soundboard is not made of an endangered species, it's the framing that's the problem. There is more leeway in acoustic properties in the frame. There must be nontraditional woods that will create an enjoyable sound! If you know an instrument maker who is up to the challenge, encourage them to try a build and post their results to instrument maker's forums, or get them in touch with me! The more interest there is in trying something different the better chance we have of ensuring a positive future for the instrument.

Threatened Species, Endangered Woods, and CITES.

Some other names to be familiar with: The IUCN is The International Union for Conservation of Nature. They maintain the IUCN's Red List, a database of species and how much danger they are in. Though they have a history with the United Nations they are a reference with no legal authority. They are a great resource.

CITES, "the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora" is the next step up. It is not itself a law, but if your country agreed to it then they have agreed to enforce laws that mimic what CITES says. If you're in one of the 183 countries that upholds CITES (spoiler alert: you probably are) then CITES will tell you which animal and plant products need special permits to cross international borders.

CITES was first drafted at a 1963 meeting by members of the IUCN. It was first agreed to in 1975 by 80 countries including the US. The intent was to restrict trade in plants and animals that were endangered so as to keep those species alive longer. The list of species protected and the extent each is protected changes periodically. China joined in 1981.

January 2017 saw the addition of all woods in the Dalbergia genus to the CITES agreement. That is a genus that many if not most guzheng frame woods come from. Some previous Dalbergia species had been on the list prior to 2017. Dalbergia nigra, Brazilian Rosewood, was added to the CITES agreement in 1992 under Appendix I protection. Trade of any object made of this wood created after 1992 is illegal. Demand for it was high but new seedlings were just refusing to grow. That is a recipe for extinction, hence its listing. There were a few other Dalbergia species with Appendix II protection pre 2017, but no guzheng-relevant species in Appendix III.

To go in-depth yourself, visit the CITES website. In the USA CITES is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lists of every species currently protected in the United States are available on the US FWS website and provide a lengthy discussion of issues relating to crossing borders with items made of restricted materials. I’ve summarized the important tidbits below. Make sure you read to the end.