Similar Instruments

Other Asian Zithers

"Sanjo Gayageum" by Craig Moe used under BY-NC 2.0

Similar Instruments - Other Asian Zithers

Jump to: Koto | Đàn Tranh | Gayageum | Yatga | Jetigen | Se | Unknown

There are a number of wonderful zithers that could be confused with a guzheng. Almost every second-hand seller labels their guzheng listings with several of these names. Read through the examples below to help you understand which instrument you are actually looking at. If you recognize any of the unknown instruments or know of others we should add, please send in an email!

The guzheng in particular and past zhengs in general are often confused with three other instruments. They are the Japanese Koto, the Vietnamese  Đàn tranh, and the Korean Gayageum. Below are wonderful examples of each. There is also a fourth and a fifth to consider, the Mongolian Yatga and the Kazakh Jetigen.

Japanese Koto

From the  Museum of fine Arts , Boston, MA, USA. Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

From the Museum of fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.
Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

Photo by  Mr.TinDC  used with permission. Taken at the Folklife festival in Washington D.C., USA, in 2010.

Photo by Mr.TinDC used with permission. Taken at the Folklife festival in Washington D.C., USA, in 2010.

This first image is a Japanese Koto from the 1800s (箏, こと, or alternatively 琴) photographed by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. The instrument traces its lineage back to China's Tang Dynasty when 13-string zheng were first brought to Japan. Their design has remained largely unchanged across time.

Big differences between the koto and a zheng are: Overall dimensions, string material and tying, and the tuning system. Kotos tend to be longer and thinner, though variants can certainly change this. Their strings used to be silk, with long loops of excess string left on the instrument to allow for retying when the strings break. Modern koto use a synthetic string made of either nylon or polyester; there is some confusion on its material composition in English sources. The modern tuning system is commonly held in the end cap like a zheng but is not enclosed in a box. See the second picture for an example.

Variants have been introduced with different string counts and lengths such as the 17-string koto, but whereas different instruments vied for popularity in China, in Japan they were accepted alongside the original 13-string instrument. The larger morphology remains steady. The one exception to this is the incredible 80-string variant made by Mitsuya Koto for Miyagi Michio, a renowned koto player:

80-string koto made by Mitsuya Koto for Miyagi Michio, circa 1929.
Image from Miyagi Michio Koto Association

Vietnamese Đàn tranh

From Case Antiques, for an instrument sold in 2012. They have it mislabeled as a Chinese Guzheng... despite the Vietnamese maker's label. Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

From Case Antiques, the instrument's head. Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

From Case Antiques, the instrument maker's label in Vietnamese. Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

Next of the three instruments most often confused with the zheng is the Đàn tranh. There is some debate as to whether its lineage is a branch of the Song Dynasty-inspired Chinese zhengs or if the Đàn tranh led to the Song Dynasty zhengs or those popular in southern China.

It's easiest to distinguish between modern long zithers but difficult to figure out the older ones. Modern đàn tranh have an opalescent styling which helps identify them today. If it's older than 100 years or doesn't feature this styling positive identification is more difficult.

Đàn tranh feature metal strings, bridges that have generally thinner legs, and I've seen a number with DRMSL labeling by the strings, representing the Do Re Mi So La solfège renderings of the notes of pentatonic scales.

For a rare treat, check out this video by musicians Tri Nguyen and Qaïs Saadi which features plenty of footage and notes about this Vietnamese zither.

Korean Gayageum

From the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation comes an image showing a variety of Gayageum of different styles, made in 1985 and 2010. #2 is a different kind of instrument.

The Korean Gayageum (가야금 or 伽倻琴) was an originally 12 string zither from the peninsula. A history written in 1145 CE says that the first gayageum was made sometime between 500 and 562 CE in the Gaya Confederacy, a region in Korea. The instrument came about when a king saw a Chinese zither and ordered a similar instrument to be made. The gayageum is not a direct descendant of the zheng. Inspired by, adapted from perhaps, but a wholly Korean creation.

Just like the zheng, gayageum have changed over time. Famous variants include the Sanjo, Pungryu, Beopgeum, and Jeongak. String counts have varied from 12-25 strings as we see in this picture. #4 is a 25-string gayageum, while #1 and #3 have 12 strings. Hints that a zither is a gayageum include the T-shape of the bridges and the tied ropes at the end.

Modern times has seen an extra wrinkle - Korean players appropriating the Dunhuang-style guzheng and rechristening it a gayageum. Oh for globalization!

The site this picture comes from, the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, and a few other sources agree to the origin in the 6th century CE, but beyond that I can't say much. If you know more, send me an email!

The ятга or Yatga from Mongolia would be a fascinating instrument to dive into. Modern musicians have adopted the 21-string, s-bridge guzheng as the template for their music. Sources are scarce but I found one yatga mention here. Paraphrased:

The most commonly contemporary yatga is the twenty-one-stringed "Master Yatga." The length of full-size instrument 1.62m or 63 inches. There is also the 13-string version called "Gariin Yatga".

Historical versions played in the Mongolian palace had 12 strings, one for each of the the twelve levels of the palace hierarchy. Common people preferred a 10-stringed version. The Epic of Jangar, a massive work written by people of the region, involves a young princess and an 800-string yatga with 82 bridges.

Kazakh жетіген

The жетіген from Kazakhstan, anglicized Jetigen is another the wide family of Asian long zithers. Its music has its own qualities and is similarly beautiful. Here are two examples of the music. Unfortunately I know nothing about this instrument and information in English is incredibly scarce.

Another Chinese Zither:

Sè (瑟)

Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

This is a Se. It comes to us from the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, USA.

Believed to have been constructed in the 1800s it was purchased in 1916. I count 24 strings which is one less than I expected, but there you have it. It comes in at a whopping 223.8cm or 88in long. It's far bigger than most other instruments on this page. Notice how it slants down at the tail. You'll see that in the Japanese Koto, suggesting this was inspired or connected to the designs of zithers in the Tang dynasty.

Source: The Met, New York, NY, USA Used under Fair Use exception of US Copyright law.

Here we have another take on the Se, this time from The Met in New York, NY USA.

It's a bit shorter than the MFA Se, coming in at ~183cm or 72 inches, also dated to the 1800s, and also seems to have 24 strings, or 24 bridges, at least. This particular one was taken from a Taoist (Daoist) temple and is inscribed as being made by one Fanfu Lou and owned by the monk Xinzhu. Work by Cheng in his 1991 thesis suggests this was made in the Qing style of instrument which was notable for its significant downward angle at one end.

Source: Thomas Quine, Flickr; object on display in 2015 at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Used with permission.

More Se! This one has 25 strings and was on display at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium.

The level of ornamentation on this is really fun. That's not as common on modern instruments because weighty decorations can reduce the quality of the sound of the instrument especially when placed on the soundboard. You need that wood to really vibrate, and any paint, inlays, or carvings will dampen or distort the sound. I'd guess this was constructed more as a work of art and less for its sound but I could be wrong!

Source: Sound of China Facebook, China Music 2012 Used with permission.

A modern take on an older style of Se, as indicated by the knobs on the left of the instrument. This one was photographed in 2012 at the China Music trade show / expo in Shanghai. The text on the card translates to "18-string ancient se".

From  forum. Veracity unknown.

From forum. Veracity unknown.

An this is supposedly a picture of the 50-string Sè created for the Datong musical group in 1930's Shanghai, though I have yet to find significant information on it.

Unknown Zithers:

Do not think that how things are now is how they ever were. Instruments change with time. Millions of people have experimented with different musical ideas and shapes over humanity’s history. Here are some examples of those varieties.

Here's a treat. It comes to us from a MIMO entry from the Musée Du Palais Lascaris.

My French is terrible, but I discern it mentions 26 strings wound around 13 posts, possibly doubling back on themselves. It comes from 1800s China. 

Tapping into my knowledge of physics I'm guessing the posts by the fixed bridge are an anchor, the diagonal line of posts keep the string off the soundboard, and the line of posts at the top are the tuning pegs, possibly hand-wound based on the spacing and how they seem to taper flat, like the pin second from the right. But that's just a theory! It's 93cm/ ~36 inches long so a great deal shorter than mainstream zhengs.

As for the doubling back, perhaps the were looking for an effect similar to today's 12-string guitars? Or perhaps it's supposed to be struck like a hammer dulcimer.

From the University of Leipzig we have, translated and paraphrased from the German record on MIMO:

They say this is a 12-string zither made in Korea between 1900 and 1950. Its wooden body consists of a resonating soundboard, floor and frame. The soundboard is evenly arched. The 12 movable bridges are 6 of brighter and 6 of darker wood. The strings are wound copper and steel. There is a rectangular sound hole in the back. Tuning pegs are hidden under one of the sides.

It's 83.2cm or ~32 inches long, so far shorter than modern incarnations of other long zithers from east Asia. It could be a shortened version of a Korean Gayageum but it is using Chinese-style bridges. 

Similarly a typical Koto, the Japanese long zither, is around 190cm, like this one at a US Museum. But that same museum has a miniaturized version that is just as old and comes in at 53.8cm. Perhaps this is a miniaturized Gayageum then?


Leipzig also has this 10-bridge instrument where each bridge supports 2 strings. That sounds more like a hammered dulcimer BUT a double-strung 9-bridge instrument that uses a bow exists elsewhere that museum staff name a Laqin. So what is this?

Source: Thomas Quine, Flickr; object on display in 2012 at the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig. Used with permission.

Here's a strange one. This was taken at the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig, in Leipzig, Germany. It appears to have 9 strings tied in the fashion of a koto. That is, the strings are left long and bundled on the tail, typically in loops. The tail is on the right side. The instrument is standing on its head, though I've rotated it here. The extra length of string is now hanging down the instrument.

Koto strings were left long to deal with silk strings breaking frequently. Since they'd usually break where they were played, by the head, you could pull the string towards the head until the break was even with your tying point, and tie it off again.

Because of that extra length and tie pattern I'll suggest the strings are silk. I don't know why else they would have so much extra. As to date made or country of origin, I haven't the slightest idea. The significant curvature suggests it could have been played with a bow either laying flat or standing vertically on a surface.