The guzheng is frustratingly hard to learn about if you only speak English. Most English web results are copies of older versions of English Wikipedia's article, are promotional in nature, or are so specific they leave out great information. Non-web sources are frustratingly superficial, a challenge to find, and/or confounded by translation and language issues.
The shining exception to this problem is the best English-Language resource that is freely available: "The emergence of the Chinese zheng : traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity" a PhD thesis by Dr. Mei Han written in 2013 for the University of British Columbia. The author, Dr. Han (韓梅) (personal site) is an accomplished performer, skilled researcher, and certainly not the least importantly for the sake of this project, fluent in both English and Chinese. Her thesis is based on her original research, interviews with informed people in the zheng world, and her translations from Chinese-language sources. Her expertise has been recognized by the editors of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians who asked her to write the entry on the guzheng. Dr. Han is the gold standard for English-Language guzheng resources.
Influence and Influencers
Before we get into some summaries, check out how some of these sources have impacted each other over time. Some bodies of work are cited by almost everyone: Tsai-Ping Liang, Cao Zheng, and Te-Yuan Cheng have bodies of work that appear in most every source I reference. Their perspectives continue to have direct and indirect influence on how we think and talk about the instrument today.
Others such as my beloved Ferguson, Kwok, and Kao have not been cited by the later works I've so far compiled. While they each have their own contributions I don't believe they have been assimilated into the general body of guzheng knowledge.
Chen, Cheng, and Han, on the other hand, continue to influence today's understandings. While this diagram ends with Han 2013, her paper's statistics show 3300 downloads since publication with 2000 downloads heading to Beijing in 2016 and 2017. That suggests her work is being actively considered.
Depiction of thought leader's influence. Created by author.
I made this chart to help us keep in mind: If all the sources cite the works of Te-Yuan Cheng, how much of those later works are repeating his conclusions and how much are they challenging and enhancing? It would be wonderful to make a larger diagram with the many, many non-English sources but current logistics prevent me from doing so. Email me if you are up to the challenge.
On to the Sources:
Below are noteworthy sources I've read and summarized. Researched sources you can view online, printed sources you have to buy or borrow, and websites are sorted out. Citations for these and all other sources are available on the Bibliography and Further Reading pages.
Professional, Free, and Electronic:
1996: "Guqin and Guzheng: the historical and contemporary development of two Chinese musical instruments" Master's thesis, Gaywood, Harriet Rosemary Ann (1996) Durham University.
An accessible introduction to the topic and the first I read, Gaywood is unfortunately plagued with issues. Its limited array of citations suggests uneven coverage of the topic, its coverage of both the qin and guzheng lead to some confusion, it summarizes to the point of missing information, and some statements on times and locations appear incorrect when compared to other sources. Finally, its use of hand-written Chinese characters rather than typed ones makes it harder to cross reference translations and sources. We can only do our best with what we have, but in this case I'm afraid the restrictions proved too much.
2000: "Music in the Age of Confucius" Chapter 3: Strings, by Bo Lawergren (Pages 80-83). Published by the Smithsonian Institute in the United States.
An excellent look at the origins of the instrument alongside discussions of the se and qin. It does not discuss any modern changes to the instrument.
2003: "The Development of the Modern Zheng in Taiwan and Singapore" PhD Thesis, Kao, Shu Hui Daphne, (2003) Durham University
Informative comparison of musical styles of the guzheng and how they have changed in mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Also contains an excellent appendix featuring english-language descriptions of fingering techniques and an annotated diagram of the parts of a guzheng in Chinese and English.
2006: “Zheng Music : The Reception of a Post-1949 Chinese Tradition in Hong Kong” Masters Thesis by Lau, Shui Chung Jason, Chinese University of Hong Kong
A delightfully critical look at guzheng music in Hong Kong and the concept of musical schools of thought or styles. Includes an absolutely key work comparing academic sources and how they name and attribute songs to these different styles.
2013: "The Emergence of the Chinese Zheng : Traditional Context, Contemporary Evolution, and Cultural Identity" a PhD thesis by Mei Han written in 2013 for the University of British Columbia.
The single best, most comprehensive free source on history and development of the guzheng. If you can bring yourself to read no others, read this. The only drawback is the file embedded Chinese characters with a font rather than using unicode, so Chinese text can't be copied for quick lookup, translation, and pronunciation. But! That's a small complaint arrayed against the massive undertaking and depth of information. This expands upon and generally eclipses her earlier Master's thesis, "Historical and Contemporary Development of the Chinese Zheng", 2001, University of British Columbia.
2014: "Extending the sound of the Guzheng", a research thesis for an MA from the University of York, by Jingsi Shi
A technical look at how software and electronics can recreate and manipulate the sounds of the guzheng. The first 12 pages provide a succinct timeline of the instrument's evolution through the Qing dynasty and the manner of its sound production. The paper also covers adding microphones to a guzheng for recording.
2015: "Research on Functions and Techniques of Special Sound in Guzheng Performance", paper presented at the International Conference on Education, Management and Computing Technology (ICEMCT 2015), Peng Shanxia
A brief, 3-page document that describes the importance of techniques used to play the guzheng. Suffers from unfortunate language issues.
Archive of the Chinese News Analysis, 1953-1998, as hosted by Ladanyi Verein. Comes as software and CD download for Windows operating systems. Individual disks (~400MB each) can be downloaded as zip files and contain pdf files of issues. The software offers extra search capabilities. It's work like this that allows people to learn about the world in ways they couldn't otherwise. The Internet Archive estimates that the vast majority of the 20th century's books are NOT online. As print materials become harder and harder to access, projects like this one become harder to accomplish. I hope more organizations and individuals invest the effort to digitize and index old records.
Specifically: Issue 381, July 21, 1961.
Printed, visit a library(!!) or purchase them:
1979: "Modern Performance Techniques for the Chinese Zither Cheng" by Daniel Lee Ferguson, a Master's thesis for the University of California Los Angeles.
A fantastic read. The now Dr. Ferguson goes into depth discussing the history and morphological changes of the instrument before getting super detailed into fingering techniques. It contains what remains the most comprehensive collection and description of fingering techniques as I have yet encountered. Kao 2003 is a close second in this regard.
"Cheng" is not a typo; Ferguson uses the Yale Romanization system, which has since been eclipsed by Pinyin. Out of print; you must visit one of the three university libraries or request it.
1987: "Zheng: A Chinese Zither and Its Music" by Theodore Jen Kwok, a dissertation for the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
Oh my goodness this. I need to write this author a thank you letter. Continues documentation about the construction of a guzheng. Prime material for a future building your own page.
1991: "Zheng : tradition and change" by Deyuan Zheng (Or Te-yuan Cheng), PhD Dissertation for the University of Maryland
An incredible work. It vies with Mei Han's 2013 dissertation for title of "best" resource save for a few issues. First the great: A clear timeline of changes to the instrument paired with diagrams and photographs of past instruments that I have not seen anywhere else blew me away. Then Cheng gets into the actual construction and physical-acoustic function of the instrument and I was smitten.
There are a few issues. First, the thesis is hard to find. No slight on the author, just unfortunate circumstances. I know of only 13 copies around the world. Second, there are almost no Chinese characters in the work which makes cross referencing information difficult, especially as Cheng chose to use multiple forms of romanization when relating Chinese names and terms. Third, Chinese sources are shown only with translated english titles making them very difficult to look up.
In terms of content there are two major issues: One, little acknowledgement is given to the idea reported in other sources that "zheng" was a term used for multiple instruments. This raises concerns about the clarity with which Cheng relates the instrument's history. Is he oversimplifying or does he have firmer sources than others? Two, his description of the interruption of musical education and how it disrupted and redefined what was 'traditional' was off-puttingly positive. Unknown amounts of information was lost. I would have expected some recognition of that fact.
All that said: This is a must read if you can get your hands on a copy. The title links to the World Cat listing so you can see where your nearest library copy is.
1991: "The Zheng: A Chinese Instrument and Its Music" by Yan-Zhi Chen, PhD Thesis for Brown University
Still in the process of digesting. Contains a brief history of the main schools and interesting discussions of musical techniques. Note: Chen refers to depressing the left side of a string as a “stop”.
2002: "An Introduction to the guzheng" Volume One-Four, by Angela Jui Lee and Mark Gresham
A succinct guide that explains the basics of history, instrument anatomy, and playing techniques. The history and instrument anatomy are only in volume one. All four volumes are filled with practices, songs, and descriptions of techniques. Generally gave a very welcoming vibe. Volume one has great, clear diagrams. Available from the publisher for less than $15 per volume, around $48 for the set.
ChineseZither.net https://www.chinesezither.net/ and Guzhengfoum.com A valuable resource and store maintained by Carol Chang, these have provided the most in-depth discussion of guzheng wood sourcing I have found anywhere - and kept a vibrant online community bubbling with questions, answers, and new information. There is a commercial interest in this, of course; she sells instruments and I've purchased one from her.
"Silk Qin", http://www.silkqin.com/ by John Thompson
John Thompson has devoted his life to studying and reviving the qin through its original Chinese. This man is a legend. His website focuses on the qin but includes mentions of the zheng when their origin stories intersect. His command of Chinese and significant efforts give him a greater understanding of historical records than most others.
"Zheng Art", http://hkzhengart.com/
When I found this site I shouted with excitement. They have beautiful, detailed images of a variety of zhengs from throughout the ages. It's very much about the beauty of the instrument. Sometimes that means photographs of functional aspects of instruments are not as clear as I wish they were, but what can you do. The company was established in 2012 specifically to showcase the instrument. From what I understand they have a physical location where you can go and visit some of these instruments, so if you're in Hong Kong, check them out!
"Timeline of Chinese History and Dynasties" http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/timelines/china_timeline.htm Asia for Educators, University of Columbia
A quick reference for different dynasties with some context. It's important to remember that all of what is now China was not simply passed from ruler to ruler. Borders shifted, and different groups held power over different regions at different times.
"Carmentis" http://www.carmentis.be/ Royal Museum of Art and History
Catalogue of holdings at several museums, including the Brussels Musical Instrument Museum
"Music Instrument Museums Online" (MIMO) http://www.mimo-db.eu/ EU-funded enterprise
"consortium of some of Europe’s most important musical instruments museums". Overlaps with Carmentis
"Europeana Collections" http://www.europeana.eu/portal/en The Europeana Foundation
Large constellation of European institutions providing their collections for digitization and distribution
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections Search
Catalog of the Met’s private collections.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Musical Instruments
Catalog of the Met’s private collections.
If you are looking for informative places to start your own exploration, take a look at these museums' online collections:
A Note on Copyright and Fair Use
It was my dream to have this website filled with rich, exclusively licensed content on every aspect of the zheng. But several weeks in I realized, unfortunately, that contacting and communicating with some rights holders would take a great deal of time and effort. While those I did contact gave unanimous permission, it became apparent that all my searching and finding was becoming an unsustainable burden. Enter: Fair Use.
Most countries including the US and China have exemptions for information that is used to enhance the public good and does not damage the original rights holder. This is generally called "Fair Use". Use without permission can be considered fair use if it does not damage the normal use of the original work, does not damage the interests of others, is an action that is demonstrably for the public good, such as education, and is built upon and improved. It is under these exemptions that GZA uses and reposts imagery and figures. GZA is an educational, non-commercial undertaking.
Now what about reuse of text? Another positive wrinkle: Facts can not be copyrighted. How they are presented certainly can be, but the underlying fact is free to be repeated. As the vast majority of this website is the reporting of facts for informational purposes, and an even larger volume of it is created specifically for this effort, most of it it falls clearly within fair use. What material is directly quoted is kept to about one sentence’s length, their brevity and relevance also positioning them favorably under the Fair Use exemption.
Imagery was generally handled thusly:
If the image was tied to a particular individual I asked them for permission. This is a cool project, and I would hope others would be excited to see reuse as involvement. So far, everyone I have talked to has been happy to participate!
If the image was tied to an organization I generally did not attempt to ask for reuse permission. That's a time-saving measure for me. In trade I took pains to identify what the impact of my use would have. If it was a promotional photo from a zheng maker? My use and proper attribution could drive more people to their site and thus help their business, so educational use and reuse. If an image itself was for sale I didn't use it.
Lastly but most importantly: regardless of how I came to the images I have cited their source (plagiarism is bad people), lowered the resolution and compressed images, assuring the owners maintain their control of the highest-quality imagery, and have attempted to link to the origin of each image. Despite all that, if you do see an image or content you have rights to and want it removed from this site, please contact me through the form at the bottom of every page.
Thanks for reading!
Some Specific Instances:
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Reused digitally under United States Fair Use laws, as specified on their website here. Excerpt: "Provided the source is cited, personal and educational use (as defined by fair use in US copyright law) is permitted."
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.: Re-used digitally under United States Fair Use laws, as specified on their website here. Excerpt: "The Smithsonian welcomes you to make fair use of the Content as defined by copyright law."
Flickr Images: used under the various Creative Commons Licenses listed under the images at the time of access. I also contacted each photographer and received explicit permission for this use.