What is a Guzheng “School”? How Many are there?

Oh boy is this complicated. There are between 2 and 15 schools depending on how you count. Usually 5 or 6 schools are named, so how do we get to 15? Read on to learn more! (Visit the Schools and Styles page to learn about the characteristics of each school.) . For now, let’s start at the beginning.

First: What is a School?

The relevant Mandarin word is liúpài (流派). Liúpài is a concept of classification reserved for higher art forms. A “school” as we translate to English captures the idea of a style that is passed down from one artist to the next, something that goes beyond genre or type. Let’s use painting as an example. A painter could create a still life in romantic style or in an abstract style. These are very different styles but are of the same “genre” of painting - a still life. So too is it with zheng music. Two songs can both be focused on telling an important story, but be played with different styles. The differences, the nuances, are what were taught and passed down within a particular guzheng “school”.

Guzheng music was not considered high art until the 1950s or 60s so there were no nationally recognized liúpài until then. People have had to create liúpài very recently- and since guzheng music has exploded in diversity and blending in those same 60 or so years, boy has it been hard to agree on what constitutes a “school”.

The most popular naming convention is the geographical region the music can be traced back to. The earliest known mention of zheng liúpài came in 1936 when a musician labeled their record as běipài or northern style (北派). (Han 2013) Soon there was a southern style (nánpài 南派). Musicians in the north and south offered even more specific names based on things like the techniques players used. Schools started to get named after provinces, schools, and ethnic groups.

When you add all of the names together we get:

  • 8 major regional schools,

  • 2 major foreign schools,

  • 11 almost-synonyms that are roughly equivalent with the first 10 schools,

  • 3 true synonyms,

  • 3 problematic terms,

  • and 5 contentious/defunct schools.

Here are three diagrams that show how all these relate to each other. The first shows the schools that fall roughly in the “North” category. The second shows “South” and the third show other names you might encounter as you search.

Northern Guzheng Schools. Color indicates the most common name. Size is approximate popularity. White boxes are terms that are now included in the colored terms. They are: Henan, Shaanxi (Qin) Shandong, and Zhejiang (Hangzhou)

Southern Guzheng Schools. Color = most common name. Size is approximate popularity. White boxes are terms that are now included in the colored terms even if the white terms are larger physical regions. They are: Chaozhou, Guangdong or Cantonese or Guanzhou, Fujian or Min or Minnan, and Zhongzhou, which can also be written as Hakka, Kejia, or several more.

Other Guzheng Schools. Color indicates the most common name. White boxes are terms that are now included in the colored terms. The less notable schools may appear in literature but aren’t currently considered different enough to warrant naming a school for them.

The Big 8

In anglicized alphabetical order the names and synonyms for the guzheng liúpài or schools are:

  1. Cantonese - A regional/cultural descriptor. Includes music attributed to the larger province, Guǎngdōng (广东 Also known as Canton), and the major city, Guǎngzhōu (广州).

  2. Cháozhōu (潮州) - Another city in Guangdong. Regarded as a separate and more storied guzheng tradition than Cantonese zheng.

  3. Fújiàn (福建) - Province in southern China. Includes music attributed to its southern region, Mǐnnán (闽南); might also be used to include music influenced by the Mǐn (闽) people.

  4. Hakka (客家, Mandarin: kèjiā) - Ethnic group and descriptor for their culture. Other associated terms are hàndiào (漢調, Tunes of the Han), zhōngzhōu gǔdiào (中州古調, Ancient Tunes of the Central Plain), wàijiāng xián (外江弦, Strings of Foreign Rivers) and Guǎngdōng hànyue (广东汉乐, Cantonese Han Music). You may see the Chinese romanization, Kejia in some non-Chinese sources. “Hakka” is closer to how those characters are pronounced in this people’s dialect; kèjiā is the Mandarin pronunciation.

  5. Hénán (河南) - Province in Northern China.

  6. Shǎanxī (陕西) - Province in central China considered Northern. Music from this area can also be labeled as Qín (秦) in reference to the Qin people/dynasty that used to be there.

  7. Shāndōng (山東) - Province in Central China considered Northern.

  8. Zhèjiāng (浙江) Province in central China considered Southern. Also known as Wǔlín (武林). Includes songs attributed to its capital city, Hángzhōu (杭州).

Foreign Schools

These contain music attributed to the two major influential foreign traditions - Korean and Mongolian.

  1. Korean (朝鲜, Cháoxiǎn or 韩国 Hángúo) - Coming from Korean culture; includes music from the Korean ethnicity that lives in China on the border with Korea. It also is used to name music composed for the Korean long zither the Gayaguem (伽倻琴, jiāyē qín).

  2. Mongolian (蒙古国, Ménggǔ guó) - Coming from Mongolian Culture; includes music from the Mongolian ethnicity from Inner Mongolia (内蒙古, Nèiménggǔ) which is a northern region of China, or music adapted from the Mongolian long zither “yatga” (雅托葛, Yǎtuōgé).

That gives us the 10 so far - 8 Chinese schools, 1 Mongol, 1 Korean. But you’ll encounter a few more names if you go searching. First and foremost are the minor or defunct schools, categories that haven’t gotten off the ground.

Five Minor Schools

Thee five schools have been proposed or intentionally founded in the last 50 years, but haven’t been widely accepted. The main objections are that their repertoires are too small, their differences are not distinct from their neighbors, and too few people play in each style.

  1. Fùgǔ (復古) translated as Renaissance, this movement was led by two experts, Wei Ziyou and Shi Yinmei with a focus on reviving old zheng pieces. (Han 2000)

  2. Hong Kong (香港, xiānggǎng) referring to Hong Kong in southern China. Guzheng music only started to become popular in the city in the 1970s or 80s. Guzheng music in Hong Kong is largely songs from other schools and does not have its own unique style - yet. One guzheng expert So Chun-bo devoted the later part of his life to establishing a Hong Kong style; his efforts may yet bear fruit.

  3. Liáoníng (sometimes represented as Liaolin) 辽宁 - a Northern province bordering Korea. There just doesn’t seem to be enough repertoire attributed to it at present. Perhaps it all get’s wrapped in under the label of “Korean”.

  4. Wéixīn 维新 translated as Renovation, this was an effort by zheng expert Liang Tsai-ping to both adapt old zheng pieces into a modern style and to compose new songs. (Han 2000)

  5. Yúnnán 云南 - A Southern province west of Hong Kong. I have not been able to find enough repertoire, activity, or mention of it in my searches.

That brings us to 15. Last up are three terms that are hard to include as true synonyms.

Three problem terms:

These three words aren’t as clearly defined or widely used. They appear just to be synonyms, but each is complicated.

  • Zhongzhou (中州) is described in different contexts as equivalent to either Hakka (Han 2013) or Henan (Cheng 1991 and Han 2013). The Hakka were in Henan 1200 years ago but left and brought their culture south. Shongzhou translates as “Central Plain”, the physical region of China Henan is part of. Maybe the confusion comes from that.

  • Hanjiang is said by Cheng 1991 to be an equivalent to Cháozhōu (潮州). Hanjiang is either a district in Fujian province or relates to the Han River which runs partly through Shaanxi. Both Fujian and Shaanxi already have their own recognized musical styles making this label difficult to place. Cheng 1991 is the only one of 10 sources who uses this term so I’ve left it off the charts.

  • Dapu is also listed as a synonym by Cheng 1991, this time for Hakka. Dapu could be a region or it could be the term for interpreting a musical score into a song, a concept from that other Chinese zither the qin. As he is the only one of 10 sources who uses it I have left it off the charts.

And there you go! Some insight into the many names of schools you may encounter and how they relate to each other. I am confident this list represents the most commonly used categories but the synonyms and minor schools get tricky. If you know better please send me an email! Here’s where I got my info:

Sources cited

Chen, Y.-Z. (1991). The Zheng: A Chinese Instrument and Its Music. Brown University.
Cheng 1991: Cheng, T. (1991). Zheng, Tradition and Change. University of Maryland at Baltimore County PhD Thesis
Ferguson, D. L. (1979). Modern Performance Techniques for the Chinese Zither Cheng. University of California Los Angeles.
Han, M. (2000). Historical and Contemporary Development of the Chinese Zheng. University of British Columbia. Link
Han, M. (2013). The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity. University of British of Columbia. Retrieved from Link
Khê, T. Van. (1985). Chinese Music and Musical Traditions of Eastern Asia. The World of Music, 27(1), 78–90. Retrieved from Link
Kwok, T. J. (1987). Zheng: a Chinese Zither and its Music. University of Hawaii.
Lua Shui Chung, J. (2006). Zheng Music : The Reception of a Post-1949 Chinese Tradition in Hong Kong. The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Retrieved from Link
Stiegel, J. E. (1983). The History, Usage, and Technique of the Chinese Cheng. Northern Illinois University.
Wong, S. S. (2005). 筝 Zheng. In Qi: An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (pp. 69–83). Singapore: TENG.