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Traditional Chinese Instrument Guzheng (Zither)

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In the Chinese culture, music plays a very important role in moulding the society as well as entertaining. The Chinese people basically attach more importance to the aesthetic purport of various musical pieces that are played using the traditional instruments like the Zither. This article thus seeks to discuss the origin of the Qin (zither music) factors that affect the music and role that it plays in the Chinese society in general.

Historical background

The traditional Chinese Instrument Zheng commonly known as Guzheng is a string instrument played by plucking and belongs to the Zither family. According to the Qin dynasty documents (before 206 BC), the Guzheng is among the most ancient Chinese instruments of music and plays a very important role in the history of china, currently the Guzheng is being played all over the world and have perfectly accommodated the western melody, and characterized by solo playing or symphonic.

 The Zheng currently called Gu-Zheng or Guzheng with the Gu meaning ancient in the Chinese language. (Craiglist 1) This instrument is a solo instrument and comprises two parts; the bamboo and argue borrowed from the legendary story of a miserable man who wanted to pass his 25string Zheng to one daughter in old age and  decided to break the instrument into two for his daughters who were struggling over inheriting it because they loved it so much, so each ended up with a 12 and 13 stringed instrument respectively, hence the Zheng word borrowed from a dispute or argument, hence indicating that the original ancient instrument was made from bamboo which is different with the Guzheng of today.

The structure of the Guzheng has a wooden body comprising of strings put across bridges that are movable, this is for the purposes of tuning. The earliest Zheng was 5 stringed; then later on in the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907 AD the instrument was 12-13 stringed; in the Ming Dynasty the instrument was 16 stringed that were in between the 10th and 15th Century, although the present day Guzheng is has 21-25 strings. (Craiglist 1)

The players of Guzheng usually put a small spectrum on the finger used for playing; the right hand is used for playing the strings while the left for applying pressure.the Guzheng produces tender and even forceful and majestic tunes when played with special technique.

Physical description

Zheng or the Gu Zheng as it is generally known belongs to the Zither family, with the word Gu-meaning, ancient-Zheng. The instrument consist of a rectangular wooden box that surrounds it with a length of about four and a half feet, width of ten inches and a depth of three inches respectively.(Lee Yuan 215  )The strings that are plucked by the player of the instrument are basically made of nylon, silk or metal that run from an end of the Zheng to the other via a row of well designed wooden bridges that helps in raising the strings above or over the soundboard making it possible for the instrument  to produce quality sounds through the vibration of the strings.

The instrument also has got tuning pegs on its right end that are tuned in a desirable pentatonic scale, on the other hand the lowest octaves can as well be achieved by playing the strings on the farthest side of the instrument. In order to play Zheng appropriately it is placed on the table or any other raised surface that is generally comfortable to the player.(Lee Yuan 215  ) Traditionally the right hand finger are meant to pluck the strings that are situated on the right hand side of the designed wooden bridges while the left fingers are used in plucking the strings that are aligned to the left of the wooden bridges thus enabling the player to bend the pitch of the music into various forms like omaments, vibrato and even glissando.

Musical techniques and characteristics

Down the history lane, the instrument (Zheng) has been viewed as an elegant and a very sentimental instrument, being related to lighter music. Basically Zheng was and still is categorized as one of the easiest musical instruments to learn and start playing, in that it does not need much specialized intellect or knowledge in order to operate the instrument. (Lee Yuan 96)

This fact is grounded on the traditional technique in playing Zheng that needed only the right fingers to pluck the silk or metallic strings in a more easier octave, while the left hand was being used to press down on the strings that were situated on the left side of the wooden bridges to create the desired pitches, like the vibrato and glissandos, thus in deed making   the instrument one of the very easy to make, play and at the same time providing quality music. (Lee Yuan 84)

On the other hand modern musical instruments basically require a much wider and virtuosic technique, than the traditional technique that has been explained above. This prompted the need for change as time went by and more innovative instruments sprung up in the West. .(Lee Yuan 215  ) As Chinese music industry adopted and incorporated the harmonic elements of music from the Western music especially in the latter part of the 20th century, the Zheng slowly began to emulate this Western music techniques among which included the harp and piano techniques of playing music, where both hands are used in a sophisticated plucking to the right side of the bridges with the right hand in most cases specializing in the playing of melodies while the left hand on the other side providing a more harmonic accompaniment to the melody.

            On the same note, in order to place the Zheng in a more different key and wonderful synthetic scales, strings may be brought back or returned. Dramatic sound effects borrowed form the widely known Pipa repertoire are basically rekindled on the instrument and a much better use is made of the harmonics and this reminisces Oin literature(Lee Yuan 216)

Factors that have shaped the musical practice

There are a number of factors that has Chinese musical practice over the past decades with the prime factor being politics. Literature shows that the Chinese musical history over the last decades has been for a long time  inextricably bound to politics.(Duane 10 )The bureau of music of every new administration that emerged or ceased power established pitch standards and actually oversaw all ceremonial and court music in china. Early philosophers in china like Confucius, realized/understood the power that music had on the minds and soles of the people, and just like the ancient Greeks, the philosophers did recommend for control by the state having in mind the power that music has in the society.

Before the1911 revolution, Yayue (form of music associated with Confucianism) was made to be the state music with the emergence of Confucianism as the state religion under the Han Dynasty in china, this explains how politics basically had a major impact on music in china. This state of affair was necessitated by the apparent intrusion of the huyue (foreign music) especially form the west and the north that were increasingly becoming fashionable in the 386-589 AD. .(Duane 13 ) This control and dominance of huyue basically came to an end with the fall of the imperial courts in china, and today the music is only performed or confined only in the historical Confucian temples in China.

There are basically over 300 forms of regional theatres in china the famous one being the Beijing-Peking opera that was developed in the 18th century to cultivate casual conversation and social mingling. This type of music (the traditional opera) was also changed in 1964 with the opera being reformed to incorporate the ideologies of Mao Zedong, which culminated to a new form of music that emphasized patriotism. .(Duane 16 ) This music was accompanied by the Chinese classical musical instruments like the Qin (a long Zither) an instrument that has got a history that spans over 3000 years back.

Today Gu Zheng due to the infiltration of the Western culture in the Chinese music tradition, is now being used alongside other classical instruments in performing modern genres, for instance, the instrument has been used by Wang Yong a Chinese musician in a rock band as well as in jazz concerts. (Han15)


Craiglist. Information about Gu-Zheng (Chinese zither) Gu-Zheng (Chinese Zither)

            Lessons (Chinatown Community Cultural Center) [available at] www.craiglist.org

Or www.ccccdc.org

Duane and Orla. World music, vol.2: Latin &North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and


Han, Mei. “Guzheng.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second

            Edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, London, (2001) 15

Lee Yuan and shen. Chinese musical instruments (Chinese musical monograph

            Series) Chinese music society of North American press.1999.96-216

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