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The Evolution of Guzheng: Tracing 2500 Years of Chinese Music History

Last Updated on 2023/11/23

The Guzheng (古筝): A Comprehensive Overview of China’s Traditional Plucked String Instrument

The Guzheng (古筝), also known as zheng, Qin zheng (秦筝), and Han zheng (汉筝), is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument with a history spanning over 2,500 years. The instrument’s structure consists of a rectangular wooden soundbox, with a bridge called “zhengzhu” (筝柱) that can be moved freely. Each string corresponds to a single note, arranged according to a pentatonic scale. The earliest guzhengs had up to twelve strings, which evolved over time during the Tang and Song dynasties to thirteen, and later to sixteen, eighteen, and twenty-one strings. The most common specification today is the twenty-one-string guzheng.

Naming

The name “Guzheng” originates from two theories: one relates to the instrument’s sound, and the other derives from a story about two people competing for the instrument.

Chinese musician Jiang Nan and her guzheng
Chinese musician Jiang Nan and her guzheng, source

History

  • Spring and Autumn Period: The guzheng’s existence in the state of Qin is documented, where it was used in primitive dance music.
  • Han Dynasty: The guzheng evolved from the instrument “zhu”, transitioning from five to twelve strings.
  • Tang Dynasty: The transition from a struck string instrument to a plucked string instrument is noted, with a development towards thirteen strings, close to the modern form of the guzheng.

Instrument Body

The body of the guzheng is a wooden, flat, elongated box with a curved surface. The strings, anchored at both ends on bridges, are supported in the middle by movable bridges called “yanzhu” (雁柱). The number of strings varies by region and school, with common variations including 16, 21, and 26-stringed instruments, made of different materials like nylon steel, steel, or silk.

Playing Techniques

  • Right Hand: Techniques include plucking (both inward and outward) and advanced methods like continuous plucking, shaking, and various combinations.
  • Left Hand: Techniques involve pressing the strings to change pitch and create vibrato effects.

Traditional Guzheng Schools

  • Chaozhou Zheng: Known for its melodious and enchanting style, prevalent in Chaozhou and neighboring regions. It’s part of the “Chaozhou String Poetry” and features a variety of tuning systems and unique playing techniques.
  • Henan Zheng: Originating from Henan Province, this style is characterized by its bright and robust nature. It evolved from the traditional “Da Diao Quzi”, with techniques emphasizing rhythmic and melodic embellishments.
  • Shandong Zheng: Found in Shandong Province, this style is known for its vigorous and profound character. It features distinct techniques like brisk plucking and large vibrato.
  • Zhejiang Zheng: Popular in Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions, known as “Wulin Zheng” or “Hang Zheng”. This school is notable for its elegant and restrained music, closely associated with traditional silk and bamboo music.
  • Hakka Zheng: A style that pervades Guangdong and southwestern Fujian provinces, part of Hakka music. It’s distinguished by its classical elegance and retains many ancient melodies.
  • Fujian Zheng: Prevalent in the Minnan-speaking regions of Fujian, it originated from ancient ensemble performances and has been popular in the region since the Song and Ming dynasties.
  • Shaanxi Zheng: Also known as Qin Zheng, it’s based on the traditional “Qin Sheng” music of Shaanxi, marked by its unique tonality and pitch variations.

Modern Innovations

  • Butterfly Zheng: Invented in 1978 by He Baoquan and Shanghai Music Academy, this zheng resembles a butterfly and combines two guzhengs into one, allowing for a wide range of tonal possibilities.
  • Xin Zheng: A modern variation developed by Hebei Fuhai Xin Zheng Company, this instrument allows for complex modal play, integrating both traditional and modern musical scales.

Featured image: source

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