Guzheng, a Taste for the Eastern Tune

The spirit of Chinese music is deeply rooted in Confucian philosophy: Music is the harmony of Tian and Di (heaven and earth), and our ability and spiritual understanding of music. It explains that tones are the substance of music, whereas melody and rhythm are the appearance of tones. Thus, emphasis in Chinese music is on the single tones, its articulation, timbre, and inflection. This concept is manifested in the music for gu-zheng.

The guzheng, (pronounced "goo-zheng"), is a plucked string instrument that is part of the zither family. It is the forerunner of all Asian zither including Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatag and Vietnamese dan tranh. The guzheng has been a popular instrument since ancient times and is considered as one of the main chamber as well as solo instruments of Chinese traditional music.

The guzheng is one of the most ancient Chinese musical instruments according to the documents written in the Qin dynasty (before 206 BC). Due to it long history, the zheg has been called guzheng, where “gu” stands for “ancient” in Chinese. Since the mid-19th century, guzheng solo repertoire has been growing and evolving towards an increasing technical complexity.

The guzheng is build with a special wooden sound body with strings arched across movable bridges along the length of the instrument for the purpose of tuning. In the early times the zheng had 5 string; later on developed into 12 to 13 strings in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD) and 16 strings in the Song and Ming dynasty (from the 10th to 15th century). The present day zheng usually has 21-25 strings. Originally, silk strings were used, but these are now replaced with metal strings instead.

The pitch of a given string is determined by the position of the bridge, therefore, guzheng can in principle be tuned to any desired scales. Guzheng player attaches a little plectrum on each finger. Traditionally the instrumentalist mostly uses three fingers of the right hand for plucking whereas the left hand pressing the string from the other side of the bridge to create special tonalities. For some contemporary repertoires, both hands are needed to produce complicated harmonies using four fingers of each, which means that even the fingers of the left hand need to ware plectrums. One can also use sticks to hit on the strings in the way like a percussion instrument.