Traditional Chinese Guzheng

Stella Lu is a Wellington-based student, who has been doing volunteer work for us with all things Contest-related.  You may have spied her page turning for some of our Kaleidoscopes concerts, including the 2015 Chamber Music Contest.

She has been volunteering in our National Office as part of her Duke of Edinburgh Award – she has been organising archive information for the Contest. She has written a very interesting blog post about a lesser-known chamber music instrument:

Here’s a video of Stella and her friend Jiajing Chen playing guzhengs.

Me (left) and my friend, Jiajing Chen (right), are playing guzhengs. The guzheng is a plucked zither instrument that originates from ancient China, and dates back to early forms of the instrument in the Warring States period, 475 – 221 BCE. It was the most popular instrument in China in the Qin period and Tang Dynasty. Although it is more of a solo instrument, it’s sometimes used in Chinese orchestras along with other traditional Chinese instruments, like the Dizi and Pipa. It’s still a popular instrument in China, and you can study guzheng and other traditional instruments at Asian universities. There are very few guzheng players in NZ, but there are a couple teachers and a handful of students. Chen XiYao tours NZ with his guzheng often.

portrait instrument photo.jpg

My friend Jiajing has been learning the guzheng for many years, and her guzheng was a gift that her aunt brought back from China. I’ve been looking for a guzheng for a long time to add to my Chinese instrument collection, but I couldn’t find any NZ dealers, and I was too scared that a guzheng bought overseas would break in the shipping! Luckily someone has been selling a lot of them on Trade Me for a good price.

tuning bolts photo

The modern guzheng has 21 strings that are like bigger and longer cello strings. Each string has its own movable bridge. The strings are tuned like a piano. A tool is used to turn the bolts on the right side of the instrument. The guzheng is tuned in a pentatonic D scale – D, E, F#, A, B.

You play with four false nails taped on the first four fingers on each hand. The ‘claws’ are meant to pluck the string, like using a pick on a guitar. At first it’s a little disorienting, since your fingers are extended, but you get used to it quickly!

hand photoThe right hand only plucks the string on the right side of the bridge, and the left hand either plucks strings or bends the pitch of a string by pushing down on the string on the left side of the bridge. That’s how the in-between notes are played – by bending the pitch of the strings!

Guzheng music isn’t written in regular Western music notation. Instead, it uses numbers! 1 = D, 2 = E, 3 = F#, 4 = G, 5 – A, 6 = B, 7 = C#. The dots above or below a number show what octave the note is in. Rhythm is shown with lines and dots similar to Western notation. Other symbols show details, e.g. which finger to use, whether or not to play an octave chord, glissandos, pitch bends, vibrato, etc.

music notation photo.jpg

Even though the modern guzheng still sounds very traditional, it’s a very versatile instrument, and lots of people have played modern pieces on it. It has such a unique sound! Maybe I’ll play a harder duet with Jiajing a year from now…



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