The History of Gu Zheng

Nowadays, the most common type of Gu Zheng has 21 strings, but there are also ones with 26 and 16 strings.
The History of Gu Zheng
A Chinese woman plays the Gu Zheng. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)
<a><img class="size-large wp-image-1775244" title="72667871" src="" alt="the Gu Zheng" width="590" height="442"/></a>
the Gu Zheng

The Chinese zither, or Gu Zheng, is one of the oldest Chinese instruments. According to historical records, the Gu Zheng was first invented during the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC). That is why the Gu Zheng also has another name in Chinese, Qin Zheng.

The Gu Zheng is a string instrument. Nowadays, the most common type of Gu Zheng has 21 strings, but there are also ones with 26 and 16 strings. Throughout history, there were more variations, and a few of them were brought to China’s neighboring countries. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a golden age of Chinese culture, which was flourishing and passing things onto other nations.

During the Tang Dynasty, Japan dispatched groups of musicians to learn how to play Gu Zheng from Chinese masters. These musicians returned to Japan once their skills matured and introduced the Gu Zheng to the Japanese royal family.

There have been many well-known musical pieces written for the Gu Zheng in different phases of Chinese history. When I learned to play the instrument, the first piece I was taught was “The Lofty Mountain and Flowing Water,” or Gao Shang Liu Shui in Chinese.

This piece was performed jointly by two Gu Zheng players, one of whom played softly so that the music resembled a river’s flowing water, while the other had a manner so grand that it resembled a high mountain.

Unlike the violin, which is played with a bow, the Gu Zheng is played by plucking its strings with both fingers and long nails. In ancient times, Gu Zheng players all had long, finely groomed natural nails.

When I learned the instrument as a little child, I had to wait patiently before I was allowed to tie the artificial nails onto my fingers with the help of a bandage. Beginners first had to learn to pluck the strings with their fingers so that they could get into the habit of using the right force and position to pluck. My teacher also emphasized good sitting posture, concentration, and having a heart of calmness and determination when we were in class.

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