Guzheng: An Ancient Beauty for Thousands of Years

GUZHENG (古筝, also called Chinese zither) is an ancient Chinese string instrument with a history of more than 2500 years. It emerged in Qin State (秦国) in the Warring States Period (战国时期 475 BC-221BC), and as a result, it has also been called ‘qínzhēng’. ‘Gu’ in guzheng stands for ‘ancient’ in Chinese, and ‘zheng’ is explained by Liu Xi (刘熙), a notable classical scholar from the Eastern Han Dynasty (东汉 25-220), as “plucking the strings quickly makes a series of ‘zhengzheng’ sounds” (施弦高急,筝筝然也 Shīxiángāojí, zhēngzhēngrányě), which means that guzheng is named for the sound it produces. Guzheng was introduced to Japan, Korea and Vietnam during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晋时期 220-420), making guzheng the ancestor of the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.

Guzheng is a beautiful instrument, pretty and slender. It has a rectangle wooden sound box and a surface ornamented with engravings, shell carvings, embossment, or lettering in the margin, with tight strings arched across movable bridges along the length of the instrument. In the earliest days of the development of guzheng, it only had five strings, which then increased to twelve in the late Warring States Period, to thirteen in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907), to sixteen in the last period of the Qing Dynasty (清朝 1644-1911), and now the number of strings is up to 18-25 or more.

Guzheng is sometimes also called ‘the King of Instruments’ and ‘the Oriental Piano’ for its beautiful tones. Owing to the high tone quality and rich tone colour, its sounds can be reminiscent of a scenic countryside, cascading waterfalls, gurgling springs, singing birds and fragrant flowers, a breeze, rain and thunder. Anyone who watches the guzheng performance will be intoxicated by it and the voice is so beautiful and sweet that it remains lingering long in the air.

Many masterpieces are played on or accompanied by guzheng, such as Night Chant in Fishing Boat (渔舟唱晚 Yúzhōu- chàngwăn), Jackdaws Playing in the Water (寒鸦戏水 Hányā-xìshuĭ), Autumn Moon over the Han Place (汉宫秋月 Hàngōng-qiūyuè), Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water (高山流水 Gāoshān-liúshuĭ), Lotus Blossoms Emerging from the Water (出水莲 Chūshuĭlián), etc. All these masterpieces allow the instrumentalists to fully express their feelings, and enchant the listeners with their pure and understated melodies that unfold softly and float through the air. No wonder that so many poets speak highly of guzheng and that they muse about it in many a poem.

A poet shares his personal feelings in the form of a poem. And in Chinese poetry, the guzheng plays an important part in a poet’s life. Guzheng has become a kind of cultural symbol in the world of Chinese poetry. It brings a state of silence, tranquility and even sensibility and sadness to mind. However, there are examples that provide us with another view of guzheng. In Listening to the Guzheng Music (听筝 Tīngzhēng) by Li Duan (李端 743-782), a talented poet from the Tang Dynasty, the guzheng acts as a tool to convey love. The poem tells us a love story of an attractive, adept guzheng player who feels an immediate attraction to one of her listeners. But, from the moment the player plucks on the exquisite guzheng, the listener is too deeply absorbed in her spellbinding guzheng music to notice her. Cleverly, the beautiful player with her fair and slender fingers plays a few irregular, wrong notes with the intention of drawing attention to herself throughout the performance.

An elegant guzheng performance fills people with a feeling of beauty, not merely because of the artistic conception that the melodic tone and heart-shaking rhythm generate, but also because of the instrumentalist’s dramatic stage performance with abundant emotions revealed by his or her poise, gestures, fingering, expressions in his or her eyes, and even by how he or she dressed. All these ‘visual effects’ strengthen the beauty of guzheng by means of the fusion of sound and vision. It is the instrumentalist who endows the musical composition with life force and energy. Intrinsically, the instrumentalist’s rhythmical body movements and gestures create a beautiful visual music, which is appealing to the audiences and helps them to grasp the charm of the music piece. The guzheng performance is an aural as well as a visual delight.

By Ding Xiyuan (丁喜媛)