From ex-teacher Garreth Byrne: The Chinese Guzheng

The guzheng [pronounced goo-djeng] is a distinctive musical instrument of China, resembling a zither with up to 25 strings. It is placed on trestles and plucked by the player with plastic plectra attached to the finger tips of the right hand. Its resonator box may be made of rosewood or mahogany.

The strings are stretched over the surface, fastened at the left end and at the right where there are pegs for tuning. A moveable bridge under each of the strings can adjust the string’s pitch. 

In ancient times it was a court instrument played by pretty daughters of the landed gentry and mandarin administrators dressed in silk kimonos. Ceramic designs and stylised wall scrolls seen in China’s museums often depict seated women playing the guzheng in dynastic buildings.

The instrument goes back about 2500 years and has evolved in size, the number of strings, the materials from which it is made and the elaborate playing techniques. Until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the instrument had a maximum of 15 strings.

To play this elegant instrument the learner-performer uses the right hand to pluck the strings, with the left hand pressing the strings on the left side of the bridge to produce vibrato, pitch alterations or slides. Advanced players can create sounds that resemble a cascading waterfall, horses’ hooves, and undulating countryside. By sliding a finger smoothly down over all the strings a player can produce a decorative flourish similar to glissando on the keys of a piano.

Practice makes perfect

The guzheng is sometimes an ensemble instrument accompanied by the long guitar-shaped stringed pipa, bamboo flutes, erhu (two-stringed violin) and gongs, but in modern times has really come into its own as a solo instrument. I have seen it played, in fine weather, in public parks, on university campus, at concert halls and in private apartments, often on public holidays. Sheet music enables players to perform to perfection. Parents with money hire music teachers to begin lessons with daughters aged 7 years upwards. I once walked along a city footpath in Jingdezhen in South-East China and happened to see a mother supervising her daughter trying the strings of a guzheng on a trestle table outside a music shop. I hope that lucky girl can now entertain her family and friends at holiday gatherings.

Expert musicians can play tunes with poetic titles like Autumn Moon over the Han Palace, Evening Song from the Fishing Boat, and Horse Bells ringing at Night. It is possible to buy quality CD recordings of solo guzheng or ensemble renditions of such evocative and relaxing meditative melodies.

The zither stringed instrument is found in Southern Germany, in the Swiss Alps, in Bohemia and parts of former Yugoslavia. Scandinavian emigrants to the USA introduced zithers and dulcimers which evolved into Appalacian dulcimer. The dulcimer is beaten with wooden hammers. It has found its way into traditional Irish music and features at festivals. Irish musicians still prefer the plucked harp.

* A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Ireland’s Eye magazine.

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