Guzheng: A Chinese Stringed Instrument with Long-lasting Popularity

2021-10-09 14:13:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter MENG JIAXIN
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“Sweetie, you are next. Relax and just focus on your playing,” said Cao Yuanyuan, a young guzheng teacher at Beijing 101 Middle School, while adjusting the collar of Xirong, a girl who was dressed in an elaborate hanfu (a traditional style of Chinese clothing). With an audience of around 200 seated people in the school theater and 100 more watching live streaming online, 14-year-old Xirong paced up and down behind the stage, looking a bit tense, but there were also sparkles of excitement in her eyes. Two minutes later during the school concert, the spotlight shined on her as she played her guzheng solo debut in the Dream Theater of Beijing 101 Middle School.

At Beijing 101 Middle School, guzheng classes have been included in the curriculum for students at the international department. A guzheng club is also available for those who hope to learn more about it. The musical instrumnent is building a link between the traditional Chinese art and the new generation.

A man is playing a traditional type of guzheng with a lit incense burner.

Long-lasting Popularity

Played by around 100 million people in China, guzheng is now a popular traditional Chinese musical instrument. There are a number of guzheng clubs and studios hosted by schools throughout China.

The question that begs an answer is why does the guzheng not have any rival in popularity among all the classical Chinese instruments? The unexpected “hype” for guzheng in movies is one of the contributors, especially in the 1990s where guzheng was played by some famous movie stars like Brigittee Lin, Gong Li, and Joey Wong, and thus naturally became known to millions of people. Besides this accidental “hype,” another important factor is that the price of a guzheng is normally less than RMB 2,000, much cheaper than most other classical Chinese instruments. Compared with a konghou (Chinese harp), which is priced at least RMB 300,000, a guzheng is affordable to most people.

According to historical records, guzheng first became popular during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Being widely played in the court and by the public, it had already become the most popular stringed instrument by the prime time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the guzheng duet performance emerged. By playing in concert together, two players make their rendition more expressive and touching through their musical interactions.

In the 1950s, the design and manufacturing techniques of guzheng went through a major transformation, highlighted by an enlarged soundbox and the addition of metal strings which enabled the stings to produce a louder sound. By the 1960s, the model of guzheng we use today was set: 160.5 centimeters long and 33.5 centimeters wide with 22 strings.

Cao Yuanyuan and Beijing 101 Middle School Choir perform at the CCTV Dragon Boat Special Show in June 2021.


Making Techniques, Old and New

There are several types of guzheng. The typical one has 21 strings which mainly consists of a front board, backboard, side board, head, tail, bridges, and strings. The resonance soundbox is composed of the front board, backboard, and side board. An arched sound bridge is placed inside the soundbox, not only to produce sound but also to support the box. The quality and structure of the soundbox decides the sound of guzheng. The head is used to fix the strings, and its sides have holes to allow the sound to emit. Besides, the head is usually connected to the resonance box, therefore expanding the range of sound. The head and the tail look symmetrical. The bridges under the strings can be moved sideways to change the pitch and tune.

Guzheng making techniques can be categorized into two types: traditional hollowing and modern method. There are two ways of hollowing. One is front board hollowing: the front board is made using one piece of wood; the other is whole board hollowing: both the front board and the sideboard are made from one piece of wood. The material for whole board hollowing needs to be dried for at least five years for better sound quality and longer life.

The guzheng that is made with the modern method is called a curved zheng, featuring a curved front board which is pressed from a flat board. The board is dried by heat and then pressed into an arc by special machines. A good guzheng is able to create a wide range of tones and play various music styles.

An Ongoing Passion

Guzheng has always been widely popular throughout history. However, there were only less than a dozen professional guzheng players in China during the early 20th century due to frequent wars. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the setting up of conservatories in China, guzheng made an unprecedented comeback. The improvement of a musical education system has also enabled many children’s musical dreams to come true, many of whom have become traditional music promoters after graduation. Cao Yuanyuan is one of them.

Cao started her music academic pursuits as a teenager at the Middle School Attached to Minzu University of China, which boasts a well-known major in musical instruments. After high school, she continued studying guzheng for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, spending all her time perfecting her playing skills of this traditional Chinese stringed instrument which she treasured so much.

After graduation in July 2020, she has been teaching guzheng at the Beijing 101 Middle School and formed a guzheng club. “In addition to teaching students playing skills, I also intend to influence their lives in a positive way and help them learn good virtues and build character. Guzheng can be a magic instrument when one immerses themselves in playing it. I hope that whatever they choose to do in their lives, as soon as they play tunes on the guzheng, they can find inner peace and spiritual relief.” This heartfelt wish of Cao Yuanyuan not only reflects her perspective as a teacher, but also that of a guzheng lover who has found her inner self in her long pursuit of playing guzheng.

Since Cao’s mother was a guzheng teacher, Cao started to learn to play guzheng at the age of five under her guidance.

Her first visit to China’s capital city of Beijing was not for tourism but to attend a training session given by a celebrated guzheng virtuoso. But in the very first class, the virtuoso told her that her skill was not good enough to find a place in any musical high school in Beijing. That comment came as a huge blow to Cao, but it ignited a deeper passion inside her for playing guzheng.

Once she returned home from Beijing, she made a schedule for herself to practice eight hours every day. When she returned to Beijing for the second session of the training, the virtuoso told her that she had made some progress. After that, traveling to Beijing once a week for the class became a routine for her until she enrolled in the High School Affiliated to Minzu University of China by winning first place in the entry trial.

Cao Yuanyuan plays the guzheng at a CCTV show in July 2021.

Dive into Guzheng Tunes

In the Guzheng Club room at Beijing 101 Middle School, Cao is tuning her instrument. The decorations and design of the classroom are reminiscent of a guzheng room hundreds of years ago: decorated with wooden chairs, traditional Chinese style windowframes and a bookshelf, a tea set, traditional bonsai trees, and traditional Chinese paintings, providing a traditional Chinese cultural atmosphere for guzheng players.

As the new generation is growing up, guzheng is embraced with fresh vitality and new passions just like it has for thousands of years.

Guzheng classes have been included into the curriculum of the international department of Beijing 101 Middle School, giving sophomores the chance to play it every week. For those who would like to learn more about this instrument, they can attend the audition at the guzheng club.

Presently, there are 25 members in the club. Cao said she was glad that students were eager to join the club and enjoyed playing guzheng. Those young people have better practicing conditions and more performance opportunities on stages than she did at their age. The club has performed on various stages such as China Central Television’s musical show, the national Dragon Boat Festival carnival, and the celebration events of Beijing 101 Middle School.

Siyuan is a member of the guzheng club. She prepared for her first solo performance at the school concert for months, and at a cue, she walked out to the center of the stage to enjoy her showtime.  

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