Also:       guzheng      

Title: Collection of Chinese “Zheng” Master, Vol. 4—Three Movements of Plum Flowers; Yiu Nain-Sang, zheng. Label: MCD. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MCD-1063. Track: 9.

Title: demo: Chinese zheng; Du Yu, zheng. Format: DV.

Contextual Associations

Zheng, or guzheng (‘ancient zheng’) is a plucked box-zither chordophone of the Han Chinese found today both on mainland China and in Taiwan. Although of ancient origins and used in court ensemble music from 581-1911 CE, today the zheng is not used in ritual. It is currently viewed primarily as a solo instrument for personal enjoyment and is also played in regional ensembles. Built upon the earlier solo and ensemble practices of several regional schools (Shandong, Henan, Kejia, Chaozhou, and Zhejiang), the current solo performance tradition of the zheng has been growing in popularity and changing rapidly since the 1950's when it entered the modern conservatory system. Liang Tsaiping revitalized the zheng tradition and helped grow its popularity as a personal art form from the 1950's to the 1980's. Both innovations in the form of the instrument and a large number of new compositions have been driving these changes. The elaborately decorated 21-string zheng pictured here (see first detail image for a close-up of a panel of carving) represents the most common contemporary form of the instrument, although several other models exist. The bottom board of the resonator has an inscription (see second detail image) that reads: ‘Heavenly Art Musical Instruments; Professional Performance Zheng.’ This manufacturer is located in the city of Yangzhou.


Two zheng are pictured on this page. The following description focuses on the first of these; differences between it and the second example will be noted in brackets. Its hollow resonator is constructed from hardwood side- and bottom-boards and an arched soundboard made from softer wutong wood. The bottom board has three [2] differently shaped sound holes (see second detail image). Twenty-one [eighteen] steel core-nylon overspun strings of varying gauges are stretched over the soundboard, their basic length articulated by two fixed bridges, one straight (near the playing end of the instrument), the other curved. Their general tension is controlled by tuning pins situated below the straight bridge in a chamber accessible through a hinged cover (see detail image 3). The other end of each string is threaded through an eyelet in the soundboard, underneath which it is tied to a small pin. This provides the counter tension against which the tuning pins work. A high, moveable wooden bridge topped with a plastic cap is inserted under each string before playing to tune the string to its desired pitch.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The seated performer faces the instrument, which rests horizontally on adjustable legs, from the side with the highest pitched string, and plucks the strings with the fingernails of her/his right hand (the performer seen in video #1 uses her thumb and first three fingers to pluck the strings; she uses artificial picks attached with rings on three of these digits). The left hand fingers are used to apply pressure to the non-vibrating side of the strings; the changes in string tension brought about by these actions produce vibrato and other subtle pitch inflections. The tuning of the strings involves two mechanisms and stages. All strings are tuned at their full length, without their individual moveable bridges in place, to approximately the same pitch by adjusting tuning pins that are located in a covered chamber at one end of the instrument (see detail photo 2). Prior to playing, the performer situates a moveable wooden bridge beneath each string at some point between the instrument's two fixed bridges. By adjusting the location of these moveable bridges, the performer tunes the segment of each string closest to the straight fixed bridge to an anhemitonic pentatonic scale covering a range of four octaves, from A2 to A6. Melodic passages, double stops (usually octaves), pitch bending, vibrato, and glissandi are the basic building blocks of zheng music.


An ancient instrument, the zheng is thought to have evolved from the se, a 25-string zither from the Zhou period (1200-221 BCE). Various legends exist that explain how early 12- and 13-string versions of the zheng were derived from the se. Recently, a 13-string zheng was found in a Jiangxi archaeological site that could date to approximately 600 B.C.E. By the 18th century CE a 16-string version of the zheng was standard, and only from the middle of the 20th century did the 18- and 21-string models pictured on this page become the standard.

Bibliographic Citations

Liang, Mingyue. 1984. “Zheng [cheng] (i).” NGDMI v.3: 893-894.

________. 1985. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Thrasher, Alan R. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Witzleben, J. Lawrence. 2002. "Instruments: Zheng." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 171-173.



Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.122 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: moveable pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one


63 in. length (first zheng) 49.5 in. length (second zheng)

Primary Materials

string - synthetic-wound wire

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin