Plucking Instruments - Zhēng



The Chinese character for this instrument is “”, in Wade system it is pronounced as “chêng”. It is one of the oldest plucked instruments of China, first appeared in today’s Shaanxi and Gansu, which used to be the land of the State of Qin and became very popular during the dynasties of Sui and Tang.

There have been different opinions on how it came into being. One opinion held that two persons were grabbing at one a 50 string Se at the same time and scrambled for it, as a result, it broke in the middle, the Chinese character for the behavior of scrambling is “”, so people used this character to name the Se that was broken from the middle and added a bamboo radical “”—on top of it.

The second opinion held that Zheng was invented by Meng Tian, a general of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-207 B.C.); but this opinion has been very much challenged.

The third opinion held that it was evolved from “Zhù”—another plucked instrument made of bamboo. The earliest Zheng had 5 strings, looked very much like a “Zhù”, and its strings were the same as those used on a Sè. People who held this opinion believed that the name came from the sound it produced—“zhēng, zhēng.”

When it came to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220), the frets could be moved to reset tones.

13-string Zhēng was popular in the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

      A 13-string Zhēng

Zhēng was widely used in Tang Dynasty music and also found its way to Japan. In 834, a member of Japanese imperial court, Fujiwara no Sadatoshi, came to Tang as an envoy. He learned Zhēng playing from a master named Liu Erlang whose daughter was married to Fujiwara, and 6 years later she went to Japan with her Japanese husband. In 889, Tang Dynasty sent a band of 62 musicians to Japan to disseminate Zhēng playing; it was said that the Japanese and some ministers were among those who learned Zheng playing with real earnest.

Zhēng had 14 and 16 strings in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and copper strings replaced silk ones during mid Qing period.


Zhēng was used not only in solo playing, but also in ensembles for accompanying local operas.

(1)    Head; (2) nut; (3) string; (4) fret; (5) body; (6) tailpiece.



Different Types of Zhēng

Traditional Zhēng had 13-16 strings. Those used in northern China were longer and those used in the south, especially in Guangdong Province were shorter.

Modern ones have been reformed, some can make inflections; some put two Zhēngs together, yet with only one sound box, such as Butterfly type as the picture below:







Famous Zhēng Pieces:

Lotus out of Waterthe music portrays the beautiful and vivid image of lotus flower, which grows up from mud under water, yet keeps itself clean.


Ducks Play in Watertries to depict carefree and leisurely life by describing how ducks play in cold water. This is a typical piece of Chaozhou Music, a southern school that has its own features in melody and tones.


Singing on Fishing Boats at Duskis a famous northern Zheng piece, which depitcts how fishermen enjoyed their day’s big catch and while singing with a beautiful sun-set, they vied with each other to see who would be the first to get home.



Lin Chong Went up to Mount Liangshan at a Snowy Night: Mount Liangshan was where the outlaws of the Song Dynasty were. Lin Chong was the head instructor of the capital garrison, but he was persecuted more than once and finally he made up his mind to join the outlaws. This music piece described how he went up to the mount on a snowy night. 


Night Rain Drops on Banana Leafsis a master piece of Zheng playing that depicts a how traveller missed home at a deep and quiet night when only rain drops on banana leafs were heard.