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What Is a Chinese Harp?

A Chinese harp, known as the guzheng, is a traditional plucked string instrument with a history spanning over 2,500 years. Its melodious tones and elegant design make it a cornerstone of Chinese music. With its deep cultural roots and enchanting sound, the guzheng offers a unique auditory journey. Curious about how it's played? Let's delve into the artistry behind its strings.
Jay Leone
Jay Leone

A Chinese harp is often referred to as a konghou. There are three basic types of Chinese harps, including the wuo konghou, the shoo konghou, and the fong shou konghou. Certain konghou instruments are played lying flat while others are held and played upright. These harps, which were in wide use in many ancient royal Chinese courts, produce a sound when strings are plucked with wooden picks or the fingertips.

While many modern Chinese harps do not resemble ancient models, they are still operated in much the same fashion. The biggest difference between a Chinese harp and other harps is that the konghou features strings that are folded over the instrument across bridges to allow the operator to play more notes off each string. The folded strings allow the operator to play vibrato and bending tones.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Swift rhythms and overtones can be achieved with these harps. When a string is plucked on one side of a konghou with a hand or pick, another hand can press the string on the opposite side of the instrument to create a sound other than the one that would be produced by plucking the string alone. Plucking many strings together creates complex sounds.

The three main types of konghou differ largely based on the position in which they are held and played. The wuo konghou is referred to as the horizontal konghou while the shoo konghou is referred to as the vertical konghou. Horizontal Chinese harps are laid out and played horizontally in front of the operator. Shoo konghou Chinese harps on the other hand, are held upright and played vertically.

Vertical Chinese harps are bow-shaped and feature 7, 15, 22, or 23 strings. This type of Chinese harp is played with both hands but only the index fingers and thumbs are used to play the instrument. The fong shou konghou features a phoenix bird head design on the neck of the instrument. The original sound boxes on these instruments were carved into shapes that resemble a boat. The strings on the original phoenix Chinese harps were either tied to the neck or attached to the neck with pins.

The horizontal Chinese harp was played in southern China as early as 770 BC. The instrument was not widely played in a vertical fashion until several hundred years later. The shoo konghou made its debut between 22 and 220 AD, during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Chinese harps were widely used for ceremonies and rites between the years 618 and 907 AD, during the Tang Dynasty. Phoenix-headed konghous were introduced to China's central plains from India between 317 and 420 AD.

Chinese harps essentially went out of widespread use around the seventeenth century because more complicated instruments were being introduced to the population of China. Demand for konghou instruments rose again in the twentieth century. In 1964, the konghou was revived among the people in Shenyang, China. During the mid-1980s, many manufacturers began manufacturing hybrid konghou instruments that incorporated the designs of several instruments including the mandolin.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Chinese harp and where does it originate from?

The Chinese harp, known as the guzheng, is a traditional Chinese string instrument with a history spanning over 2,500 years. It originates from ancient China and has evolved through various dynasties, becoming an integral part of Chinese music. The guzheng typically has 21 strings and movable bridges, and it is played by plucking the strings with the fingers, often using plectra attached to the fingers.

How is the Chinese harp different from a Western harp?

The Chinese harp, or guzheng, differs from a Western harp in several ways. The guzheng is a zither with strings stretched over a flat surface, whereas Western harps are generally triangular and have strings perpendicular to the soundboard. Additionally, the playing technique for the guzheng involves plucking strings with plectra on the fingers, while Western harps are typically played with the fingertips. The guzheng also has movable bridges to adjust pitch, unlike the fixed strings on a Western harp.

What types of music can be played on a Chinese harp?

A Chinese harp, or guzheng, is versatile and can be used to play a wide range of music, from traditional Chinese folk music to contemporary pieces. It is capable of producing melodious tunes and intricate harmonies, making it suitable for solo performances as well as ensembles. Modern musicians have also incorporated the guzheng into various genres, including world fusion, new-age, and even pop music, showcasing its adaptability.

How do you learn to play the Chinese harp?

Learning to play the Chinese harp, or guzheng, typically involves taking lessons from a skilled instructor who can teach the proper techniques, such as hand positioning and plucking methods. Many learners start with basic exercises to familiarize themselves with the instrument's layout and sound production before progressing to more complex pieces. Practice is essential, and there are also instructional books and online resources available for self-study.

Where can one purchase a Chinese harp and what is the cost range?

A Chinese harp, or guzheng, can be purchased from music stores specializing in Chinese instruments, as well as from online retailers. The cost of a guzheng can vary widely depending on factors such as craftsmanship, materials, and brand. Prices can range from a few hundred dollars for a beginner's model to several thousand dollars for a professional-grade instrument. It's important to research and possibly try different guzhengs to find the one that best suits your needs and budget.

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