The Zither

A Zither from the Tang Dynasty


The zither is one of the oldest musical instruments. Its rich, deep sound, its lingering, faraway quality, give it its distinctive national features. Traditionally, zither playing allowed ancient scholars to express their feelings and aspirations.

Legend has it that the first zither was made During Emperor Huang’s Dynasty (2600 B.C.), when Huang’s musician, Lin Lun, heard a phoenix (a mystical Chinese bird) singing its beautiful song and, inspired, composed a song to capture the quality of the bird song. Later Shen Long made a banjo out of phoenix tree wood and silk string. This kind of zither is called a “Shen Long Zither.” The Shen Long Zither has five strings and is about three and a half feet long. The zither body is made of phoenix wood, which, according to a legend, is believed to be of a spiritual nature.

The sound from the Shen Long Zither is in tune with the universe and expresses its harmony. During spring and autumn, Confucius used the zither as a mean of educating his students in ethics. Of Confucius’ three thousand pupils, about 72 pupils could play the zither.

The zither is often called, the “Charred back zither.” This term comes from an old story from the Han Dynasty. Cai Yi once saw a piece of burning wood and hearing the sound of the wood as it burned, he knew that it would make fine wood for a zither. So he quickly saved the wood from fire and made, in fact, an excellent zither with that piece of wood. Since the rear side of the zither was burned, the zither became known as the “Charred Back Zither.”

There are many stories and poems regarding the zither in history. Liu Bowen of the Ming Dynasty writes about the musician Qiao who made a good zither with fine phoenix wood to present to musicians of local government officials. But the musicians rejected the zither. So Qiao asked artisans to carve some antique patterns and seal characters on the zither and then kept it underground for a year. The second year, he packed the zither in a case and presented it again. This time the musicians all lavished praise on it. Qiao, unhappy with the shallowness of humanity, went to live alone in some remote mountains.

Ancients were able to tell a musician’s sentiments and emotions from the sound of his zither playing. In the story, “Empty City” from The History of the Three Kingdoms, ZuGeLiang played peacefully on the city wall while large troops approached the city. When SiMaYi heard the harmonious, peaceful zither tones, he questioned his plans and retreated.

It would seem that this ancient folk instrument not only produced harmonious tones but also inspired it in its listeners.

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