There are many schools of guzheng playing, and mainly they can be grouped under the Northern and the Southern schools. They may be further divided on a geographical basis into the Shandong, Henan, Zhejiang, Lingnan (Hakka, Chaozhou and Guangdong) schools, as well as the modern guzheng music. Each school has its own stylistic characteristics.

Shandong School

This is popular in regions along the rivers and marshes of the province, such as the cities of Yun and Juan. This type is made up of Shandong Qin Music, the Shandong Qin Book, set tunes for vocal pieces and folk songs. It is divided into the grand tunes and the minor tunes. The grand tunes are longer and derived from Shandong Qin Music. The minor tunes are shorter and are adapted from set tunes of short songs. They tend to be more robust and energetic, with crisp melodies and decided rhythms, thus bearing resemblance to the character of the people of Shandong, who are known for being open-hearted and forthright. In executing this type of music, the thumb is used very often and with great dynamics. The glissandi are therefore crisp and clear, and the flicking of the strings forceful.

Henan School

This is popular within the Henan Province and is derived from narrative folk music and opera. It is further divided into instrumental music with vocal parts, and plain instrumental music. The latter type is often known as the ancient music of Zhongzhou, and famous works include Su Wu Thinking of His Homeland, Mourning Zhou Yu, The World Becomes One and High Mountains and Flowing Water. Another type of Henan guzheng music is derived from set tunes from operatic singing, usually with a smaller structure. Typical works include Going Up to the Boudoir and Recounting Grievances in the Courtyard. This type of music may be compared to the typical Henan character, which is rustic, unreserved, witty, sometimes shrewish to the point of being unkempt. The music requires forceful fingering, clear glissando, accurate stopping, and an extensive and varied rocking of the thumb.

Zhejiang School

It is popular in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang area and is also known as the Wulin School, the ancient name of Hangzhou. The repertoire consists mainly of string and wind music, suites for strings, folk music and light tunes. There is a tendency to adapt larger compositions, for example, As the Moon Rises and Song of the General. Works generally feature a melody that is subtle, lightly colored and elegant. The Hangzhou string and wind works, which form the bulk of the repertoire, consist of famous pieces like The Thirty-third Beat, The Lantern Rivaling the Moan, and The Minor Rainbow Dress Tune. In terms of performance techniques, this school is characterised by an emphasis on unaccompanied fingerwork on the right hand, and the borrowing of fingering techniques from the pipa, the sanxian and the yangqin.

Qin School

The guzheng originated in the Qin Dynasty and its popularity peaked during the Sui and Tang periods (6th – 10th centuries). However, the guzheng was preserved only at the Yulin region in Shaanxi and that, being a remote corner of the country, the performance techniques that have survived are from ancient times, with the emphasis on the use of the thumb and index finger. Its place in the guzheng repertoire came to be recognized only in 1961 and, through the efforts of Masters Zhou Yanjia and Qu Yuan, many guzheng works with distinct Shaanxi character have been restored and arranged. The style of playing is more delicate, with a sadness in its plaintive tones and a lyricism in the high-flung. It carries distinct tonalities, with adaptations of many local works called nebulous tunes. The best known pieces include Song of the Mulberry Fields, The Tears of the Woman Called Jiang, Congregation in the Mountain and The Plaque Embroidered in Gold.

Hakka School

During the Southern Song Dynasty, the Central Plains region (ie, Hubei and Henan provinces) was under the threat of Mongolian invaders, and the people migrated south to settle in Guangdong. They were called the “Hakkas” or “people of alien origin”, by the locals. They brought with them the antiquated music of Zhongzhou which has since been integrated with the local music, language and customs to become a unique art form known as Hakka music. Hakka guzheng music is mainly derived from the music of Han Opera and the ancient tunes of Zhongzhou (music from Henan). A character notation is in use and the middle finger is mostly used in performances. Glissando is used extensively and in large ranges so that there are always residual notes. Stylistically Hakka music places its emphasis on a classic simplicity that is at once refined and dignified. The repertoire consists of three categories, namely, the “major tune” of 68 beats, “serial” tunes and “minor” tunes. Traditionally the guzheng used for Han music is a 16-string model stretched with steel strings. Typical works include Lily Out of the Water,Rain-lashed Banana Tree by the Window and The Thousand Mile Karma.

Chaozhou School

As we look back in history, we can see that the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty unified the country, drove out the nomadic invaders in the north, annexed the southern maritime provinces, and expanded the original 36 provinces to 40 by adding what is now Guangdong to his empire. These of course included what we call Lingnan and Chaozhou today, and it was at that time that Qin culture and arts were introduced to Chaozhou. There is great similarity between the Chaozhou use of tonality changes and that in the Qin music of Shanxi, and there are minor stylistic variances brought about by geographical differences. This is not a coincidental occurrence, because guzheng music from the north, once transplanted to Chaozhou, was ardently worked upon by successive generations of musicians there. The end result was a successful integration of the ancient genre with local elements, the Chaozhou school of guzheng music. Chaozhou guzheng music is derived from music for the string and wind ensemble and features works that showcase local colors and performance characteristics. It also employs a special notation system that is unique among musical genres in China. Chaozhou guzheng music is known for its elegant beauty, its nuances and finesse, and its ability to evoke and impress. A special feature is a performance effect whereby glissando variations are executed on the left hand. The main sub-genres within the Chaozhou guzheng school are related to the dialects. The Chaozhou dialect is basically one with not too many tonal modulations, and intervals in Chaozhou guzheng music tend not to be too wide apart. There is an extensive use of embellishments, and the Chaozhou guzheng is the first to be fitted with metal strings. Tonality changes are many and frequent, for example the light san-liu tune The Glory of the Glorious, the heavy san-liu tune Fish Hawks Dabbling in the Cold Water, the lively fifth tune Liu-Qing-Niang, and the fanxian.

Lingnan School

This comprises the Hakka and Chaozhou schools, as well as the Guangdong school which is less well-known than the other two.

The Guangdong school features short tunes and elements taken from Cantonese Opera. There are a lot of embellishments and the melodies are known for being beautiful and refined. Famous works include The Toll of Monastery Bells, Busy Weaving, The Hungry Bird Shaking Its Bells and Raindrops on Banana Leaves.

Modern Guzheng Music

With changing times and mutations in user demands, there have been considerable changes in the composition and arrangement of music for the instrument, apart from alterations in the instrument itself and performance techniques. Modern musicians have devoted their efforts towards perpetuating traditions and at the same time producing new works and products. There are now the treble and bass guzhengs, guzhengs that permit modulation and butterfly-shaped guzhengs. In terms of performing techniques, there is more frequent use of the left hand, the addition of chords and a scale in which notes are arranged in their natural order. There is also the creation of a heptatonic scale and other alterations to the scale. Since the 1980’s there is a considerable number of works which feature altered tonalities, and these include solos, ensembles, and concertos, such as A Fu Poem Written in Guizhou, Twelve Mukam Overtures and Dance Music, and Fantasia.