Playing Hither and Zither

ByCai Hong January 22, 2024

Young musician mesmerizes foreign audiences with her traditional Chinese instrument, Cai Hong reports.

Peng Jingxuan plays the guzheng near to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. [China Daily]


When Peng Jingxuan began playing the guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither, on the streets of France in 2018, she did not expect the traditional instrument would change her life.

Peng, 28, has become a social media sensation for her online video performances in French cities. She has shared more than 200 original videos on You-Tube tagged under "@jingxuanGuzheng", with the most popular clip viewed over 16.61 million times.

The square outside the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, France, is one of the places where Peng performs. The mesmerizing melodies from her zither always draw huge applause from listeners.

"I love how she's representing her culture in a setting where people are not familiar with it. You can tell she's proud of her background and her music!" one YouTube user under the moniker "mariaacosta8920" wrote commenting on Peng's video.

The guzheng is an ancient, major musical instrument that dates back more than 2,500 years. The length of a standard guzheng is 1.63 meters, and it is usually played by a musician sitting on a chair in front of the instrument. Players, who often perform solo, always wear finger picks made from materials such as plastic, resin and tortoiseshell on one or both hands. Modern guzheng instruments are often played by pinching the strings to play heptatonic notes and chords.

Peng discusses the guzheng with a teacher at a French university. [China Daily]


Peng began to study the guzheng when she was 7. After graduating from the Wuhan Conservatory of Music in Central China's Hubei Province in June 2017, she went to the Bordeaux Montaigne University in France where she received her master's degree in musicology.

In 2017, her first year in France, Peng was deeply drawn to the romantic and free artistic atmosphere on the streets, enjoying the various performances by artists playing musical instruments like the piano, violin, saxophone and harp.

But she seldom saw Chinese instruments played on the streets. So, in the summer of 2018, she took her guzheng and began to perform in the street. She was surprised to find that very few people in France knew about the Chinese zither, though her teachers and classmates at the conservatory had some knowledge of it.

"I wanted to make this instrument known to more people," Peng says.

She began street performances to sharpen her skills. The more Peng busked on the streets, the greater sense of responsibility she felt to spread Chinese music and culture.

"Many Western instruments are already well-accepted in China, like the piano. But Westerners' understanding of Chinese music can be rather limited," Peng says.

Peng Jingxuan takes part in a musical performance on Oct 19, 2019. [China Daily]


To make this traditional Chinese instrument better known to people in France, Peng carefully selected and arranged each song in her repertoire.

She chose to focus on traditional guzheng pieces and a number of pop songs with strong Chinese influences.

Thinking that the audience's unfamiliarity with Chinese songs might create barriers for them to better understand her performances, Peng came up with ingenious adaptations of the songs and received positive responses from onlookers.

For example, she prefaced Da Yu (Big Fish), a song from the soundtrack of a Chinese animated film, with explanations in French, briefly introducing the plot of the movie.

"A lot of people came up to me and asked me what the name of the song was, and showed their interest in the film," Peng says.

She also played Western pop songs that listeners could relate to. "Because they may have heard these songs before, they will be more interested and become more easily immersed in my performance."

Peng played the songs in a Chinese style, making use of some unique techniques for playing the guzheng, such as strumming. One YouTube user commented: "Never in a million years I would've thought that Smooth Criminal (a song by the late US pop star Michael Jackson) could be played on a Chinese traditional instrument, but she did it cleverly and beautifully."

Peng teaches a girl to play the traditional Chinese instrument on the streets. [China Daily]


Peng also always prepared small booklets in French, introducing her audience to the guzheng and its history.

"This is the guzheng, do you know? The Chinese guzheng," a little boy standing beside Peng said proudly to his friends, as she played the instrument on the street one day.

She says the encounter made her feel that what she was doing was very meaningful, and she was able to introduce people, including children, to the name of the guzheng "just by busking".

After each performance, people were always amazed at the beauty of the instrument and the music, Peng says. They came to her and asked her what it was called and what country it came from. "I was very happy to tell them it came from China," she says.

Her audience also appreciated her for playing them Chinese music as they had little access to it, Peng adds.

Peng Jingxuan, dressed in hanfu (traditional Chinese attire), plays the guzheng in Paris. [China Daily]


Playing for All

One day, an elderly man sitting next to her told her after her performance, "you should take the guzheng to more European cities and share the beauty of Chinese music with more people because a lot of them, myself included, don't know about it".

She says that this is in fact one of her plans, to take her guzheng on a "global journey".

To that effect, Peng has visited four countries so far — Italy, Switzerland, Spain and France.

Peng says she hopes to perform in more cities in Europe so that more people will have the chance to appreciate the charm of the guzheng and Chinese music.

To improve her performance and make it easier to understand, Peng would also like to make more attempts to fuse Chinese and Western music.

In addition to some improvised collaborative performances with other street artists, Peng tries to combine traditional guzheng music with avantgarde electronic music originating from France.

"Nowadays, many guzheng techniques are being innovated, and a lot of contemporary compositions are also making great breakthroughs," Peng says.

"To see the guzheng go global and get more people to know of it, understand it, and love it, I think this is the biggest wish of Chinese artists playing the traditional musical instrument."

Renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang also encouraged Peng when she performed with him on a TV show in 2019.

He said to her, "what you are doing now is a very meaningful thing, to promote and spread Chinese instruments to the world".


Cao Chenyuan and Yan Yuqing contributed to this story.

(Source: China Daily)


Please understand that,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by