Chinese Music of the Seasons:
Bing Xia, zheng

Celebrate the mid-autumn Moon Festival or get in the mood for spring with this entrancing performance on the ancient zheng (a zither) by virtuoso Bing Xia, a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory. She performs works devoted to the Moon (a key focus of the autumn festival), the fall migration of wild geese, and thoughts occasioned by the autumn season, as well as music invoking springtime, fishing, mountains, and rivers. This performance was recorded at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in 2000 in conjunction with the exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius.


Bing Xia, zheng

1. Spring (一点金 or 秋芙蓉 Yi dian jin / Qiu fu rong) 00:00–2:25
2. Imperial Concubine’s Tear (湘妃泪 Xiang fei lei) 2:32–4:30
3. Fisherman Singing at Dusk (渔舟唱晚 Yu zhou chang wan) 4:30–5:43
4. Autumn Moonlight in the Palace (汉宫秋月 Han gong qiu yue) 5:51–9:32
5. Autumn Reflections by the Dressing Table (妆台秋思 Zhuang tai qiu si) 9:40–12:00
6. High Mountain and Flowing Water (高山流水 Gao shan liu shui) 12:10–15:34
7. Wild Geese Flying Along the Sandy Beach (平沙落雁 Ping sha luo yan) 15:41–20:48
8. Rainbow-Skirt Dance (小霓裳曲 Xiao ni shang qu) 20:55–23:53
9. Sound of Drums in Xiang Mountain (香山射鼓 Xiang shan she gu) 24:00–28:00
10. Moonlight on the Lake (平湖秋月 Ping hu qiu yue) 28:03–32:550
11. Jackdaws Playing in the Water (寒鸦戏水 Han ya xi shui) 33:05–38:25
12. Spring Comes to the Snowy Mountain (雪山春晓 Xue shan chun xiao) 38:34–42:07

This performance was recorded live in concert at the Freer and Sackler Galleries on September 14, 2000, in conjunction with the exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius.



The zheng is a zither consisting of a soundbox with adjustable bridges over which various numbers of strings are stretched. The soundboard is made of wutong wood (Firmiana platanifolia), the bottom being flat and the upper board convex. For the sides and bottom, red sandalwood, rosewood, or sometimes boxwood is traditionally used. The moveable bridges are made of wood or occasionally of ivory or bone. While strings of silk were traditional for centuries, today they are most often made of steel wound with nylon.

The instrument’s history in China dates back over 2500 years. A second–century dictionary, Shuowen jiezi, notes that it was made of bamboo and had plucked strings which made a sound like “zheng.” According to another second-century document, the Fengsu Tongyi, it had five strings at the time. Performances on the zheng were first documented in the Shiji (Records of the Historian) of 237 BCE, which describes how people of present-day Shaanxi province “beat clay drums and earthen jars, play zheng, and slap their thighs to accompany songs.” Fu Xuan’s poetic essay Zhengfu xu (c. 265 CE) describes the zheng of that period: “Its upper part is convex like the vault of heaven; its bottom flat like the earth; its inside is hollow so as to accommodate the six points of the compass, and its 12 strings with their bridges symbolize the 12 months of the year.” Traditional Chinese scholarship presumed that the zheng originated in north-central China. In the 1970s, however, several 12- and 13-string zithers dating to the sixth or seventh century BCE were unearthed in Guangxi and Jiangxi provinces in southern China. It is now suggested that the zheng may have originated in southern China or that it had multiple points of origin.

Some ancient sources claim that the zheng was invented by Meng Tian (d. 210 BCE), a general of the Qin state. Because part of the Chinese character for zheng has the same form as “to quarrel,” other legends describe a fight between two people over a 25-string se zither that caused the instrument to be broken in half, creating two zheng, one with 12-string and one with 13-strings.

During the Han dynasty, the zheng was part of the string and wind ensemble that accompanied xianghe ge (harmonious song), a singing and dancing tradition in north-central China. In the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (581–1279), the zheng was part of court musical ensembles, which performed yanyue (banquet music) and qingshang yue (music deriving from xianghe ge). According to the Tang encyclopedia Tongdian (801) both 12-string and 13-string zheng were then in use.

By the 18th century the number of strings had increased to 14 and more. It is generally assumed that the 16-string zheng was in fashion before the 19th century. Since the mid-20th century, zheng zithers have been built with 18, 21, and even 25 or 44 strings. While the 21-string zheng is the version most commonly used now, the 16-string zheng is still in use by some traditional musicians, especially along the southeastern coast of mainland China and in Taiwan. Before the Song dynasty, the instrument was placed on the performer’s knees with the end pointing away to the left, a position still preserved in playing the Korean kayagum, which is derived from the zheng (as is the Japanese koto). Now the zheng is played on a table or a pair of stands.

-- Adapted from Han Mei, “Zheng,” in Oxford Music Online/Grove Music Online (, print publication 2001; online publication 2001, accessed 09/09/2021.


Bing Xia

Bing Xia is the artistic director of the Washington Guzheng Society. She majored in guzheng performance at Nanjing Normal University and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She became a guzheng soloist in the Xuzhou City Song and Dance Ensemble. After moving to the United States, Bing Xia was a featured performer in the Sackler exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius and at the Kennedy Center’s Asian Song Festival. She performed again at the Freer as part of the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s 2009 celebration. She was a featured performer at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for Vice Premier Qian Qichen and Secretary of State Colin Powell. She returned to the Freer and Sackler in 2013 to perform Chinese music related to the phoenix for the exhibition Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project and in 2019 as part of the Smithsonian’s “Year of Music” project. Her performances have been broadcast on NPR and Voice of America.


This performance was recorded live at the Freer and Sackler Galleries on September 14, 2000, in conjunction with the exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius. This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch. Audio editing by SuMo Productions. Web layout by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Amelia Meyer. Special thanks to the artist for granting permission to share her performance at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

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