The elite, rarefied qin zither enjoyed an unlikely Golden Age during the first fifteen years of Maoism, as I show in my series of vignettes. Though it was largely self-contained in its ivory tower, in the 1950s the new energy at the Music Research Institute in Beijing to study all kinds of traditional music combined with the official populist ethos to encourage occasional exchanges—such as this illustrious gathering with masters of the zheng 筝 zither at the house of Yang Dajun:
Qin and zheng exchange, mid-1950s (see e.g. here). From left,
back row: Zhao Yuzhai, Yang Dajun, Gao Zicheng, [unidentified], Cao Zheng, Wu Jinglue;
front row: Wang Jinru, Cao Dongfu (playing), Luo Jiuxiang, Zha Fuxi.
Of the zheng players there, Zhao Yuzhai and Gao Zicheng came from Shandong, Cao Zheng and Cao Dongfu from adjacent Henan; Luo Jiuxiang represented the Hakka style of east Guangdong, far south; Wang Jinru was based in Beijing.
Unlike the seven-string qin, the strings of the zheng have individual bridges. Though just as ancient as the qin, it has much more in common with local folk music; while some prominent advocates like Cao Zheng made more exalted claims for its grounding in ancient cosmology, it still feels like a poor cousin of the qin. Its regional distribution is patchy, but Zhao Yuzhai was part of a thriving zheng scene in southwest Shandong, based (as often) on the local ensemble that accompanied vocal performance; the musicians were itinerant and semi-occupational.
My sparse early clues to folk musicking in Shandong (Folk music of China, p. 209) have been much augmented by the publication of the Shandong volumes of the Anthology (see my review “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”), in this case particularly for instrumental music (Zhongguo minjian qiyuequ, Shandong juan 中国民间器乐曲, 山东卷, 1994).
Throughout the Anthology, ensemble repertoire always far eclipses solo pieces; like other volumes for north China (e.g. Liaoning), the coverage of Shandong is dominated by the shawm-band repertoire (cf. “Reading between the lines”, pp.317–18), to which the first 1,269 of 1,958 pages are devoted. Solo pieces for the zheng occupy pp.1515–1620 (among online surveys of the Shandong zheng, see e.g. here).
The Dong Lu yayue she 东鲁雅乐社, led by Wang Dianyu, 1943.
Right to left Chen Baozeng 陈宝曾, Gao Zicheng 高自成, Zheng Xipei 郑西培,
Wang Dianyu 王殿玉, Han Fengtian 韩风田, Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋, Tan Yonghe 谭永和.
The core string ensemble is for zheng, yangqin dulcimer, pipa, and ruyigou fiddle. Their repertoire is based on the Peng baban 碰八板 form—baban variants are common in various coastal chamber genres from Shanghai down to Guangzhou, if not nearly so widespread as scholarly attention may lead us to suppose. The Shandong style has much in common with the adjacent province of Henan, where zheng masters like Cao Dongfu 曹东扶 (1898–1970) were much admired. (Click here for bowed zithers in Shandong and Henan.)
In the cause of forging a new style of “national music”, through the 1950s many folk masters were enlisted to the new conservatoires and state troupes. Solo instruments like the zheng were more easily incorporated into the conservatoire system than ensembles that relied on folk ceremonial; players took readily to adapting their repertoire for the new demands of the new ethos.  In 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was recruited to the Shenyang conservatoire (where one of his colleagues was the qin player Ling Qizhen—see Musicking at the Qing court 1, n.3). The traditional zheng had 16 (or fewer) strings; in 1957, responding to the call to “improve” Chinese instruments, Zhao Yuzhai created an enlarged 21-string version. Meanwhile the lofty qin also found a place in the conservatoires; but while players took part in the major shift from silk to metal strings, they remained largely unscathed by “development”.
n 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was exposed to the rigours of rural collectivisation when a troupe from the conservatoire was sent on a tour of rural south Liaoning to “experience life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活), as the glib slogan went (cf. Daoist Li Qing’s stint in the Datong troupe). This resulted in his florid composition “Celebrating a bumper year” (Qing fengnian 庆丰年)—irony not supplied:
In 1956 Zhao Yuzhai was part of a troupe performing at the Prague Spring festival, and in October he toured north Europe; his career continued to thrive until 1963. I can never get used to the blatant lacunae for the years of Maoism that are so universal in PRC biographies (cf. Craig Clunas’s remarks); like countless others, Zhao Yuzhai was assaulted at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, condemned to labour camp until his release in 1978.
Zhao Yuzhai was one of three zheng players, along with Gao Zicheng and Luo Jiuxiang, who appeared in illustrious company on the 2-CD set of archive recordings from the Music Research institute. In 2000 a CD was devoted to his playing. He appears on film in “Autumn moon over Han palace” (Hangong qiuyue 汉宫秋月):
and “Four folds of brocade” (Siduan jin 四段锦):
Among other celebrated Shandong zheng masters were Han Tinggui 韩庭贵 (1929–2016) and Gao Zicheng 高自成 (1918–2010). Like Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng found a long-term position away from his Shandong home, teaching at the Xi’an conservatoire from 1957 (for the Shaanxi zheng style, see here)—here’s a short documentary in Chinese:
Apart from such masters who were selected for national celebrity, it may be hard to find ethnographic material on how folk chamber ensembles in rural Shandong adapted to successive social transformations—first to collectivisation, and then to the 1980s’ revival of tradition, soon challenged by the tide of capitalism and pop culture.
Meanwhile in a separate milieu, the concert platform made a more natural progression for the zheng than for the qin. Hitherto largely the preserve of men, since the 1980s’ reform era the zheng (like other stringed instruments in the conservatoire) has been dominated by female soloists. At the same time, concert performances for the qin on stage have come to enjoy a higher profile than the “refined gatherings” where its soul resides; but in the end, the qin still occupies its own world, at a tangent from the conservatoire.
 For Chinese sources on Zhao Yuzhai, see e.g.
 In English, see e.g. Han Mei, The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity (2013); Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations (2015).