There are varied accounts for how the guzheng came to be. An early guzheng-like instrument is said to have been invented by Meng Tian, a general of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), largely influenced by the se. Some believe the guzheng was originally developed as a bamboo-tube zither as recorded in the Shuowen Jiezi, which was later redesigned and made from larger curved wooden boards and movable bridges. A third legend says the guzheng came about when two people fought over a 25-string se. They broke it in half, one person receiving a 12-string part and another the 13-string part.
Strings were once made of silk. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE) the strings transitioned to bare wire such as brass. Modern strings are almost always steel coated in nylon. First introduced in the 1970s these multi-material strings increased the instrument's volume while maintaining an acceptable timbre.
The guzheng is often decorated. Artists create unique cultural and artistic content on the instrument. Decorations include carved art, carved lacquer, straw, mother-of-pearl inlays, painting, poetry, calligraphy, shell carving (jade) and cloisonné.
Playing styles are first divided between Northern and Southern before being further subdivided into specific regional schools. Regional schools that are part of the Northern style include Henan, Shaanxi, Shandong, and Zhejiang. Regional schools included in the Southern style include Chaozhou, Hakka, and Fujian.
Examples of Northern pieces include High Mountain and Running River and Autumn Moon over the Han Palace from the Shandong school. Southern style can be represented by Jackdaw Plays with Water (Han Ya Xi Shui) from the Chaozhou school and Lotus Emerging from Water (Chu shui lian) from the Hakka school.
Many pieces have been composed since the 1950s both with new techniques and mixing elements from the north and south, ultimately creating a new modern school.
The guzheng is plucked by the fingers with or without plectra. Most modern players use plectra that are attached to up to four fingers on each hand. Ancient picks were made of mundane materials such as bamboo, bone, and animal teeth or by finer materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, and jade.
Traditional playing styles use the right hand to pluck notes and the left hand to add ornamentation such as pitch slides and vibrato by pressing the strings to the left of the movable bridges. Modern styles use both hands to play on the right side of the strings. There are many techniques used to strike notes. One iconic sound is a tremolo produced by the right thumb rotating rapidly around the same note.
New techniques include playing harmony and counterpoint with the left hand. Pieces in the new style include Harvest Celebration (Qing Feng Nian, Zhao Yuzhai, 1955), Fighting the Typhoon (Zhan Tai Feng, Wang Changyuan, 1965) and the guzheng concerto Fantasia of Miluo River (Li Huanzhi, 1984). Experimental, atonal pieces have been composed since the 1980s.
A modern playing technique, influenced by Western music, uses the left hand to provide harmony and bass notes; this gives the guzheng a more flexible musical range, permitting harmonic progression. It has its limitations, preventing the subtle ornamentation provided by the left hand in traditional music. Guzheng students who take the Central Conservatory of Music examinations are required to learn traditional and modern pieces.