Common Frame Woods Used on Guzheng


The names of the various woods used for manufacturing guzheng frames are often directly translated from the Chinese. These are usually literal translations that ignore the common English names of these woods – which can be very misleading for the end user. To add to the confusion, many of the different frame woods are already mislabeled at the source in the first place.

One such misleading term is the word 'sandalwood,' which is a direct translation of the Chinese 檀 tan. For one thing, in Chinese terms there is red sandalwood, black sandalwood, purple sandalwood, and so on. However, most of these woods botanically belong to the Dalbergia genus, commonly known as rosewood in English. They have no relation with the sandalwoods that are aromatic. Secondly, a common Chinese name may refer to several different woods. Given this discrepancy between the Chinese and English names for the various woods employed in manufacturing guzheng frames, the buyer is often left guessing as to which specific wood she is actually getting.

Here are some guzheng frame woods in common use with their common Chinese, English and botanical names.

红木 hong mu, unspecified rosewood in the Dalbergia genus. The unspecified lightweight rosewoods (0.5-0.6g/cm3) are mostly used in basic to intermediate-grade instruments. The makers do not disclose the specific species of woods chosen. When used for guzheng frames, unspecified rosewood gives a sound that is generally sweet in character.

非檀木 fei tan mu, African padauk, Pterocarpus soyauxii. Previously translated as 'African Sandalwood,' this is a softer padauk (0.67g/cm3) that is used on the Dunhuang 696 models.

花梨木 hua li mu, Burma padauk, Pterocarpus macrocarpus, sometimes called 'pear wood' in English. This is a slightly heavier padauk (0.72g/cm3) that is used for the frames of Dunhuang Yun's 896 models.

缅酸枝 mian suan zhi, Burma rosewood, Dalbergia bariensis or D. oliveri. This is a medium density rosewood (0.6-0.8g/cm3) that is commonly used in professional-grade instruments such as the Dunhuang 694 series and the Tianyi professional level 2 series. Burma rosewood frames yield a sound that is consistently sweet and clean in character.

黑酸枝/黑檀/老红木 hei suan zhi/hei tan/lao hong mu, Burma blackwood, Dalbergia cultrata. It is sometimes translated literally as 'black sandalwood' or 'aged rosewood.' This is a high-density rosewood (0.86g/cm3) commonly used in professional or concert grade instruments. It lends a rich, sweet quality to the sound.

特式古夷苏木 te shi gu yi su mu, bubinga or African rosewood, Guibourtia tessmannii. This is a high density frame wood (0.89g/cm3) that is used for professional or concert grade instruments, giving a rich, deep sound to the instrument.

金丝楠木 jin si nan mu, 'gold-thread nanmu,' Phoebe zhennan. This tree grows only in China and does not have a common English name. It is famously known for its use in the pillars of the Forbidden Palace and furnishes a high density wood of 1.1g/cm3. Gold-thread nanmu is only used for the frames of concert- and collection-grade instruments from Yangzhou. This special wood imparts a warm, earthy tone to these guzhengs.

老红木 lao hong mu, Siam or Thailand rosewood, Dalbergia cochinchinensis. This wood, formerly translated as 'aged rosewood,' is actually not an aged rosewood but an expensive rosewood from Southeast Asia. The term 'aged' was originally used to distinguish this exotic wood from the lighter rosewood species. It has a high density of 0.90g/cm3. Siam rosewood is commonly selected for concert- and collection-grade guzheng frames, such as the Dunhuang 695 and Dunhuang Yun 895 series. To these instruments it lends a mellow, sweet and rich tone.

红檀 hong tan, pau rosa, Bobgunnia fistuloides. This wood from tropical Africa was formerly directly translated from the Chinese as 'red sandalwood.' Note that it is not a Dalbergia genus. With its very high density of 1.03g/cm3, pau rosa is commonly used for concert-and collection-grade guzheng frames, giving them a melting sweet and
clean, focused tone.

黑檀 hei tan, ebony or African blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon. This wood has a very high density of 1.27g/cm3. Commonly used for concert- and collectiongrade guzhengs, this wood frame imparts a very focused, deep and muscular tone.

玫瑰檀 mei gui tan, violet rosewood, Dalbergia louvelii. Also from Madagascar, this wood was formerly translated as 'rose purple sandalwood.' It is a high-density rosewood of 0.93g/cm3 used in very high-end instruments such as Dunhuang's 9698 series and Dunhuang Yun's 8898 series. To these instruments violet rosewood imparts a clear, delicate tone with a hint of sweetness, along with a powerful, deep bass.

紫檀 or 闊葉黃檀 zi tan or kuo ye huang tan, East Indian rosewood, Dalbergia latifolia. This wood is one of the famous zitan woods. It was formerly known as 'purple sandalwood.' It is a high-density rosewood of 0.86g/cm3 used in Dunhuang 698 and Dunhuang Yun 898 series concertand collection-grade instruments. An East Indian rosewood frame gives these guzhengs a clean, rich sound.

紫檀 zi tan, Madagascar rosewood, Dalbergia baronii. This is another type of 'zitan purple sandalwood,' sometimes called da ye zi tan, 'big-leaf zitan.' This high-density rosewood of 0.93g/cm3 is used for most collection-grade 'zitan' models from Yangzhou, and certain high-end Dunhuang 698 and Yun 998 series. Madagascar rosewood yields a clear, delicate tone with a full, deep bass.

小葉紫檀 xiao ye zi tan, red sanders or red sandalwood, Pterocarpus santalinus. Traditionally known as 'small-leaf zitan,' red sanders in China is a highly valued wood. With its extremely high density of 1.26g/cm3, it lends a clean, tight and very focused sound to any instrument.

巴西紫檀 ba xi zi tan, Brazilian or Bahia rosewood, Dalbergia nigra. In the Western world, this is generally considered the best sounding wood for musical instruments. It has high density of 0.9g/cm3. However, it is rarely employed in Chinese guzheng production. The only guzheng maker known to us that uses Brazilian rosewood frames is Master Chai Yuanhong for his Songbo brand; he still holds some old stock of this now endangered wood. Since this tree is under international CITES protection and its wood illegal to export from Brazil, it is unlikely to be further used in guzheng construction.