The Chinese writing system by which these instruments are first described in ancient Chinese texts, provides an interesting possible clue to their origins. According to the Chinese ideographs used to write the names of these instruments, the ch'in and cheng are distinct types of instruments. The name for the instrument ch'in is written with the king radical, a variant of the "jewel" radical. In the Chinese writing system. radicals are a part of the ideograph which serve as system of classification for written ideographs, usually grouping words together into related concepts, qualities or physical materials. The jewel radical category is quite broad and includes such words as jade, king, lapis lazulli, rare or strange, full moon, and the musical instruments, ch'in and p'ip'a. The bamboo radical, however, is used with much more regularity for words relating to bamboo or items made of bamboo, as for example, most of the Chinese bamboo flutes. That the instrument, cheng, is written with the bamboo radical, does not absolutely imply a relationship to bamboo, but the fact that it is not written with the "jewel" radical like other stringed instruments, indicates the suggestion that the Chinese saw a possible connection.
Most instruments of the cheng type in China, Korea and Japan have 12 or 13 strings made of wound silk. The Southern Chinese types as well as the Vietnamese dan tran have metal strings, usually steel, but in Southern China, the sweeter sounding brass strings can still be encountered. All use strings of equal thinkness, except for the Korean kayagum, in which the lower strings are thicker than the high strings.
One distinctive feature is significant to this disscusion. In the Southern Chinese and Vietnamese forms the instrument has a distinctive curve to the upper surface. The suggestion is that the curved surface is a survival of the older now extinct form of cheng which was originally made of bamboo. Large southern Asian bamboo can grow to be quite thick, thick enough to provide the curved surface for an instrument of this type. It is possible although not clearly documented, that zithers with bridges could have been made of bamboo, thus suggesting the use of the bamboo radical in the Chinese writing system.
Photo: A valiha orchestra from an old photograph.
The sound of a modern valiha ensemble from Malagasy. RealAudio