Haiwang YUAN

A blind man plays an erhu on the streets of Beijing. Players hold the erhu in their laps and pull the bow between the strings. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

The erhu is a bowed, fiddle-like stringed instrument that originally came from Central Asia; it can be played solo as well as in an ensemble or an orchestra performance. The erhu’s sound box is usually hexagonal or octagonal in shape, while the front is covered with python skin which—since a 2005 government law—must come from farm-raised pythons.

The erhu is a fiddle-like musical instrument popular among the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China; it is renowned for its versatile timbre. It can be sad and serene as well as exciting and vivacious. The range of the erhu is about three octaves, with its strings tuned a fifth apart to D and A. When an erhu musician uses the fingers of his or her left hand to press or slide on the strings, it creates sounds such as vibratos, trills, and harmonic tones. When the musician uses his or her right hand to push and pull the bow, it creates legato, staccato, and tremolo.

The first Chinese character of the instrument’s name, er ?, refers to the fact that it has two strings, although a variant has three. The second character, hu ?, indicates that this instrument belongs to the huqin family of bowed string instruments. In addition, the character Hu is a generic name for the non-Han ethnic peoples who lived north and west of China in ancient times. Indeed, according to Yue Shu (“Book of Music”), a classic of the Song dynasty (960–1279), erhu originated from xiqin ??, a two-stringed lute introduced by the Xi ? people in Central Asia around the tenth century. Other less popular names for erhu include nanhu and wengzi.

The erhu consists of three major parts: qingan (neck), qintong (resonator), and gong (bow), each made of different hardwoods. The neck has a qintou (curved tip) with two qinzhou (tuning pegs) inserted on the side. The resonator, or sound box, usually takes a hexagonal or octagonal shape, and its front is covered with python skin, which gives the erhu its characteristic sound. In 2005 the State Forestry Administration of China began to require that the skin come from farm-raised pythons only. Two strings, originally of silk and now usually of metal, stretch between the pegs and the base at the bottom of the resonator. A qianjin (nut), a hoop of string or a hook of metal, either fixed or unfixed, holds the strings to the neck somewhere in the middle. A qinma (bridge) of wood is placed between the strings and the python skin on the resonator. A typical erhu measures 81 centimeters (about 32 inches) from top to bottom. The bow, about the same length, consists of a stick and horsehair, whose tension is adjustable with screws. The player usually sits, resting the erhu on the lap, and pushes and pulls the bow horizontally between, instead of outside, the strings. Capable of creating the sound of human voices and imitating other natural sounds, the instrument can be very expressive.

Since the 1950s, a complete set of erhu variants has been developed for orchestra performance. The set includes the gaohu (high-pitched fiddle), which sounds higher than the erhu; zhonghu (middle-pitched fiddle), which plays the role of a viola; and dihu (low-pitched fiddle), which performs like a cello. Liu Tianhua (1895–1932), famous for his Bing zhong yin (“A Moaning Sick Woman”) melody, and Hua Yanjun (aka Abing, 1893–1950), celebrated for his Er quan ying yue (“A Moon in Two Springs”), played pivotal roles in uplifting erhu from a tool merely for accompaniment to its current status as a major instrument to be played solo, in a small ensemble, or in an orchestra.

Further Reading

DeWoskin, K. G. (1982). A song for one or two: Music and the concept of art in early China. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

Huehns, C. (2001). The early music erhu. The Galpin Society Journal, (54), 56–61.

Liang Mingyue. (1985). Music of the billion: An introduction to Chinese musical culture. New York: Heinrichshofen.

Thrasher, A. R. (2000). Chinese musical instruments. New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Erhu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 759–760. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

An old man plays the erhu in a park. The fiddle-like instrument is renowned for its versatile timbre; its music can sound sad and serene as well as exciting and vivacious. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Erhu (Èrhú ??)|Èrhú ?? (Erhu)

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