The jinghu is a bowed spike-lute chordophone of the Han Chinese. It is known by the general term huqin or hu ch'in, which refers to stringed instruments in general though most often fiddles. The jinghu is differentiated from the erhu by its silk, rather than steel, strings. This produces an especially bright and nasal sound considered ideal for theatre music. For this reason the jinghu is best known as the main melody instrument for Beijing opera (‘jing’ references ‘Beijing,’ ‘hu’ means ‘fiddle’). The jinghu has also been appropriated by some regional village ensembles for use in opera mimicry and other folk styles of music. The increased popularity of Beijing opera has led to its more prevalent use in these folk genres.
The short, round, lacquered bamboo neck of the jinghu runs through its bamboo resonating chamber the front of which is covered by a snakeskin soundboard (affixed by glue). The backside of the resonator is open. Two wooden friction tuning pegs are inserted through the backside of the neck near its top end. One end of each silk playing string is attached to and wrapped around a tuning peg, the other end terminates in a noose that is looped over a metal tail pin on the bottom side of the resonator. The top end of the vibrating segment of the strings is articulated with an adjustable sliding nut (called qianjin) of nylon cord; the lower end of the vibrating segment is where the strings pass over a small wooden bridge on the sound table. The bow is made of bamboo with synthetic hair. The bow hair runs between the two silk playing strings of the instrument, which are of slightly different gauges.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The performer holds the jinghu tilted to his left with the resonator resting on the left thigh so that the soundboard is facing to his right. One end of the bow is held in the player’s right hand; the thumb of the left hand is hooked around the back of the neck leaving the other four fingers to stop the strings. The strings are free stopped, i.e., they are not pressed against the neck (and the instrument has no finger board). The two strings are tuned to the interval of a fifth, the thicker string, which is closest to the performer and called neixian (‘inside string’), to A4 and the thinner, called waixian (‘outside string’) to E5; the instrument has a three octave range from A4 to B6. When bowing, the performer applies inside pressure to sound the neixian and outward pressure to sound the waixian. There are a few left hand positions used by performers, and all sorts of subtle melodic effects such as glissandos, appoggiaturas, and vibrato can be produced in part due to the free stopping of the strings. In the context of Beijing opera, the bright and nasal timbre of the jinghu and the melodies played on it mimic very closely the singing styles it accompanies.
Origins/History/EvolutionPrecursors of the jinghu likely came to China during the Song dynasty (960 and 1279 CE) when the first literary references to an instrument called the xiqin appear, and especially during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE) when Mongolians ruled China. One of the earliest Han Chinese terms for bowed lutes is huqin, which means ‘barbarian’ (‘hu,’ in reference to the Mongolians) ‘string instrument’ (‘qin’) and was coined during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) The efflorescence of musical theater during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE) led to the increased use of huqin instruments (used generically to refer to bowed fiddles) in regional opera ensembles, and it was probably in the late 18th century that the jinghu came to be used in the Beijing opera ensemble. The jinghu has remained largely unchanged since then.
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