The erhu is a bowed spike-lute chordophone of the Han Chinese (‘er’ means two; ‘hu’ originally meant ‘barbarian,’ but now ‘fiddle’). It is used as one of the main melodic instruments for accompaniment of Beijing opera performance and in regional instrumental ensembles, Jiangnan sizhu (‘silk and bamboo’ music of the Jiangnan region) perhaps being the most prominent. Jiangnan sizhu is performed both professionally and at the amateur level as a form of entertainment in teahouses, at weddings and ceremonies, and on radio or television broadcasts. In 1917 Liu Tianhua, a Western-trained violinist, was inspired by a folk performer he heard and composed ten new solo pieces for the erhu in the style of Western classical music. Largely as a result of his efforts, traditional Chinese folk musics, and in particular the erhu, were introduced into the curriculum at Chinese music conservatories in the 1930s, which heretofore had focused on Western music practices. Erhu playing and its repertoire rapidly developed into an academic conservatory style of performance that now produces virtuosic players who concertize and record as soloists and members of modern Chinese chamber ensembles, and play in the erhu section of modern Chinese orchestras.
The long, round, hardwood neck of the erhu runs through its constructed hexagonal wooden resonating chamber the front of which is covered by a snakeskin soundboard (affixed by glue). The backside of the resonator is open but adorned with a carved wooden screen. White plastic or bone caps adorn both the curved top end of the neck and the ends of the two friction tuning pegs, which are inserted through the backside of the neck. A red velvet cushion is fixed to the bottom of the resonator. One end of each steel 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 soundboard. The bow is made of bamboo – however, a Western bow hair-tightening mechanism has been attached, making unnecessary the established technique of holding the bow hair taut while playing the instrument. The detail photo provides a close up view of how the bow hair runs between the two playing strings of the instrument, which are of slightly different gauges.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The performer holds the erhu roughly vertically with the resonator resting on the left thigh so that the sound table is facing to his or her right. The end of the bow with the tightening mechanism 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 D4 and the thinner, called waixian (‘outside string’) to A4; the instrument has a three octave range from D4 to D7. When bowing, the performer applies inside pressure to sound the neixian and outward pressure to sound the waixian. There are three or four left hand positions used by performers playing the modern repertoire, 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.
Origins/History/EvolutionPrecursors of the erhu likely came to China during the Song dynasty (960 and 1279 C.E.) when the first literary references to an instrument called the xiqin appear, and especially during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 C.E.) 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 C.E.) The efflorescence of musical theater during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.) led to the increased use of huqin instruments (used generically to refer to bowed fiddles) in regional opera ensembles. Only during the Qing dynasty did the huqin-type instruments also find a place in regional instrumental ensembles in southern Chinese provinces. According to Thrasher (2000, p. 51) the erhu, as described and pictured on this page, came into existence only in the early 20th century.
Liu, Terence M. 2002. "Instruments: Erhu." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 175-178.
Thrasher, Alan R. 1984. “Erhu [erh-hu].” NGDMI v.1: 717.
________. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Witzleben, J. Lawrence. 1995. ‘Silk and Bamboo’ Music in Shanghai. Kent: Kent State University Press.