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The Enchanting Sounds of the Erhu

The enchanting sounds of the erhu. (Image: Shen Yun Official Account via  YouTube/Screenshot)
The enchanting sounds of the erhu. (Image: Shen Yun Official Account via YouTube/Screenshot)

The erhu is one of the most important instruments in Chinese culture, with a history of over 4,000 years. The erhu (Chinese: 二胡; pinyin: èrhú) is a bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, and is sometimes called the “Chinese violin.” This enchanting 2-stringed instrument can convey a wide range of emotions.

The erhu differs from Western stringed instruments in many ways. For example, it is played vertically, often resting on the musician’s lap. It also has no fingerboard, so the player’s fingers must both hold and vibrate the strings.

The bow is fixed between the two strings, and is either pushed forward or backward to catch a string. The music resonates from the instrument’s wooden drum, which acts as a natural amplifier. Intonation is one of the instrument’s greatest challenges, as different positions and degrees of pressure dramatically change the free-floating pitch of the strings

Below is a video of Xiaochun Qi, a musician with Shen Yun Performing Arts, describing the instrument:

(Xiaochun Qi is a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In 1991, she received the Performers Award at the 14th annual Spring of Shanghai International Erhu Competition. From 2004 to 2006, she performed on New Tang Dynasty (NTD) television’s annual Chinese New Year Spectacular. Since joining Shen Yun Performing Arts in 2006, she has performed to tremendous acclaim while on tour with the company.)

The erhu can be played as a solo instrument, in small ensembles, and in large orchestras. It is the most popular of the Huqin family of traditional bowed stringed instruments used by various ethnic groups in China. A very versatile instrument, the erhu has a calm sound that is used in both traditional and contemporary music arrangements, such as in pop, rock, and jazz.

Below, Xiaochun Qi performs The Vow on NTD television’s 2006 Chinese New Year Spectacular:

The erhu is incredibly expressive, capable of imitating sounds from chirping birds to a neighing horse. An alto instrument with a middle-high musical range, its melodies can be tender or sonorous. In its lowest and middle range, the erhu is especially stirring and somber, a quality eminently suitable for conveying the grand pageant of China’s history and emotions of its people.

You only need to hear the sound once to experience the range of emotions that the erhu can evoke, be it beauty, sadness, pain, or happiness. When listening to its melodies, one can connect with the feelings experienced by the Chinese people in their long, tumultuous history.

Upon first seeing an erhu, many people are struck by its simple construction, and the fact that such a rich array of sounds can be produced on its two strings. Here are the parts of the erhu:

  • Qín tong (琴筒) is the sound box or resonator body, which can be hexagonal (liu jiao, southern), octagonal (ba jiao, northern), or less commonly, round in shape.
  • Qín pí/She pí (琴皮/蛇皮) is the sound box skin, made from a python. The python skin gives the erhu its characteristic sound.
  • Qín gan (琴杆) is the neck of the instrument.
  • Qín tou (琴頭) is the top or tip of the neck, with a simple curve with a piece of bone or plastic at its apex. Sometimes it is elaborately carved with a dragon head.
  • Qín zhou (琴軸) are the tuning pegs, which can be made from wood or metal gears.
  • Qiān jin (千斤) is the nut, made from string, or less commonly, a metal hook.
  • Nèi xián (内弦) is the inside or inner string, usually tuned to D4.
  • Wai xián (外弦) is the outside or outer string, usually tuned to A4.
  • Qín ma (琴碼) is the bridge, made from wood.
  • Gong (弓) is the bow, which has a qin tong.
  • Screw device to vary bow hair tension.
  • Gong gan (弓杆) is the bow stick, made from bamboo.
  • Gong máo (弓毛) is the bow hair, usually made from white horsehair.
  • Qín diàn (琴墊) is a pad or piece of sponge, felt, or cloth placed between the strings and skin below the bridge to improve sound quality.
  • Qín tuō (琴托)  is the base, which is a piece of wood attached to the bottom of the qín tong to provide a smooth surface on which to rest the instrument on the leg.

The title of the piece below is called Journey of Truth. It was composed by Jingfen Yan and performed by Xuan Mei.

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