Saturday, September 6, 2008


The ''erhu'' , also called ''nanhu'' , and sometimes known in the West as the "Chinese violin" or " two-string fiddle," is a two-stringed musical instrument, used as a solo instrument as well as in small ensembles and large orchestras. It is the most popular instrument in the ''huqin'' family of Chinese bowed string instruments, together with the ''zhonghu'' , ''gaohu'' , ''banhu'' , ''jinghu'' , ''sihu'' , and numerous others.


The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the xiqin , which was described as a foreign, two-stringed lute in ''Yue Shu'' , an encyclopedic work on music written by Chen Yang in the Northern Song Dynasty. The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, and have come to China in the 10th century.

The first Chinese character of the name of the instrument is believed to come from the fact that it has two strings. An alternate explanation states that it comes from the fact that it is the second highest huqin in pitch to the gaohu in the modern Chinese orchestra. The second character indicates that it is a member of the huqin family. The name "huqin" literally means "barbarian instrument," showing that the instrument may have originated from regions to the north or west of China inhabited by non- peoples.

The ''jing erhu'' is a variety of ''erhu'' that is used in Beijing opera.

Historical erhu and bowed string bows

The historic bowed zithers, including the xiqin, yazheng, and yaqin, and the Korean ajaeng, were generally played by with a rosined stick, which created friction against the strings. As soon as the horsehair bow was invented, it spread very widely. The Central Asian horse peoples occupied a territory that included the Silk Road, along which goods and innovations were transported rapidly for thousands of miles .


The ''erhu'' consists of a long vertical stick-like , at the top of which are two large tuning pegs, and at the bottom is a small resonator body which is covered with python skin on the front end. Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base, and a small loop of string placed around the neck and strings acting as a pulls the strings towards the skin, holding a small wooden bridge in place.

Various dense and heavy hardwoods are used in making the ''erhu''. According to Chinese references the woods include ''zi tan'' , ''lao hong mu'' , ''wu mu'' , and ''hong mu'' . Particularly fine ''erhu''s are often made from pieces of old furniture. A typical ''erhu'' measures 81cm from top to bottom, the length of the bow also being 81cm.

The parts of the ''erhu'':
*''Qín tong'' - sound box or resonator body; it is hexagonal , octagonal , or, less commonly, round.
*''Qín pí/She pí'' - skin, made from . The python skin gives the ''erhu'' its characteristic sound.
*''Qín gan'' - .
*''Qín tou'' - top or tip of neck, usually a simple curve with a piece of bone or plastic on top, but is sometimes elaborately carved with a 's head.
*''Qín zhou'' - tuning pegs, traditional wooden, or metal machine gear pegs.
*''Qiān jin'' - , made from string, or, less commonly, a metal hook.
*''Nèi xián'' - inside or inner string, usually tuned to D4, nearest to player.
*''Wai xián'' - outside or outer string, usually tuned to A4.
*''Qín ma'' - bridge, made from wood.
*''Gong'' - bow, has screw device to vary bow hair tension.
*''Gong gan'' - bow stick, made from bamboo.
*''Gong máo'' - bow hair, usually white horsehair.
*''Qín diàn'' - pad, a piece of sponge, felt, or cloth placed between the strings and skin below the bridge to improve its sound.
*''Qín tuō'' - base, a piece of wood attached to the bottom of the ''qín tong'' to provide a smooth surface on which to rest on the leg.

Most erhu are mass produced in factories. The three most esteemed centres of erhu making are Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou. In the collectivist period after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, these factories were formed by merging what had been previously private workshops. Although most erhu were machine-made in production lines, the highest quality instruments were hand made by specialist craftsmen.

The ''erhu'' has some unusual features. First is that its characteristic sound is produced through the vibration of the skin by bowing. Second, there is no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing their fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck. Third, the bow hair is never separated from the strings ; it passes between them as opposed to over them . Lastly, although there are two strings, they are very close to each other and the player's left hand in effect plays as if on one string.
The inside string is generally tuned to D4 and the outside string to A4, a fifth higher. The maximum range of the instrument is three and a half octaves, from D4 up to A7, before a stopping finger reaches the part of the string in contact with the bow hair. The usual playing range is about two and a half octaves.

In the 20th century, there have been attempts to standardize and improve the erhu, with the aim of producing a louder and better sounding instrument. One major change was the use of steel strings instead of silk. The move to steel strings was made gradually. By 1950, the thinner A string had been replaced by a violin E string with the thicker D string remaining silk. By 1958, professional players were using purpose made D and A steel erhu strings as standard.

Use of python skin

In 1988, China passed its Law on the Protection of Endangered Species after ratifying the UN Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species , making it illegal to use and trade unlicensed pythons. To regulate the use of python skins, China's State Forestry Administration introduced a certification scheme between python skin sellers in Southeast Asia and musical instrument makers in China. From January 1, 2005, new regulations also require ''erhu''s to have a certificate from the State Forestry Administration, which certify that the ''erhu'' python skin is not made with wild pythons, but from farm-raised pythons. Individuals are allowed to take up to two ''erhu''s out of China when traveling; commercial buyers need additional export certificates.

Outside China, manufacturers of erhu are able to issue their own CITES licenses with approval by governments of their respective countries. Such exports are legal as they have been made from legal skin sources.

Erhu music

A notable composer for the erhu was Liu Tianhua , a Chinese musician who studied Western music as well. He composed 47 exercises and 10 solo pieces which were central to the development of the erhu as a solo instrument. His works for the instrument include ''Yue Ye'' and ''Zhu ying Yao hong'' .

Other solo pieces include ''Er Quan Ying Yue'' by A Bing, ''Sai Ma'' by Huang Haihuai, ''Henan Xiaoqu'' by Liu Mingyuan, and ''Sanmenxia Changxiangqu'' by Liu Wenjin. Most solo works are commonly performed with yangqin accompaniment, although pieces such as the ten solos by Liu Tianhua and ''Er Quan Ying Yue'' originally did not have accompaniment.

In addition to the solo repertoire, the erhu is also one of the main instruments in regional music ensembles such as Jiangnan sizhu, Chinese opera ensembles, and the modern large Chinese orchestra.

The erhu is also used in the music of the Cirque du Soleil show ''''.Even fusion progressive rock groups like The Hsu-nami have incorporated the ''erhu'' into their music and it is their lead instruments. It is also incorporated in the Taiwanese black metal band ChthoniC

The erhu is also featured prominently in the soundtrack for the TV series ''''.

Playing technique

The ''erhu'' is almost always tuned to the interval of a fifth. The inside string is generally tuned to D4 and the outside string to A4. This is the same as the two middle strings of the violin.
The ''erhu'' is played sitting down placed on the top of the left thigh.
*Right hand
The bow is held with an underhand grip. The bow hair is adjusted so it is slightly loose, tension is provided by the fingers of the right hand. Bowing techniques include ''la gong'' , ''tui gong'' . The bow hair is placed in between the two strings and both sides of the bow hair is used to produce sound, the player pushes the bow away from the body when bowing the A string , and pulls it inwards when bowing the "inside" D string.

Aside from the usual bowing technique used for most pieces, the ''erhu'' can also be plucked, usually using the index finger of the right hand. This produces a dry, muted tone which is sometimes desired in contemporary pieces.

*Left hand
Techniques include ''hua yin'' , ''rou xian'' , ''huan ba'' , etc.

Notable performers

Prior to the 20th century, most ''huqin'' instruments were used primarily to accompany various forms of Chinese opera and . The use of the erhu as a solo instrument began in the early 20th century along with the development of ''guoyue'' , a modernized form of Chinese traditional music written or adapted for the professional concert stage. Active in the early 20th century were Zhou Shaomei and Liu Tianhua . Liu laid the foundations of modern erhu playing with his ten unaccompanied solos and 47 studies composed in the 1920s and 1930s. Liu Beimao was born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu. His compositions include ''Xiao hua gu'' . Jiang Fengzhi and Chen Zhenduo were students of Liu Tianhua, the piece ''Hangong Qiuyue'' was adapted and arranged by Jiang. was a blind street musician, shortly before his death in 1950 two Chinese musicologists recorded him playing a few erhu and pipa solo pieces, the best known being ''Erquan Yingyue''.

With the founding of the and the expansion of the conservatory system, the solo erhu tradition continued to develop. Important performers during this time include Lu Xiutang , Zhang Rui Sun Wenming , Huang Haihuai , Liu Mingyuan , Tang Liangde , Zhang Shao , and Song Guosheng.

Liu Mingyuan was born in Tianjin. He was known for his virtuosity on many instruments of the huqin family, in particular the banhu. His compositions and arrangements include ''Henan Xiaoqu'' , and ''Cao Yuan Shang'' for zhonghu. For many years he taught at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Tang Liangde was born in Shanghai into a famous Shanghainese musical family. He won the "Shanghai's Spring" erhu competition and continued to be the soloist for the Chinese Film Orchestra in Beijing, his composition and solos can be heard throughout the ''Nixon to China'' documentary movie. Tang was the soloist and performed at the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, then went onto music broadcasting and education for the Hong Kong Government's Music Office making worldwide tours, and was named Art Educator of the Year in 1991 by the Hong Kong Artist Guild.

Wang Guotong was born in Dalian, Liaoning. He studied with Jiang Fengzhi, Lan Yusong and Chen Zhenduo, and in 1960 graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He performed the premiere of ''Sanmenxia Changxiangqu'' composed by Liu Wenjin. In 1972 Wang became the erhu soloist, and later art director, with the China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra. He returned to the Central Conservatory of Music in 1983 as head of the Chinese music department. He has written many books and articles on erhu playing and has performed in many countries. Wang also worked with the Beijing National Instruments Factory to further develop erhu design.

Min Huifen was born in Yixing, Jiangsu. Min first became known as the winner of the 1964 fourth Shanghai Spring national erhu competition. She studied with Lu Xiutang and Wang Yi, and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1968, and became the erhu soloist with the ''Shanghai minzu yuetuan'' .

was the featured soloist for the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble of Beijing from 1978-1996. She was a national erhu champion, frequently recorded for the Chinese film and record industry, and is listed in famous persons of China.

The erhu is featured along with other traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa in the contemporary Chinese instrumental music group, Twelve Girls Band. They perform traditional Chinese music as well as Western classical and popular music.

A few groups have utilized the ''erhu'' in a rock context. The Taiwanese black metal band ChthoniC uses the ''erhu''; they are the only black metal band to do so. The New Jersey-based progressive rock band The Hsu-nami plays a variety of rock sub-styles including metal, psychedelic, prog rock, and funk. An amplified ''erhu'' takes the place of lead vocals.

Audio sample



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