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Erhu – Traditional Musical Instruments of China

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Written by Titania Nguyen
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Erhu is an incredibly unique traditional Chinese musical instrument. It has a 4,000-year history and is an integral part of Chinese culture. Erhu preserves the wonderful sounds and melodies of traditional music. When its two strings vibrate against each other, the Erhu makes a charming sound. Erhu was often used to perform in Chinese folk shows, operas, and imperial banquets during all dynasties.

One of The Traditional Bowed String Instruments in China

The Erhu, Chinese: 二胡 (“are-who”), is a Chinese two-stringed fiddle. It has been an integral part of Chinese traditional music. Even with only two strings, Erhu amazes the audience with its ability to convey different notes and emotions. Whether it’s a romantic tune or an uplifting one, it never fails to evoke emotions unique to Chinese culture.

With an emotive middle-high musical range, it creates sounds that can cover everything from the joyful chirping of birds to the somber neighing of horses. In its middle and lower ranges, it deepens in intensity and carries with it a solemn quality. Whether sweet lullabies or joyous dance tunes, this unique instrument can evoke any emotion needed, from bubbly excitement to mellow memories. Its mastery of tones has recalled Chinese culture for centuries.

Erhu plays a role not only as a solo instrument and in small ensembles but also in larger orchestras. It is usually the lead instrument in Chinese classical orchestras. Whether playing classical or contemporary music arrangements, this very versatile instrument never ceases to capture our hearts.

Structure of Erhu

The most popular instrument among traditional bowed string instruments in China is Erhu. It is often known as a Chinese violin or a Chinese two-stringed fiddle.

Structure of Erhu
Structure of the Erhu

The Chinese fiddle, Erhu, takes a totally different approach to play when compared to its Western violin. Played in a standing position, usually resting on the player’s lap, Erhu requires a far more dexterous playing technique than the typical Western violin.

The Erhu’s body is crafted from beautiful wood. It is usually made from heavy hardwoods such as red sandalwood, black wood, rosewood, red wood, aged red wood, etc. Erhu strings were traditionally composed of silk or tendon. Erhu bow is coated with rosin, and the bow hair is made of horsetail. That gives Erhu a beautiful, soft sound that seems to come from another world.

Erhu playing techniques are also special. The Erhu has no fingerboard, so players can only press directly against the strings themselves and push the bow hair to make them vibrate and create sound. The bow hair is fixed between the two strings and can only be moved forward or backward to catch the strings. One of the most difficult aspects of the instrument is tonality. We can substantially alter their pitch by changing the position and degree of pressure on free-floating strings. That is why the Erhu is called a versatile instrument. With its sound from a wooden drum acting as an amplifier, the Erhu offers a unique experience for music lovers.

History of the “Chinese violin”

Since 4000 years ago, the Erhu has been a popular instrument in China and other parts of East Asia. It has been a necessary part of traditional music.

Although it appeared for a long time, it was only in the Tang – Song Dynasty that the Erhu became more popular. The Tang Dynasty was a time of great fortune in China, and the Silk Road connected many cultures during this period. This was also when the Erhu became widely known for its unique sound and instrumentation. After that, the Erhu became a necessary part of Chinese music, affecting genres of Chinese opera and classical music. In the 20th century, even the Henan folk tune saw an increase in prominence thanks to the incorporation of the Erhu into it.

Historians conducted detailed research on ancient paintings, statues, and murals. They found some carved images in Yulin Cave and the Eastern Thousand Buddhist Cave. Both are part of Gansu Province’s Mogao Grottoes, a world heritage site on the Silk Road. Along with five exhumed murals describing the Erhu, historians got a closer look at how this instrument looked centuries ago. They found out that these antique erhus bore a striking resemblance to the modern Erhu in how they were held and played.

Presence of Erhu in Modern Music

Nowadays, large orchestras frequently use the Erhu instrument to create beautiful, complex sounds by combining modern and traditional song elements.

Erhu in the Chinese orchestra

In the past, Erhu has been used as a solo instrument in Chinese operas and theater performances. This Chinese two-stringed fiddle was also a part of imperial banquets and national orchestras.

Modern Chinese orchestras are bringing a modern flair to traditional music. With the likes of Erhu music, they are able to take classic melodies and create something entirely new. Musicians have also fused contemporary music arrangements with traditional instruments. This fusion resulted in the creation of a neoclassical style. Above all else, however, the perpetual preservation of traditional culture is essential.

Conserve traditional Chinese music

Ancient Chinese instruments have a close relationship with Heaven and Earth. The Chinese believe that the five-note (pentatonic) scale plays a role in maintaining harmony between humans and the universe. That is 宮(do), 商(re), 角(mi), 徵(sol), 羽(la). Each note connects to one of the Five Elements—water, earth, wood, fire, and metal. Each note also connects to one of our five major internal organs. The Chinese believe that pure energy music may cure the problems that cause individuals to be unhealthy.

The pentatonic scale corresponds to the universe and the human body (Shen Yun Shop).
The pentatonic scale corresponds to the universe and the human body (Photo: Shen Yun Shop).

Most people are not aware of the effect that music has on us. If we continue to create music without standards, we will face a significant issue in terms of cultural preservation and human health.

The ultimate combination of Western and Eastern musical traditions

Today, many musical bands and orchestras use traditional instruments in their performances. Usually, they would perform on traditional Eastern instruments alongside modern instruments. These can be Erhu, Pipa, Guzheng, bamboo lutes, hammered dulcimers, and percussion instruments. Sometimes, artists also play traditional instruments in pop, jazz, rock, etc. However, there is a music band that combined successful Western and Eastern classical styles to perform in a large orchestra. That is Shen Yun.

Traditional Chinese instrument of the Erhu being played in the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Shenyun.com).
The Erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, is being performed by the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Shenyun.com).

Shen Yun’s music perfectly combines the East’s unique sound with the Western symphony’s power. Following the Chinese pentatonic, the orchestra creates an overall effect that is a stunning display of harmony and composition. This superb combination brings the audience back in time to the Chinese civilization’s 5000-year history. Using the Erhu and other traditional Chinese instruments has added subtle nuances to the symphony. Although the base is Western in style, the nuances brought about by these traditional instruments add unmistakably Eastern flavor, making this show a unique experience.

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