The Enchanting Sounds of the Erhu

A Chinese erhu and bow.

The erhu is one of the essential instruments from Chinese culture. (Image: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

The erhu is one of the essential instruments from Chinese culture with a history of over 4,000 years. It is a bowed musical instrument, 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.

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Intonation is one of the instrument’s most significant challenges

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, a natural amplifier. Intonation is one of the instrument’s most significant challenges, as different positions and degrees of pressure dramatically change the free-floating pitch of the strings.

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

The enchanting sounds of the erhu.
The enchanting sounds of the erhu. (Image: via Shen Yun Performing Arts)

The erhu can evoke a range of emotions

The erhu is incredibly expressive and 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 incredibly stirring and sad, a quality eminently suitable for conveying the grand pageant of China’s history and the 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. Moreover, when listening to its melodies, you can connect with the feelings experienced by the Chinese people in their long, tumultuous history.

The erhu and a close-up view of the sound box or resonator body.
The erhu and a close-up view of the sound box or resonator body. (Image: via Shen Yun Performing arts)

The parts of the erhu

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.
  • 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 a 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 a bridge made from wood.
  • Gong (弓) is the bow, which has a qin tong.
  • Screw device to vary the bow hair tension.
  • Gong gan (弓杆) is a 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 the 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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