The erhu is a two stringed instrument that is over 1000 years old. It evolved from another ancient Chinese instrument the xiqin (奚 琴) that was introduced in China in the 10th century, during the Song Period. It was however in the Dynasties of Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) that the erhu developed and grew in popularity. It was most commonly used to accompany local operas. It was first acclaimed as a solo instrument in the 20th century thanks to a man called Liu Tianhua (1895-1932). Now the erhu is one of the most popular instruments in China not only because of its rich history but also because of the prestigious value it has.
The name erhu (二胡) can be split into the two separate figures 二 and 胡. The first figure means ‘two’ in Mandarin and this may be because the instrument has two strings. Another argument is that it is because the erhu is the second highest huqin (胡琴) instrument. However, there is no yihu or sanhu (one and three) so personally I think that the fact it has two strings makes more sense. Also there is a sihu (四胡) which is another huqin instrument with four strings and surprise, surprise, si (四) means four.
The erhu belongs to the huqin family which consists of nine different instruments. The erhu is the most common of all the huqim instruments. Originally, the erhu was played using a rosined stick, however, in around the year 1000, horsehair bows reached China and most of the Asian continent. Thus the instrument that we know came into being.
The erhu is made from a long, vertical piece of wood that has two pegs attached to the top of it. At the bottom a sound box that is either an eight-sided or six-sided prism, covered by a python skin. Two strings tuned to a D4 and A4 are strung from the base to the pegs. The bow, normally made of horsehair, is never separated from the strings and is instead placed in-between the two. There is no fingerboard and are no frets.
The erhu is held upright on the performer’s leg, with the left hand holding it at the top and the right hand controlling the bow. Although there is a screw to vary the bow tension, the tautness of the bow is determined by the pressure of the right hand. This allows a great range of effects, from a very wispy, airy sound to a harsh, sharp sound.
The two strings were originally made from silk. However, this meant the sound wasn’t very loud and so now they are made from metal, mainly steel. The two strings are tuned a fifth apart and normally a D4 and an A4, the same as the middle two strings on a violin. In fact the erhu is sometimes referred to as the ‘Chinese violin’ as the principles are the same and in the Eastern orchestras the erhu has the same role as the violin in a western orchestra
The erhu has a weird and wonderful sound. It resembles the human voice and can also imitate many natural sounds, animals for example. It is a very expressive instrument that normally plays melancholy and melodic pieces. However it is also appropriate for more jovial and light-hearted pieces. There have been many great erhu players throughout history but one, by the name of Abing (Full name: Huà Yànjūn 华彦钧) really stands out from the crowd.
Abing (17 August 1893-4 December 1950) was a blind erhu player. He was an exceptional erhu performer, not only because he was blind but because also incorporated topical issues into his music. As well as playing the erhu he also composed many different prestigious pieces which are known throughout China (a particularly famous example is Erquan Yingyue 二泉映月 which means the Moon reflected in the Er-Quan). His pieces for erhu and pipa have become compulsory for every learner and he is widely acclaimed as the best erhu player of the 20th century. It is thanks to Abing that we have such wonderful pieces on the erhu and I think he is the one who developed the understanding and characteristics of the erhu the most.