The erhu also called nanhu (南胡, "southern fiddle"), and sometimes known in the West as the "Chinese violin" or "Chinese two-string fiddle," is a two-stringed bowed 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 (胡琴) family of Chinese bowed string instruments, together with the zhonghu (中胡), gaohu (高胡), banhu (板胡), jinghu (京胡), sihu (四胡), and numerous others.
The first Chinese character of the name of the instrument (二, èr, two) 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 (胡, hú) 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-Han peoples.
Various dense and heavy hardwoods are used in making the erhu. According to Chinese references the woods include zi tan (紫檀 red sandalwood and other woods of the genus Pterocarpus such as padauk), lao hong mu (老红木 aged red wood), wu mu (乌木 black wood), and hong mu (红木 red wood). Particularly fine erhus 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:
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 python 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 (which were formerly of twisted silk but today are usually made of metal); it passes between them as opposed to over them (the latter being the case with western bowed stringed instruments). 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 (nearest to player) 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.
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.
Other solo pieces include Er Quan Ying Yue (1950, Moon Reflected on Second Spring) by A Bing, Sai Ma (Horse Race) by Huang Haihuai, Henan Xiaoqu (Henan folk tune) by Liu Mingyuan, and Sanmenxia Changxiangqu (1961, Sanmen Gorge Rhapsody) 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.
The erhu is also used in the music of the Cirque du Soleil show O. 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 almost always tuned to the interval of a fifth. The inside string (nearest to player) 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.
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 (pull bow, equivalent to the "down bow" technique used on western bowed string instruments), tui gong (push bow, equivalent to the "up bow" technique). The bow hair is placed in between the two strings and both sides of the bow hair are used to produce sound, the player pushes the bow away from the body when bowing the A string (the outside 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 (second) finger of the right hand. This produces a dry, muted tone (if either of the open strings are plucked, the sound is somewhat more resonant) which is sometimes desired in contemporary pieces.
Techniques include hua yin (slides), rou xian (vibrato), huan ba (changing positions), etc.
With the founding of the PRC and the expansion of the conservatory system, the solo erhu tradition continued to develop. Important performers during this time include Lu Xiutang (陆修堂, 1911-1966), Zhang Rui (张锐, 1920- ) Sun Wenming (孙文明, 1928-1962), Huang Haihuai (黄海怀), Liu Mingyuan (刘明源, 1931-1996), Tang Liangde (汤良德, b. 1938), Zhang Shao (张韶), and Song Guosheng.
Liu Mingyuan (刘明源) (1931-1996) 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 (Henan folk tune), and Cao Yuan Shang (On Grassland) for zhonghu. For many years he taught at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Tang Liangde (Tong Leung Tak, 汤良德, b. 1938) 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 (王国潼, b. 1939) 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 (Sanmen Gorge Rhapsody) 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 (閔惠芬, 1945- ) 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 (Shanghai Folk Orchestra).
Yang Ying (杨英, b. 1959) was the featured soloist for the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble (中央歌舞团) 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.