The erhu is a Chinese two-stringed musical instrument played with a bow. Although you’d never guess it now, the erhu was rare in northern China before the 1920s. It was introduced to Beijing by innovative musician Liu Tianhua (1895–1932) and it quickly became very popular. Now it can be seen played in virtually every park in the capital!
Read on to find out five fascinating facts about the erhu!
There are different theories about why it’s called an erhu
Er (二 èr) means two, so it could derive from the instrument’s two strings. It could also be because the erhu takes a secondary role to other instruments such as the banhu in Northern music, the jinghu in Peking opera, and the gaohu in Cantonese music. Hu (胡, hú) was a term used for the ‘barbarians’ north of China’s borders (Mongolia) and also peoples to the west, both places where the erhu may have originated. It named a whole category of bowed string instruments called huqin (胡琴 húqín), literally ‘barbarian instruments’ or ‘foreign instruments’.
The erhu is usually played sitting down…
… with the sound box placed on the top of the left thigh and the neck held vertically. It can also be played while standing up using a belt clip.
The bow of the erhu is made of horse hair!
Hair from Mongolian horses was preferred (and still is today), because in cold climates the hair grows thicker and stronger than in warmer regions. The strings were traditionally made of silk.
The sound box of the erhu is made using snakeskin
Synthetic alternatives are available but most players find they don’t sound as good. The scales should be neither too small nor too large, and the best erhus are made from thick, tight snakeskin from wild snakes, which have more supple skin and therefore produce the best sound.
Famed Song Dynasty scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095) wrote about a masterful erhu player in his Supplementary Essays
When the musician, Xu Yan, was playing the jiqin (an old name for the erhu) for the emperor’s ministers, one of the strings broke, but he was able to use the single remaining string to finish the song!
Have you ever heard the erhu played? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture!
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