Five Things to Know About… the Erhu

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!

A collection of erhu with one sihu

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’.

Erhu player in Edmonton, Canada

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.

Erhu player in Beijing

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! 

Photo Credits
IQRemix via Flickr, Nikolaj Potanin via Flickr. Top Image: Nikolaj Potanin via Flickr.

Contact Us

Stay up-to-date with the latest offers, information and events from Cultural Keys. Follow our Official WeChat Account by scanning the QR code (click for larger image), or follow us on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn to be the first to know! 

For more information about anything on this page, or for more information about Cultural Keys, please contact us or use the form below to let us know your specific requirements.


    Your Name (required)

    Your Email (required)

    What is your enquiry about? (required)

    Your Message

    Recent Posts

    Mouseover to see left and right arrows

    About Cultural Keys Chinese Culture Company

    Cultural Keys helps you access, understand and enjoy life in China through traditional Chinese culture. Click here to read more about Cultural Keys and what we can do for you, your school, company or group to help you get more out of your time in China!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *