The erhu (Chinese: ; pinyin: ; [?xu]) is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a Southern Fiddle, and sometimes known in the Western world as the Chinese violin or a Chinese two-stringed fiddle.
It is used as a solo instrument as well as in small ensembles and large orchestras. It is the most popular of the huqin family of traditional bowed string instruments used by various ethnic groups of China. A very versatile instrument, the erhu is used in both traditional and contemporary music arrangements, such as in pop, rock and jazz.
The Erhu can be traced back to proto-Mongolic instruments introduced to China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the Xiqin (? ?). The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, and have come to China in the 10th century.
The first Chinese character of the name of the instrument (?, 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 (?, hú) indicates that it is a member of the Huqin family, with Hu commonly meaning barbarians. The name Huqin literally means "instrument of the Hu peoples", suggesting that the instrument may have originated from regions to the north or west of China generally inhabited by nomadic people on the extremities of past Chinese kingdoms.
Historic bowed zithers of China, including the Xiqin, Yazheng, and Yaqin, and also the Korean Ajaeng, were originally played by bowing with a rosined stick, which created friction against the strings. As soon as the horsehair bow was invented, it spread very widely.
The Erhu consists of a long vertical stick-like neck, at the top of which are two large tuning pegs, and at the bottom is a small resonator body (sound box) which is covered with python skin on the front (playing) end. Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base, and a small loop of string (Qian Jin) placed around the neck and strings acting as a nut pulls the strings towards the skin, holding a small wooden bridge in place.
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 horse hair bow is never separated from the strings (which were formerly of twisted silk but which 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.
Various dense and heavy hardwoods are used in making the Erhu. According to Chinese references the woods include zi tan ( red sandalwood and other woods of the genus Pterocarpus such as padauk), Lao hong mu ( aged red wood), wu mu ( black wood), and hong mu ( red wood). Particularly fine Erhus are often made from pieces of old furniture. A typical erhu measures 81 cm from top to bottom, the length of the bow also being 81 cm.
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 handmade by specialist craftsmen.
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.
In 1988 China passed its Law on the Protection of Endangered Species after ratifying the UN Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making it illegal to use and trade unlicensed pythons. To regulate the use of python skins, China's State Forestry Administration introduced a certification scheme between python skin sellers in Southeast Asia and musical instrument makers in China. From January 1, 2005, new regulations also require Erhus to have a certificate from the State Forestry Administration, which certify that the Erhu python skin is not made with wild pythons, but from farm-raised pythons. Individuals are allowed to take up to two Erhus out of China when traveling; commercial buyers need additional export certificates.
Outside China, manufacturers of Erhu can 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.
Some Erhus are made of recycled products.
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra began their research for an alternative to python skin in 2005 and has since designed the Eco-Huqin series, which substitutes python skin with PET Polyester Membrane. For this innovation the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra received the Ministry of Culture Innovation Award in 2012.
A notable composer for the Erhu was Liu Tianhua (/; Liú Ti?nhuá; 1895-1932), a Chinese musician who also studied Western music. He composed 47 exercises and 10 solo pieces (1918-32) which were central to the development of the Erhu as a solo instrument. His works for the instrument include Yue Ye (; Yuè yè, Moon Night) and Zhu ying Yao hong (?; Zhú y?ng yáo hóng, Shadows of Candles Flickering Red).
Other solo pieces include Er Quan Ying Yue (1950, Two Springs Reflecting the Moon) by Abing, Sai Ma (Horse Race) by Huang Haihuai, Henan Xiaoqu (Henan Folk Tune) by Liu Mingyuan, and Sanmenxia Changxiangqu (1961, Sanmen Gorge Capriccio) 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(Two Springs Reflecting the Moon) originally did not have accompaniment.
The Erhu is used in the music of the Cirque du Soleil show O and in solo performances in select Shen Yun tours. Even fusion progressive rock groups like The Hsu-nami have incorporated the erhu into their music and it is their lead instrument. It is incorporated in the Taiwanese black metal band ChthoniC and used in the song "Field Below" by Regina Spektor.
An instrumental album by Erhu artist Song Fei (; Song Fei) expresses the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (; Q?ngmíng Shànghé Tú) drawn in the Song Dynasty by Zhang Zeduan (; Zhang Zeduan). It was performed with the Erhu, Jinghu, Banhu, Gaohu, etc., to show the Livelihood, Trade, Festival[clarification needed] of the Song Dynasty; the album contains 18 parts.
More recently, the Erhu has appeared in several soundtracks, featuring prominently in the TV series Earth: Final Conflict (played by George Gao) and the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (played by Jiebing Chen). An Erhu solo is featured in several cues related to Vulcans from 2009's Star Trek soundtrack by Michael Giacchino.
Musical groups for wedding celebrations in Cambodia often use Erhu.
An Erhu is listed in the credits for the Doug Anthony All Stars album Icon as being played by Paul McDermott. The Erhu can be heard in the character songs of China, a character in Axis Powers Hetalia.
The erhu is often described as a Chinese fiddle, in which when compared to a fiddle, it has a relatively different style. While most of the instrument is built from wood, like the violin, the wood is not where the 'bridge' is put on. The bridge of an erhu has a flat base, and does not require 'fitting' onto an instrument. The reason is because the erhu uses Python skin as its 'top', whereas a violin, the top is a wooden plate. The python skin is stretched out like a flat surface, unlike the curved plate of a violin. Also, erhu have the hairs of the bow strung between the two strings, in which both sides of bow hair is used. The violin has the bow hair played on top of the strings. Erhu has only two strings while violin has four.
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, with the sound box placed on the top of the left thigh and the neck held vertically. However, performers of more recent years have played while standing up using a specially developed belt-clip.
The bow is held with an underhand grip. The bow hair is adjusted so it is slightly loose. The fingers of the right hand are used to push the hairs away from the stick in order to create tension in the hairs. 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 second finger of the right hand. This produces a dry, muted tone (if either of the open strings is plucked, the sound is somewhat more resonant) which is sometimes desired in contemporary pieces.
The left hand alters the pitch of the strings by pressing on the string at the desired point. As the instrument has no frets, the tone is slightly muddied, but resonant. Techniques include hua yin (slides), rou xian (vibrato), huan ba (changing positions), etc.
Prior to the 20th century, most Huqin instruments were used primarily to accompany various forms of Chinese opera and narrative. The use of the Erhu as a solo instrument began in the early 20th century along with the development of guoyue (literally "national music"), a modernized form of Chinese traditional music written or adapted for the professional concert stage. Active in the early 20th century were Zhou Shaomei (; 1885-1938) and Liu Tianhua (; 1895-1932). Liu laid the foundations of modern Erhu playing with his ten unaccompanied solos and 47 studies composed in the 1920s and 1930s. Liu Beimao (; 1903-1981) was born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu. His compositions include Xiao Hua Gu (1943) (Little Flower-drum). Jiang Fengzhi (; 1908-1986) and Chen Zhenduo () were students of Liu Tianhua, the piece Hangong Qiuyue (Autumn Moon over the Han Palace) was adapted and arranged by Jiang. Hua Yanjun (A Bing) (-, c. 1893-1950) was a blind street musician. Shortly before his death in 1950, two Chinese musicologists recorded him playing a few Erhu and Pipa solo pieces, the best-known being Erquan Yingyue.
With the founding of the People's Republic of China and the expansion of the conservatory system, the solo erhu tradition continued to develop. Important performers during this time include Lu Xiutang (; 1911-1966), Zhang Rui (; born 1920), Sun Wenming (; 1928-1962), Huang Haihuai (), Liu Mingyuan (; 1931-1996), Tang Liangde (; 1938-2010), Zhang Shao () and Song Guosheng ().
Liu Mingyuan (; 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 (Cantonese: Tong Leung Tak; ; 1938-2010) 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 on to 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 (; born 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 of 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 (; 1945-2014) was born in Yixing, Jiangsu. She first became known as the winner of the 1963 fourth Shanghai Spring Art Festival. 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). She was the undisputed master of erhu for 50 years.
Yang Ying (; born 1959) was the featured soloist for the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble () 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 used the Erhu in a rock context. As of 2012, the Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic remain the only black metal band to use the erhu. 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. Chie Mukai of the Japanese improv unit Ché-SHIZU also plays the Erhu.
Another group which falls more under Electronica/Drum & Bass is a musical duo from Parkdale, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The group, known as USS or Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker, uses an Erhu in a different context. The USS sound is a mixture of drum and bass beats, grunge-like guitar riffs and two-step rhythms. The Erhu is notable in its apperarances on their two released CDs, "Wielding the C" and "Questamation".
Toronto physician and composer Dr. Ian Pun (; born 1965) uses Erhu combined with a funk guitar musical riff in the 2011 song ", , !" performed by York University musicians Amely Zhou and Jaro Dabrowski.
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