By Louise Bevan | The BL

Close your eyes and make yourself comfortable. If you want, make a cup of tea. Get ready to listen. Press “play.” If you have chosen a good melody, you will feel the notes of the erhu begin to envelop you in a rapturous way.

Close your eyes and make yourself comfortable. If you want, make a cup of tea. Get ready to listen. Press “play.” If you have chosen a good melody, you will feel the notes of the erhu begin to envelop you in a rapturous way.

Given the ease with which this instrument delights the heart and transports the mind, it almost seems impossible that it only uses two strings and a small resonance box to achieve this effect. Even so, some say that in skillful hands, all sorts of natural sounds come forth from the erhu: the song of the birds, the neighing of the horses, a soft drizzle. or the roar of the wind during summer storms. There are also those who affirm that the instrument is capable of imitating human tears, sighs and even a whispered conversation with ease.

The prodigious erhu, considered by many to be the “Chinese ancestor” of the modern-day violin, is the best-known instrument of those belonging to a family of approximately 30 string instruments known as “Huqin.”

(Photo: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

The history of the Huqin goes back around a thousand years. It is speculated that they descend from an instrument similar to a two-stringed lute known as “Xiqin,” used by the Xi nomads, who inhabited the central plain of China in that period. As the ethnic minorities were called by the name of “Hu,” all the descendants of the Xiqin received the name of Huqin, which literally means “barbarian instrument” or “foreign instrument.”

It was said that these Huqin did not arise from human creativity, but are instead instruments used in the Heavens and bequeathed by the gods to the “divine” Chinese culture. In the ancient caves of Yulin and Dunhuang, you can see images of flying female celestial beings (known as feitian) with Huqin.

With relatively few pieces and a simple design, the erhu is one of the most magnificent instruments that exist. Unlike the western violin, which has four strings, the erhu uses only two. Therefore, both amateurs and professional musicians are amazed by the range of sounds that the masters of this huqin give birth to in the atmosphere of the auditoriums.

Making the soul vibrate

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Whoever has heard it will surely agree that the sound of the erhu is like a language that goes straight to the soul, where it is naturally understood. Just by listening to it, you enter a world or a story of profound beauty, sadness, pain, or happiness. The sounds are concentrated in the high tones and are close to the human voice; the emotional expression is very intense and capable of easily moving the listeners.

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Sometimes, the sound is delicate like silk and remains in the mind for a long time.

The performances of the erhu, then, penetrate the souls of the audience, making space for all kinds of emotions. Once the flow of feelings begins, sadness and nostalgia for the life of oneself and their ancestors intermingle, giving the strings a power of expression laden with history, even from previous lives. In this regard, Chinese and non-Chinese listeners are affected equally.

What is truly emotional about the erhu lies not only in the technique but in the internal meaning. This is the same for all music, be it Eastern or Western; the musician must put his or her heart and the purity of his or her soul into their musical expression. And for that, the erhu is a special instrument.

A little history

The history of the erhu is deeply intertwined in Chinese culture, especially from the Song Dynasty (between 960 and 1279), when this type of Huqin reached the standard of performance and began to be used frequently in popular activities and parties in court life. Until then, it was simply played by brushing pieces of bamboo against the strings.

In the Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, the Huqin increased their prominence and became present in worship ceremonies and wars. Marco Polo himself recorded in 1278 how the Mongolian soldiers sang and played a type of two-stringed violin when they formed ranks during enlistment.

An illustration, made in China in the 1800s. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

With the development of local operas in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, the Huqin became important instruments to accompany popular songs and Chinese opera.

It was in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that the instrument acquired a form similar to that of today’s erhu: it took on a dragon-carved head on the top and a curved neck. With time, the Chinese people were making the erhu their instrument par excellence.

Later, with the transmission of Western music, the problem arose of how to combine it with Chinese music and how to weigh personal joy with mass entertainment. This process culminated in 1927 when there was a “revolution” of the erhu, in which the instrument absorbed notes from Western music and violin techniques. Accompanying this change were several solo works of erhu, with which the erhu was elevated to a special instrument for one-person acts.

The Architecture of the Erhu

When seeing an erhu for the first time, many are surprised how a sound so charged with sensations can arise from such a simple device.

In ancient times, the erhu consisted of a couple of pieces of bamboo and a pair of strings to bow. Naturally, this basic design evolved through time, and yet the same spirit of simplicity as a millennium ago can be found in modern erhu.

(Photo: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

Today, the conventional erhu consists of a soundboard, a bridge, an arch and two strings as basic elements. Other details, such as the tuning pegs and a small pad between the strings, add quality to the sound.

But among the many peculiarities of the instrument, the most striking is the use of python skin to line the front side of the soundboard. This extravagance is not a minor characteristic and does not belong to the order of aesthetic detail.

The most striking is the use of python skin to line the front side of the soundboard. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The special sound that the erhu offers depends fundamentally on the vibration of this animal hide. Nowadays, the hunting of snakes to make erhus is prohibited and the skin must be obtained from pythons bred in certified farms for that purpose, or simply with synthetic leather.

The python skin vibrates on the resonance box of the apparatus, which is smaller than that of a violin. This is located at the bottom and has a rounded shape, either octagonal or hexagonal (the most common). On the back, an opening in the shape of a small window gives better sound quality and adds to the decoration.

The strings are arranged parallel to a long neck of hardwood, which gives the piece a typical height of about 80 cm. At the lower end, the neck penetrates the soundboard. At the upper end, it is curved to give rise to the “head of the neck,” which can be a simple continuation or can be crowned by a representative ornament, such as a dragon head carved in wood.

As with any string instrument, a pair of plugs regulate the tension of the same. The erhu’s pegs are usually made of hardwood and are inserted into the upper end of the neck. These plugs are usually tuned to Re4 (inner string) and La4 (outer string).

The magical sound occurs when the bowstring rubs the neck strings. The body of the bow, the same length as the neck of the erhu, is usually made of bamboo, and the best bowstrings are horse hair, preferably white.

The combination of these materials means that the bowing does require great strength, so the sound is endowed with a characteristic softness and tranquility; some compare its sound with that of a melodious voice.

Another feature of the bow is that its string passes between the neck strings, which sets it apart from Western violins. The bow, therefore, rubs one of the strings on the outside and the other on the inside.

In the past, the neck strings used to be made of silk, but now they have almost completely been replaced by metal strings, which have a longer life. Some erhu-istas still prefer the sound of silk, which has been described as more delicate.

Today, the manufacture of the erhu is a product of national manufacture, currently concentrated in factories of only three cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou. Taiwan also manufactures them in quantity.

However, the great masters know that, like many other instruments of western music, the best erhu are handmade by a luthier, who uses pieces of special wood, such as rosewood, or often that obtained from a piece of antique furniture.

The majesty of this instrument is quite beyond compare.