Originated in Central Asia and introduced to China more than one thousand years ago, the erhu 二胡 belongs to the large family of stick fiddles that are found in many countries. Xiqin 奚琴 was the first bowed instrument mentioned in Chinese literature in Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). It is believed to be the precursor of the erhu. Xiqin was also called huqin 胡琴.
hu = people lived in the north and west of China;
qin = musical instrument
huqin = musical instrument of the hu people, referring to the origin of the instrument
er = two, stating that the instrument has two strings
In Song Dynasty (960-1279 A. D.), huqin was called jiqin 嵇琴. Xiqin was also still a common name for bowed instruments. For example, Shenkuo 沈括 wrote in his book: Court musician Xuyan 徐衍 was ordered to play the xiqin to entertain the guests at the court. One string suddenly broke before he even started. Therefore, Sheng played the entire song with only one string.
In Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) and Qing (1636-1911 A.D.) dynasties, huqin became the lead instrument in the orchestras of Chinese operas and a popular instrument in small ensembles. At the same time, various variations of the instrument started to develop to accompany different styles of reginal operas: banhu 板胡 in Qin Qiang 秦腔; jinghu 京胡 in Beijing opera; zhuihu 墜胡 in Henan opera; gaohu 高胡 in Cantonese opera; sihu 四胡 （4-strings) in Mongolian narrative singing…etc. The erhu known today was the version popular in southern China and used to be called nanhu (nan=south). Only in the last century, it started to be called erhu.
The erhu is played while held on the lap. Its two strings are tuned to a fifth, with the bow placed between them. The erhu has no fingerboard. The player places the fingers on the strings without pressing them against the wood neck, giving the flexibility to apply different degrees of pressure on the strings to alter the tone.
The erhu is usually made of ebony, sandalwood or rosewood, with a snakeskin resonator. In recent years, synthetic skin has been developed. But most players still prefer the sound of the snakeskin. The folk versions vary in the shapes and materials of the sound boxes. The bow is made of bamboo stick and horse hair. Since 1960s, the strings are made of steel, learning from the violin and replacing the silk strings from the ancient time. A popular instrument in solo and ensemble music, erhu’s expressive sound resembles the human voice. Its traditional repertoire is deeply rooted in the vocal and opera traditions.
Although with a history of about one thousand years, the erhu repertoire performed today has been developed since the early 1900s. The most influential and important composers/erhu players were Liu Tianhua 劉天華 (1895-1932) and Hua Yanjun 華彥鈞 (1893-1950).
Liu Tianhua performed the erhu, pipa, and qin. He devoted his live to music as a composer, educator and innovator. Liu started to play the erhu at a young age. His education in western music started at high school: western music theory, violin, piano and the brass instruments. He studied with many famous folk musicians to learn traditional Chinese music. His ten solo compositions for the erhu and three for the pipa combined his studied in both western and Chinese traditions. In 1922, Liu started to teach Chinese music at Beijing University. His systematic teaching method paved the road for today’s conservatory training of Chinese music.
Hua Yanjun (A Bing 阿炳) was a famous folk musician. As a child, he studied Taoist music with his father, who was a Taoist priest. At age 12, he was able to perform multiple instruments and participate in religious rituals. At age 18, Hua was already a well known musician. At 22, his father died, and he replaced his father to be the lead priest in his temple. However, he became addicted to drugs and got kicked out of the temple. At 35, he lost his eye sight and started to play music on the streets to make a living. He often improvised songs reflecting the political issues of the time. In the summer of 1950, musicologist Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 from Central Conservatory (Beijing) went to record his performance of his most famous solo pieces on the erhu and pipa. To this day, his “Erquan” or “Moon Reflection on Erquan” is the most famous piece in the erhu repertoire.
Today the erhu is taught at schools from elementary to conservatories and universities in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, as well as some colleges and universities in the west. A Chinese orchestra, depending on its size, include a string section of more than twenty erhu, and a few gaohu (tuned a fifth higher) and zhonghu (fifth lower). An important classical instrument, erhu is manufactured either in factories or at private studios in Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou, China. Professional level erhu is hand made by famous makers, who compete in national awards for traditional instrument makers.