Erhu-the sound of China

(Shanghai Daily)
Updated: 2007-06-25 09:49

The erhu has only two strings but just listen to what those two strings can do - from playing the earliest classic, "The Sound of Agony," to imitating perfectly the voices of Peking Opera singers or even the music of bird chirping.

Hollywood star Sharon Stone said "Flaws make me unique" during her Shanghai trip last week. That is also true of erhu, the two-stringed bowed fiddle, the young brother in the family of Chinese traditional instruments.

With the simplest historical record, the most humble beginnings and one more than the least number of strings, erhu has developed dramatically over the past century and become almost the most popular Chinese instrument on the world stage.

"There are very few historical records about erhu which developed from xiqin, a similar instrument introduced into central China by minority tribes from along the northern frontier during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)," says Xing Liyuan, a young erhu performer and lecturer at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "Modern erhu has a history of less than 100 years when maestro Liu Tianhua (1895-1932) created the first solo composition for erhu, 'The Sound of Agony,' in 1915."

She notes that erhu was a humble and simple folk instrument used only for accompaniment or group performances on occasions like local operas, banquets, weddings or funeral ceremonies before 1915. It was Liu's contribution that led to erhu being upgraded to a solo instrument and finding a place in conservatories and concert halls.

"Erhu cannot compare with guqin (seven-string zither) and pipa (four-string lute) which have a history of up to 3,000 years but maybe it's the simple history and humble beginnings that have left erhu more space and freedom in which to develop," says Xing, who has twice won first prize in national competitions. "The instrument has been constantly improved in terms of technique and repertoire at an amazing speed - like 'an uncontrolled wild horse' during the past century."

Erhu is a simple instrument that has a drum-like body made of ebony or sandalwood. The front opening is covered with the skin of a snake and the back is left open. The functions of the body is to resonate and amplify the vibrations of the strings.

The neck of the erhu is about 81 centimeters long and is made from the same materials as the drum. The top of the neck is bent for decoration. The two strings of the erhu, which is usually tuned D and A, are made of silk or nylon, but nowadays metal strings are commonly used.

The bow is 76 centimeters long and is manufactured from a reed which one curves by steaming and is then arched with horse hair in the same way as the bow of violin. However, in the case of erhu, the horse hair runs between the two strings so one cannot take the bow off the instrument unless one of the two strings is taken off or broken.

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