Erhu: Music & History

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Erhu is the instrument responsible for much of the characteristic sound of Chinese music. However, the erhu itself was introduced by foreigners. Despite that, it has remained popular in China for over 1,000 years.

What is an Erhu?

The Erhu is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow that is popular not only in China, but in those areas of East Asia where Chinese culture has had particularly great influence. Due to its resemblance in function to a violin, it is occasionally called a Chinese Violin.

The instrument offers a sound that, even for those who have no familiarity with the erhu, can be immediately associated with Chinese culture. The name Erhu is Chinese, and refers to the fact that the instrument has two strings (er) as well as comes from the huqin family of stringed instruments.

Erhu
Erhu

The instrument is particularly unique, especially when compared to other stringed instruments from the West. It lacks a fingerboard, so instead of pressing the strings to the wood to stop their vibration, the player instead simply presses his/her finger against the wood. Additionally, it is not the vibration of the strings themselves that cause the noise, but instead a piece of python skin that is adjacent to the strings and vibrates when they move.

As a result of the incredible popularity of the erhu in China, the Chinese government has taken steps to ensure that any python skin used in an erhu comes from farm-grown pythons, and has limited the number of erhus that may be exported. Recently, a group in Hong Kong began pioneering a replacement for the snake skin.

History

The erhu was introduced to China more than 1,000 years ago from invaders from the north and west, modern-day Mongolia and Russia. Despite its arrival at the hands of an invading army, the erhu soon proved to be very popular throughout China and made its way south and east throughout the country. In fact, the instrument proved to be so popular as to find itself being played not only in China, but also Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

The Silk Road, a series of trade networks linking China with the West, resulted in the erhu being spread further west. This was further assisted by replacing the type of bow used. Before, the bow had been little more than a stick of exceptionally smooth wood. On the plains of Central Asia, where wood was in exceptionally short supply, the musicians turned to a material in much greater supply, horse hair. Soon, horse-hair bowstrings had spread throughout China and East Asia.

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