History Of The Erhu

The History Of Erhu
The rise of bowed string instruments in China may have begun around the mid-8th century, the date of the first records of lute-form instruments scraped with a bamboo strip rather than bowed with horsehair. The most prominent variety of this early instrument was the xiqin, an instrument associated with the northern Xi people, many of whom migrated to central northern China at this time. One form of xiqin is illustrated in Chen Yang's music enyclopedia completed in 1105. The lower end of a neck of bamboo is set into a squat tubular resonator, which is covered with a wooden soundboard. Attached to the frontal tuning pegs were two strings, which, according to Chen's description, were sounded by a bamboo slip. Chen noted that the xiqin was already popular among the Han Chinese as well as the Xi, and it appears to have become a fashionable entertainment instrument, subsequently introduced to both Korea and Japan. Chen Yang's xiqin, depicted in China's first music encyclopedia.
First references to an instrument bowed with horsehair are contemporaneous with Chen's encyclopedia. The late-eleventh-century traveller and chronicler Shen Kuo wrote a poem describing the plaintive sounds of the mawei (horsetail) huqin (barbarian string instrument) played by prisoners-of-war captured on a Chinese military expedition into Central Asia. Horsehair bows appear to have gradually replaced the bamboo slip used on instruments like the xiqin. Many distinct forms of fiddle have since arisen, of which the most commonly encountered today is the erhu. During the twentieth century, the erhu has been redesigned and standardised. For example, steel strings have replaced the traditional ones of silk, altering the tone quality of the instrument and allowing new performance techniques.

The erhuhas a long round neck of hardwood with two tuning-pegs dorsally mounted at the upper end, while the lower end is inserted into a hardwood resonator. The resonator may be either hexagonal, octagonal or tubular in shape, and one end is covered with the skin of a python (or other snake), glued around the outer edges. Two steel strings run from the pegs through an adjustable sliding upper nut (of silk or nylon cord) and over a lower bridge mounted on the surface of the snakeskin; they are attached to the stub of the neck where it emerges on the underside of the resonator. The strings are of differing diameters and most commonly tuned a 5th apart to d'-a' (but in Abing's case to approximately g-d'). The bow is of horsehair, supported by a bamboo stem. The bowhair of the erhu is inserted between the two strings and rosined on both sides; this characteristic is shared with most other forms of huqin. The erhu, which is about 80cm in length, is rested on the left thigh in performance. The player's right hand pushes the bowhair inward to sound the lower string or outward to sound the higher - the two are not normally sounded together. The strings are lightly stopped with the left hand fingers, but are not pushed back to touch the neck.

One of the principal instigators of the development of the erhu was Liu Tianhua (1895-1932), who had also learned the Western violin. In a series of exercises and solo pieces, Liu extended considerably the instrument's conventional range of one-and-a-half octaves and introduced new fingering and bowing techniques. Just as significantly, Liu established the erhu as a solo recital instrument and distanced it from its traditional associations with village music groups and itinerant musical beggars. The erhu is presently used in the orchestra of Chinese instruments and also in numerous local opera and ballad forms. Since the 1930s, alto, tenor and bass versions of this instrument have been developed for the Chinese orchestra.


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