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Home History and Culture Erhu -- Queen of Chinese Folk Orchestra
Erhu -- Queen of Chinese Folk Orchestra
Learn Chinese - History and Culture
Producing one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds in Chinese music, the erhu is one of the most popular Chinese bowed-string instruments.

The two-stringed, vertical fiddle -- China's answer to the western violin -- has a history of more than 1,000 years. It became popular in southern China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when it was called nanhu . Capable of producing music with a flexibility approaching that of the human voice, the erhu is extremely popular in China today as a medium for both traditional and contemporary music and plays an important role in both solo and orchestral performances.

Hailed as a Chinese violin, the erhu is quite different from a western fiddle. There is a vertical post with a fingerboard crosses the sides of a resonator at its base. This resonator is covered with a piece of stretched
python skin that produces a unique "whining" tone. The erhu bow is placed between its two
strings called the inner and outer strings. Traditionally the two strings are made of silk, but metallic strings are also used. An erhu player usually sits with the instrument on his or her left upper thigh in front of the left hip. The erhu is played by moving the bow horizontally over the two vertical strings.

The erhu's range spans over three octaves and the tune produced shares some qualities with the violin, although it produces a more nasal tone which is gentle but firm. The erhu resembles a human voice and can imitate many natural sounds, such as birds and horses. It is a very expressive instrument, most known for playing melancholy tunes, but also for its joyful melodies.

The erhu is featured regularly in "silk and bamboo" ensembles -- an elaborate but quite accessible form of Chinese folk music, alongside various bamboo wind instruments and plucked strings such as the pipa (lute) and yangqin (dulcimer). Such music is played at village ceremonies and informal "jam sessions" in teahouses. It is also an accompanying instrument in Chinese Opera -- an ancient form of highly stylized musical dramas, and classical music.

There are around a dozen close relatives of the erhu within China and in other parts of the East. The banhu, for example, has a wooden top rather than a snakeskin membrane, and the sihu , from Mongolia, has two pairs of strings with a remarkable double bow with two tiers of hair. The morin khur, also from Mongolia, is a rectangular fiddle with a carved horse head and strings made of thick strands of silk; it produces a deep, guttural sound.

The erhu is almost always a must in national orchestras. In smaller orchestras, there are usually two to 6 erhu; in larger ones there are l0-12. In fact, the erhu plays the same role as the violin in Western orchestras.






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