The first time I heard the erhu played live, I couldn’t quite believe the sound I was hearing from across the street. I had been walking up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile when the Festival was in full swing, buskers and actors filling the place with music and loud voices. Above it all soared a beautiful, haunting melody – it sounded like a flute or a high-voiced singer but as I got nearer, I saw a young Chinese woman in a long dress playing an erhu – a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument.
This happened about ten years ago and I had been told by a Chinese musician friend that since I play the cello it would be simple to learn to play the erhu. But, earlier that summer, I had tried one and struggled to get more than an ugly scraping sound out of it. Here it was, a few feet away from me, being played with such skill. I was transfixed by the sight and sound. I went up to buy a CD and left a note asking if she would be willing to teach me. She agreed and that is how I came to have erhu lessons with Yan Xi, in a gallery on Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, where her husband’s wonderful paintings of Edinburgh were for sale. In this You Tube clip the performer (Liu Hong) demonstrates the expressive range of the erhu.
The erhu is made with a wooden soundbox like a small drum, usually hexagonal. The front is covered in python skin and the back with a piece of lattice work. The neck of the instrument is a long narrow piece of wood – there is no fingerboard so the left hand fingers create different notes by placing them on the two strings.
The strings are positioned close together and their vibrating length secured by a piece of thread wound around the neck. Originally the strings were made of silk but in the 1950s, the custom of using metal strings was introduced, to increase the instrument’s volume and modernise it.
To play the erhu, the bow hair goes between the two strings and Yan Xi showed me how to play the outer string with one side of the hair and the inner string with the other side. You have to put rosin on both sides of the hair, of course and then use fingers and thumb to bring the bow hair towards each particular string. The erhu has an expressive quality similar to a human voice and that is what I have been aiming for, for years but have yet to master. I had only had half a dozen lessons when Yan Xi and her husband’s visas ran out and they returned to China.
Since then, I have been teaching myself and learning by copying some of the many erhu players I have met over the years including Mike Wang – musical director of Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra. I recently had a few lessons from another player from the orchestra in exchange for cello lessons. I’ve also had a few people tell me recently that it’s the most difficult Chinese instrument to play!
The erhu is one of a variety of similar ancient instruments found throughout China and many parts of the world, referred to generically as ‘spike fiddles’. The name ‘erhu’ derives from er meaning two (as in two stringed) and hu from hu-qin meaning barbarian instrument – a reference to related instruments originating from China’s north and western borders.*
Since the instrument’s revamp and the introduction of ‘conservatoire’ music education in the 50s, playing techniques have advanced and the erhu has become a highly regarded example of Chinese culture. Although nowadays, Western instruments are increasingly popular in China, the erhu maintains its presence in the Chinese orchestra and its prominent role in Chinese opera as well as its ability to astonish audiences when played as a solo instrument.
*For a detailed history and development of the instrument read the following available on JSTOR.
Stock, Jonathan. “A Historical Account of the Chinese Two-Stringed Fiddle Erhu.” The Galpin Society Journal 46 (1993): 83-113.
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