Why I Love the Erhu (a Short History of the Instrument)

The erhu, often hailed the “Chinese violin”, is a two-stringed musical instrument originating from China. The “er” in erhu means two in Mandarin.

It’s made from a soundbox—which can be hexagonal, octagonal, or circular in shape—connected to a long neck by two silk strings. These days, the strings are usually made of steel.

The erhu’s bow is usually constructed from bamboo. This bow, which is traditionally made with horsehair, glides between the two strings. This is different from a violin, where the bow passes over the top of the strings. Additionally, two wound tuning pegs sit atop the instrument.

The soundbox is open on one end, and is traditionally capped with python skin!

Various woods can be used to construct the instrument, but red sandalwood and rosewood are preferred for the traditional Chinese erhu.

As the erhu bow passes over the strings, vibrations travel down the central bridge and reverberate through the neck. There, they meet the snakeskin-capped soundbox, which acts a sort of amplifier. As the soundbox is capped with snakeskin, instead of solid or opened wood, it produces a distinct resonance and vibrato once the vibrations meet the snakeskin.

This can be very different to what we hear from other string instruments, like the violin.

And unlike a guitar or violin, the erhu has no fingerboard. The sound of the instrument can be muted by pressing against the strings, but they never touch the neck.

This design that we’ve described is heavily intertwined with that vibrant, wailing sound and tone of the instrument.

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a "southern fiddle", and sometimes known in the Western world as the "Chinese violin" or a "Chinese two-stringed fiddle".
Credit: banabana-san, iStock. You can see the python skin clearly here.

What does the erhu sound like?

The erhu doesn’t have as wide of a pitch range as the violin. And as it only has two strings, it cannot play chords either.

But the sounds that it can produce are distinct, memorable, and often uniquely captivating.

The sound is vulnerable, almost like weeping. Many have compared the instrument to a woman’s wailing—in a poetic, rather than a literal sense.

Here’s one of my favourite examples:

You recognise that sound now, right?

I don’t know what it is, but the sound of an erhu gets to me. That’s why I wrote this article.

It demands all attention, cuts through noise. It’s not a particularly smooth sound—it has a sort of bite, a wail to it. Yet it’s soothing. And this bittersweet contradiction makes it all the more interesting.

Sometimes it’s uplifting, playful; sometimes mournful, piercing. But it always has this raw, introspective quality to it.

I think it’s the way it mimics the human voice. A lilting, emotive voice with crystal pitch and timbre.

And apparently, the vibro-acoustics resemble the range of a human voice—so it makes sense.

The erhu is expressive. When it sings, there’s something transcendent there. It’s like it’s got something to say, or communicate. As if thousands of expended lives and spent emotions were distilled—then, these distilled essences begin to pour out as the erhu’s bow glides over its taut strings, as the musician finds the right vibration. A lifetime of sentiment and tenderness leaves its void. A voice departing.

OK, maybe I got carried away there. Put the penalty points on my poetic license for that one. Nobody lives in the instrument’s strings.

But for me, there’s really something special there. Does it have this effect on others?

Here’s another great example:

And isn’t longing another excellent adjective to describe the sound of the instrument? The sound makes you yearn for something or somewhere unrealised, feel sorrow for something undefined—hopeful for and nostalgic over… well, you don’t really know what.

It creates a cool sound, basically, is what I’m trying to say.

How is the erhu played?

It’s incredible that the array of sounds you hear from the instrument comes from just two strings! You control pitch by directly pressing into the string itself. It seems to require a particularly complex amount of manipulation and control to play. Watching a rendition is mesmerising.

Erhu sheet music uses jianpu (numbered) notation—just as most Chinese music does—rather than what’s called Western Staff notation. Western staff notation is the stuff you’d recognise—the treble, clef, and those various other squiggly symbols!

Both fingers are held on both strings at once and are not released while playing.

The history of the erhu

The instrument is thought to be over a thousand years old, and can be traced back even further to a family of proto-Mongolic instruments!

It was largely a folk instrument and originated in Southern China.

But what I find most interesting is how each piece I’ve enjoyed, each piece I’ve researched, seems to have a rich history and narrative behind it. Let’s take “Reflection of the Moon in the Erquan Pool”, composed by Abing (Hua Yanjun).

Supposedly, Abing inherited a temple, but could not manage it well. His lackadaisical and often debaucherous lifestyle left him with an affliction that caused him to go blind. Bankruptcy and disease forced him to live as a street performer, playing the erhu to make a living and to composing songs to express the agony of his life.

Or, so the story goes. I’ve read a lot more examples of such musical compositions emerging within and alongside folk legends, though. And I think that’s really interesting—we don’t have that as much in the UK, as far as I’m aware. Popular stories and characters associated with folk songs. Maybe I’m just betraying my own lack of knowledge. We have Greensleeves, with the whole Henry VIII writing it for Anne Boleyn thing, I guess…

I wonder if a large proportion of people recognise songs like the above instinctively, just like to how we have those melodies like Auld Lang Syne and Greensleeves etc. that everyone just kinda knows? I don’t know, really.

Lastly, I thought it would be amiss not to mention one modern aspect of history. Basically—the age, body part, and size of the snake used for the soundbox skin can affect the sound and cost of the instrument. Some players prefer certain variables over others for the perfect sound.

But because of this demand for python skin, the python has been nearing annihilation in China since the 1980s, largely due to the musical industry. This has had a concomitant effect on Southeast Asia, too, in an effort to meet demand. Sad 🙁

Popular examples of Erhu music and use of the instrument in media

Ok, so I’ll embed of my favourites below.

Some good news: if you’re a fan of Avatar, then I’ve got two things to say to you. First: nice one! It’s an amazing show. Second: you’ll be familiar with the erhu!

Avatar composer Jeremy Zuckerman used the instrument across a number of scores for both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (alongside other Chinese musical instruments like the huqin, guzheng, and zhonghu).

Here’s a personal favourite, from the credits of The Legend of Korra. This one is a great example of what I referenced earlier— that wailing sort of tragedy the Erhu can produce. It’s not a traditional example, but is a great example of a composer using it in a modern context. Oh, and it slaps:

Ah, the song is like settling into a warm, tranquil body of water. It perfectly encapsulates that strange blend of loss and optimism you feel at the end of each episode. I think this piece is very unique too, which perfectly complements that ancient-China-meets-industrialised-society vibe/culture that the showrunners were trying to create.

Avatar is a discussion for another day. I’m thinking of picking up and doing a book review of the graphic novels, too. I can’t go indefinitely without some new content from that warm, fuzzy little universe.

Oh, and you may also notice the erhu from the Kung Fu Panda Soundtrack—Oogway Ascends!

Another example of the erhu’s presence today is Jia Pengfang, who is one of the most popular players in the world. Jia is a musician from China who began playing at the age of eight. After becoming a member of China National Traditional Orchestra, Jia used the erhu as a vehicle to “take strides into a bigger world”, travelling across the world playing his music—such as his popular album “River”—as a professional erhu musician. His story is even more interesting when you consider that for much of his life, up until 1980, China had closed its borders to the world. This was under the rule of Mao Zedong, until his death in 1976 and following succession by Deng Xiaoping, the “architect of modern China”

Overall, the sound of the erhu, for me—and I think most others—is synonymous with China. Words like dynasty spring to mind, images of rolling steppes and mountain ranges, palaces—all of the stereotypical associations.

I hope you won’t begrudge me using stereotypes here. I don’t mean to wield them in any offensive or reductive way—but rather just to acknowledgement that mythos and cultural impact surrounding China. Perhaps they’re ill-informed, but they’re there.

It’s long been a dream of mine to travel there. I’ve visited Beijing airport on a layover to Thailand, but unfortunately wasn’t allowed to leave the airport! I think a large part of the appeal is that I have little expectation of what travelling China would be like; and because it’s so vast and varied, that no one could provide an accurate expectation anyway. One day I’ll travel and find out for myself. One day.

Anyway, there’s also a lot of more modern spins on this kind of stuff (bear with the generalisation) like The Shanghai Restoration Project, but that’s for another day.

Closing thoughts

Music like this, the kind that’s almost… haunting? No, not that. I can’t seem to reach out and grab the right word. Evocative, maybe? Nope, not that either.

Or, perhaps, magic is the best word—that term to which we ascribe things we can’t fully explain. Either way, it resonates with something somewhere that’s special, near sorrow and vulnerability.

Hm. I really need to work on that description, huh?

Anyway, as a final closing side note, I’ve noticed that the intangible quality of the erhu can be recreated in other songs that focus particularly on the voice. When the voice is the focal instrument rather than an accompaniment.

Sometimes the voice goes beyond being just a voice, sometimes an instrument is more than an instrument. Reaches something else.

One example of what I’m trying to convey is Bruno Nicolai’s La Contessa, Incontro. It has a similar effect on me as some erhu pieces. You might know it from James Blake’s I’ll Come Too:

Maybe it’s the note? The pitch? I think the word for this is the sound’s euphony?

I’m no musician or music theorist. I don’t know. But I love listening to it. And one day, I’d really like to learn this instrument!

I’ve heard it’s quite difficult. But then, I suppose many worthwhile things are.

Thanks for reading! More music posts here 🙂

Or, if literature is more your jam, then boy have I got some content 4 you! My book reviews and critical essays

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