By Sari Xu
Silk musical instruments form the biggest category among the Bayin (8 tones), including – silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, andskin. In our previous blogs, we’ve discussed a lot about the percussion instruments fall into the stone and skin categories. Today, we will look into the most common and well-known silk category and have a deeper understanding of the bowed string family!
The bowed string family, nowadays, is more often referred as “Huqin” (胡琴) family, could be simply described as spike fiddles (vertical). The instruments consist of a round, hexagonal, or octagonal sound box at the bottom with a neck attached that protrudes upwards. They usually have two strings, and their sound boxes are typically covered with either snakeskin (most often the skin of python) or thin wood. Huqin instruments generally have two tuning pegs, one peg for each string. The pegs are attached horizontally through holes drilled in the instrument’s neck. Most huqin have the bow hair pass in between the strings. Exceptions having two strings and pegs include variations of huqin with three, four, and sometimes even more than five. These include the Zhuihu, a three stringed Huqin, the Sihu, a Huqin of Mongolian origin, and the Sanhu, a lesser-known three-stringed variation.
These may sound very new to you, no worries, let’s name some names of spike fiddles that you may be familiar with: 1. Erhu (二胡)– tuned to a middle range; 2. Zhonghu (中胡/中音二胡) – tuned to a lower register; 3. Gaohu (高胡) – tuned to a higher pitch. 4. Dahu, Gehu – tuned to the lowest pitch; 5. Jinghu – tuned to the highest pitch for use in the Beijing Opera. To rank this typical spike fiddles by their pitches from low to high, the order should be Dahu, Gehu, Zhonghu, Erhu, Gaohu, Jinghu.
Though spike fiddles are dominating the main stream of Chinese traditional musical instruments (along with Guzheng, Dizi and Pipa) and modern Chinese orchestras nowadays, it actually has an ethnic minority background! Huqins are believed to have come from the nomadic Hu people, who lived on the extremities of ancient Chinese kingdoms, possibly descending from an instrument called the Xiqin (奚琴), originally played by the Mongolic Xi tribe. Nowadays, the Mongolian people also have a very similar version of modern Xiqin called Khuuchir, and so do other neighboring countries such as Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc.
Coming back to our most familiar Erhu, it also has several variations such as Jing Erhu (京二胡) and Erquanhu(二泉胡). Erhu, sometimes also called Urheen, Nanhu (Southern Fiddle, 南胡), is the most common form of a “Chinese violin” and two-stringed fiddle. It could be used either for a solo or in a concert (both small ensembles and large orchestras).
To be more specific, The Erhu consists of a long vertical stick-like neck, at the top of which are two big tuning pegs, and at the bottom is a small resonator body (sound box) which is covered with python skin (or other snake skin) on the front (playing) end. Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base, and a small loop of string (Qian Jin前襟) placed around the neck and strings acting as a nut pulls the strings towards the skin, holding a minute wooden bridge in place. Some fun facts about Erhu’s features including 1. its characteristic sound is produced through the vibration of the python skin by bowing; 2. there is no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing their fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck; 3. the horse hair bow is never separated from the strings (which were formerly of twisted silk but which today are usually made of metal)!
Jing Erhu, as you may tell, is the version of Erhu that designed for Beijing Opera (Jing Xi). It is lower in pitch than Jinghu (京胡), which is the leading melodic instrument in the Beijing opera orchestra, and is considered a supporting instrument to Jinghu. Erquanhu, is a slightly larger version of Erhu, and is used to specifically to play the most famous Erhu opus by Chinese folk blind artist A-bing called Erquan Yingyue (Moon Reflected on Second Spring).
Check out this Erhu performance of Erquan Yingyue below and try to feel the hopelessness and depression written in the melody:
In general, the Huqin family, especially Erhu, is a group of versatile instruments. Erhu is commonly used in both traditional and contemporary music arrangements, for example, in pop, jazz, and even rock music.
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