Erhu is a kind of violin (fiddle) with two strings which, together with zhonghu, gaohu, sihu, etc, belongs to the "huqin" family. It is said that its origin would be dated up to the Tang dynasty (618-907) and related to the instrument, called xiqin originated from a Mongolian tribe Xi. During Song dynasty (960-1279), the instrument was introduced to China and was called "Ji Qin". Soon the second generation of the huqin was among the instruments played at the imperial banquets. During the Dynasties of Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911), the erhu underwent a great development at the time of the golden age of the local operas. The erhu then developed in a different "schools". Two famous artists Hua Yanjun (1893-1950) and Liu Tianhua (1895-1932) made an exceptional contribution to the improvement of the erhu, and it was indeed due to the latter that the erhu, an instrument mainly for accompaniment in an opera, becomes a solo instrument. After the foundation of People's Republic of China (1949), the manufacture of the erhu, the playing techniques, the repertoire as well as the musical education of this instrument have undergone an unpresidented development. The repertoire has grown rapidly in the genres of solo, with ensemble as well as concerti with symphony orchestra. Erhu now has become one of the most popular instruments in China.
The sound body of the erhu is a drum-like little case usually made of ebony or sandalwood and snake skins. It usually has a hexagonal shape with the length of approximately 13 cm. The front opening is covered with skin of python (snake) and that of the back is left open. The functions of this case of resonance are to amplify the vibrations of the strings. The neck of the erhu is about 81 cm long and is manufactured with the same materials as the drum. The top of the stem is bent for decoration. The two strings of the erhu is usually tuned D and A. The two tuning handles (pegs) are found close to the end of the stem. There is no frets (as contrast to the lute) or touching board (as contrast to violin). The player creates different pitches by touching the strings at various positions along the neck of the instrument. The strings are usually made of silk or nylon. Nowadays, metal strings are commonly used. The bow is 76 cm long and is manufactured of reed which one curves during cooking, and arched with horse hair in the same way as the bow of violin. However, in the case of erhu, the horse hair runs between the two strings. In another word, one cannot take off the bow from the instrument unless one of the two strings is taken off or broken.
The posture which the player must adopt to play the erhu is the same as that adopted for the other kinds of huqin: the left hand holding the fiddle and the right hand, the bow. The erhu is put on the lap vertically, the left hand moves vertically to touch the strings for the right pitch while the left hand (with the bow) move horizontally to make the sound. The Erhu is mainly a instrument for melody in a sense like voice. The left hand slides up and down the instrument while fingers pressing the strings to create desired pitch and "sliding" effects. The right hand pushes the horse hair against this or that string while moving horizontally, to create the sounds on either of the two strings. Occasionally some musicians hold the instrument with the help of a rope, in the same way as for saxophone, in order to play standing or walking. However it doesn't look elegant with the sound body pressing against the belly of the performer and the stem of the instrument pointing up and outwards. Therefore, the musicians normally play sitted unless it's absolutely necessary. In the old days, street musicians often used this method in order to play while walking. Today, in some pop or rock bands, musicians use this method of playing in order to act on the stage.
The erhu sounds similar to human voice, and can imitate many natural sounds such as birds and horse. It is a very expressive instrument, most well-known for playing melancholic tune, but also capable of play merry melody.
The erhu often plays an important role in the national orchestras. In the smaller orchestras, there are usually 2 to 6 erhu, in larger ones, 10 with 12. In fact, the erhu plays the same role as the violin in the Western orchestras.
Prior to the 20th century, most huqin instruments were used primarily to accompany various forms of Chinese opera and narrative. The use of the erhu as a solo instrument began in the early 20th century along with the development of guoyue (literally "national music"), a modernized form of Chinese traditional music written or adapted for the professional concert stage. Active in the early 20th century were Zhou Shaomei (周少梅, 1885-1938) and Liu Tianhua (刘天华, 1895-1932). Liu laid the foundations of modern erhu playing with his ten unaccompanied solos and 47 studies composed in the 1920s and 1930s. Liu Beimao (刘北茂, 1903-1981) was born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu. His compositions include Xiao hua gu (1943) (Little flower drum). Jiang Fengzhi (蔣风之) (1908-1986) and Chen Zhenduo (陈振铎) were students of Liu Tianhua, the piece Hangong Qiuyue (Autumn Moon Han Palace) was adapted and arranged by Jiang. Hua Yanjun (A Bing) (华彥君-阿炳, c. 1893-1950) was a blind street musician. Shortly before his death in 1950, two Chinese musicologists recorded him playing a few erhu and pipa solo pieces, the best known being Erquan Yingyue.
With the founding of the PRC and the expansion of the conservatory system, the solo erhu tradition continued to develop. Important performers during this time include Lu Xiutang (陆修堂, 1911-1966), Zhang Rui (张锐, 1920- ) Sun Wenming (孙文明, 1928-1962), Huang Haihuai (黄海怀), Liu Mingyuan (刘明源, 1931-1996), Tang Liangde (汤良德, b. 1938), Zhang Shao (张韶), and Song Guosheng(宋国生).
Liu Mingyuan (刘明源) (1931-1996) was born in Tianjin. He was known for his virtuosity on many instruments of the huqin family, in particular the banhu. His compositions and arrangements include Henan Xiaoqu (Henan folk tune), and Cao Yuan Shang (On Grassland) for zhonghu. For many years he taught at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Tang Liangde (Tong Leung Tak, 汤良德, b. 1938) was born in Shanghai into a famous Shanghainese musical family. He won the "Shanghai's Spring" erhu competition and continued to be the soloist for the Chinese Film Orchestra in Beijing, his composition and solos can be heard throughout the Nixon to China documentary movie. Tang was the soloist and performed at the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, then went onto music broadcasting and education for the Hong Kong Government's Music Office making worldwide tours, and was named Art Educator of the Year in 1991 by the Hong Kong Artist Guild.
Wang Guotong (王国潼, b. 1939) was born in Dalian, Liaoning. He studied with Jiang Fengzhi, Lan Yusong and Chen Zhenduo, and in 1960 graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He performed the premiere of Sanmenxia Changxiangqu (Sanmen Gorge Rhapsody) composed by Liu Wenjin. In 1972 Wang became the erhu soloist, and later art director, with the China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra. He returned to the Central Conservatory of Music in 1983 as head of the Chinese music department. He has written many books and articles on erhu playing and has performed in many countries. Wang also worked with the Beijing National Instruments Factory to further develop erhu design.
Min Huifen (閔惠芬, 1945- ) was born in Yixing, Jiangsu. Min first became known as the winner of the 1964 fourth Shanghai Spring national erhu competition. She studied with Lu Xiutang and Wang Yi, and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1968, and became the erhu soloist with the Shanghai minzu yuetuan (Shanghai Folk Orchestra).
Yang Ying (杨英, b. 1959) was the featured soloist for the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble (中央歌舞团) of Beijing from 1978-1996. She was a national erhu champion, frequently recorded for the Chinese film and record industry, and is listed in famous persons of China.
The erhu is featured along with other traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa in the contemporary Chinese instrumental music group, Twelve Girls Band. They perform traditional Chinese music as well as Western classical and popular music.
A few groups have utilized the erhu in a rock context. The Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic uses the erhu; they are the only black metal band to do so. The New Jersey-based progressive rock band The Hsu-nami plays a variety of rock sub-styles including metal, psychedelic, prog rock, and funk. An amplified erhu takes the place of lead vocals. Chie Mukai of the Japanese improv unit Ché-SHIZU also plays the erhu.
Another group which falls more under Electronica/Drum & Bass is a musical duo from Parkdale, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The group, known as USS or Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker, uses an erhu in a different context. The USS sound is a mixture of drum and bass beats, grunge-like guitar riffs and 2-step rhythms. The erhu is one of their notable instruments they use in the course of their two released CDs, "Wielding the C:/" and "Questamation".