La erhu or erhu, famously known as the Chinese violin,is a popular two-stringed spike fiddle, played by people from all across China and overseas Chinese communities. Having been used for a long time by professional artists for their stage performances, amateurs for recreational purposes, and by conservatory-trained musicians in concert solos, ensembles, and orchestral music, the erhu is an integral part of the Chinese traditional music and thus one of the firm representatives of the country’s culture. The main attraction of the instrument, however, is its versatility, which allows the artists to use it for a range of music arrangements, including contemporary music such as pop, rock, and jazz.
Erhu, along with other instruments such as Zhonghu, Gaohu, and Sihu, has its origins from the ‘huqin’ family. It is estimated that the instrument dates back somewhere between 618-907, during the Tang dynasty’s reign, and is closely associated with the instrument called xiqin belonging to the Mongolian tribe called Xi. Although the instrument came into existence during the Tang dynasty’s reign, it was only during the Song dynasty (960-1279) that it got properly introduced to China. The instrument arrived at the peak of its popularity during what is known as the golden age of local operas between 1206 to 1911, during the reigns of Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644 -1911) dynasties.
Since then, erhu has continued to maintain its position as one of the most popular musical instruments of the country. The musicians playing erhu hold it straight on their laps. The strings are tuned to fifth, and the bow is placed between them. Unlike several other instruments, erhu has no fingerboard. The player uses his fingers to manipulate the strings and apply different degrees of pressure on them while refraining from forcing the strings against the wooden neck for producing a variety of sounds.
Traditionally, the erhu’s body is crafted from ebony, sandalwood, or rosewood, with its resonator built out of snakeskin. Although recently synthetic skin has also been developed by manufacturers, which provides a much cheaper option for people, the musicians still prefer the original snakeskin resonator. The same is the case with the bow. Initially, it was made of bamboo sticks and horsehair. However, in recent times, the strings made with steel are quickly replacing the traditional strings.
Although over the years, the design and exterior of erhu have taken new forms, its soulful sound and its significant contribution to Chinese traditional music remain unchanged.