In Chinese musical events, one can often see a special instrument-the Chinese vertical fiddle, or erhu, performed as a solo instrument as well as in small ensembles and large orchestras. The humble erhu, however, despite its simple appearance, is capable of reaching depths of musical expression far beyond expectation.
The erhu, sometimes known in the West as the "Chinese violin" or Chinese two-string fiddle, is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument. It belongs to the huqin family of Chinese bowed string instruments. From the 30 or more types of huqin instruments documented throughout China’s history, a few, such as the erhu, have remained popular to this day, reaching the level of a solo instrument capable of expressing deep emotions and imitating natural sounds such as birds, horses, and even the human voice. There are usually two to six erhus in smaller orchestras, and 10 to 12 in larger ones.
Although often likened to the violin, the sound of the erhu is somewhat thinner and more nasal, with its unique tone generated by a piece of stretched python skin over the small sound box. Like other huqin instruments, the erhu does not have a fingerboard; the player’s fingers press on the strings without the strings ever touching the instrument’s neck. The hair of the bow remains permanently between the two strings, which are so closely positioned that the player’s left hand effectively moves along both strings at once to create notes, while the right hand plays the rhythm and creates the musical tone.
During China’s Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the erhu was popular for accompanying Chinese operas. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the erhu developed into a solo instrument.
This came about at a time when music conservatories were opening across the country and promoting Western instruments, music notation, and standardization. Many traditional Chinese instruments were sidelined or reinvented along more "scientific" and "modern" lines. For the erhu, its traditional silk strings were replaced with metal strings from the West.
In more recent times, the erhu plays an important role in Chinese orchestras, filling the same parts as the violin in Western orchestras. Performers, such as Ms. Qi Xiaochun and George Gao, both students of the famous erhu artist Wang Yongde, have helped to popularize erhu music at an international level.
The name huqin literally means "barbarian instrument," indicating the origins of Chinese fiddles, like the erhu, being with peoples from the northwest of China. Possibly the term also refers to the simple musical language expected from such a "primitive" instrument. However, anyone today who has heard of or been lucky enough to experience a master erhu solo performance in person is most often moved by the depth and richness of musical insight expressed through the instrument via the skill and realm of the player.