Chinese Bowed String Instruments

BOWED-STRINGED INSTRUMENTS
Bowed-stringed instruments became popular in China during the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). The instruments are played using a bow made of horse hair to vibrate the strings. They generally have a soft, elegant tone, which is often used to produce a feeling of weeping or complaining. The most popular bowed strings include Erhu, Gaohu, Zhonghu, Dihu, Gehu and Di Gehu.

For the past thousand years, string instruments have been well developed in China. Old instruments were improvised upon to give birth to newer and better instruments. New and difficult performing techniques were also developed over the years to increase the capability of the string to express its music vividly. Gaohu and Erhu are the outstanding ones among the instruments and are capable of performing in solos and concertos.

In a modern Chinese Orchestra, the strings occupy a position comparable in importance to the violin in a western orchestra.

Erhu (Two- string Fiddle, Chinese violin)

Erhu Chinese instrument

Erhu Chinese violin

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Tuning: d1, a1
Range: d1 - d4

(er: two; hu: barbarian fiddle)

Erhualso known as Huqin, the full name for Hu. Its early ancestor was known as Xiqin (string instrument of a Mongolian tribe called Xi) in the tenth century. The instrument has two strings and is played with the bow clasped between them. Its two strings are generally tuned a fifth apart and its range can reach 3 or 4 octaves. The sound box is covered by snake skin which gives the instrument its distinctive mellow and bright tone.

Under the influence of the regularly trained musician Liu Tianhua (1895-1932) and the local minstrel Hua Yanjun (known as the blind Man Ah Bing, 1893-1950) during the 1920's, the Erhu developed into a solo instrument. Today the Erhu is one of the most widely used bowed instruments in China, It is appropriate both for deep tragedy and for the momentum of an avalanche. Besides, it also assumes a central position in the modern Chinese orchestra, as well as in the accompaniment of singing and dancing.

Playing techniques are rich for both hands, including, harmonic tones, trills, glissandos, pizzicatos for the left hand and legatos, detaches, martellatos, saltandos, tremolos, flying staccatos for the right hand.

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Gaohu (Two-string Fiddle)

Gaohu Chinese instrument

Gaohu Chinese violin

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Tuning: a1, e2
Range: a1 - e4

(gao: high; hu: barbarian fiddle)

The Gaohu is also known as a Yuehu (Cantonese hu) or Nanhu (southern hu).

Developed in the 1920's, the high hu has the same basic construction as the Erhu, with its tubular resonator somewhat smaller, a fourth or fifth higher in tuning. Its range can reach two octaves. In performance it is held vertically with the lower part of the resonator supported between the knees to control the noisy tone.

With its sweet and delicate tone, the Gaohu is often in the treble of the bowed strings of the modern Chinese orchestra. Apart from solo and leader in the Cantonese Opera music, the Geohu also used in ensemble and accompaniment.

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Banhu (Two-string Fiddle)

Banhu Chinese instrument

Banhu Chinese violin

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Tuning: d1, a1
Range: d1 - a4

(ban: flat board; hu: barbarian fiddle)

The name Banhu comes from the wooden soundboard covering the half globular resonating chamber. Of its many other names the most prominent may be Banghu, referring to its historical use in the northern Bangzi opera in the mid-seventeenth century. From then on it came to accompany many other regional operas and popular narratives, spreading over northern China.

The two strings are generally tuned a fifth, or a fourth apart. Strident and bright in tone quality the Banhu is used as a solo instrument and as a group within the bowed strings in the modern Chinese orchestra.

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Jinghu (Two-string Fiddle)

Jinghu Chinese instrument

Jinghu Chinese violin

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Tuning: a1, e2
Range: a1 - b3

(jing: Beijing: hu: barbarian fiddle)

The Jinghu is popularly called as huqin. Its high pitch and vigorous tone is considered an ideal accompaniment to Beijing opera, in which the Jinghu performs the melodies. With the development of Pihuang Qiang, one of the four major tone systems of Chinese local operas, the Jinghu came to be standardised in about 1790 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty.

According to different tone systems in Beijing opera, the two strings can be tuned in three ways: la - mi, sol - re, and re - la. Its range is within one and a half octaves. In its accompaniment, the Jinghu coordinates with the vocal part very closely.

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Matouqin(Two string Fiddle)

Matouqin Chinese instrument

Matouqin Chinese violin

Tuning: d1, a
Range: a - d4

(matou or morin: horse head; qin or hor: fiddle)

A legend says on the Mongolian grasslands a lord killed a white horse with his bow. The horse's owner, Suhe, was distraught and missed his horse dreadfully. One night the dead horse came into his dream, saying to him., "Make an instrument with my body. Then I can accompany you for ever and you will not be lonely." So the first type was made, with horse hair as its strings, the horse bones as its neck, the horse skin covering its wooden sound box, and its scroll carved into the shape of a horse head.

The instrument has a few other names both in Mongolian and in Chinese in different areas. It is used beyond the inner Mongolian region and can be seen in other Mongolian living areas such as northeast and northwest china and even in Xingjiang region.

In performance the finger joints of the left hand stop the strings and more distinctively, finger nails can push the strings from inside out. The effect of double stop is often seen. The two strings are traditionally tuned a fourth apart. Deep and mellow in tone, the instrument, besides for solos, is used to accompany the singing of tales and folk songs.


Gehu (large four-string base fiddle)

Gehu Chinese instrument

Geohu Chinese cello

Tuning: C-g-d-a
Range: C - c2

(Ge: reformed; Hu: Babarian fiddle)

The Gehu is a new instrument developed from the Grhu in the 50s in response to the needs of the modern Chinese orchestra for a bass bowed instrument. It has a horizontal round tubular resonating chamber, whose later variant is a large square box with curved sides. The design was inspired by an old grammophone pick-up.

The Gehu has a deep and mellow tone and is mainly used in ensemble. Its four strings are tuned in fifths. Of the several sizes conceived on the same principles, the Da (big) Gehu, and Zhong (middle) Gehu have proved successful.

Since the 1960s a resonance drum soundbox has been added within the chamber, which has produced a penetrating tone quality.

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A 2 size traditional Chinese instruments poster available.