The Erhu – China’s Haunting Two String Fiddle

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by Jason Huang

I felt touched but unable to express myself in words. It seemed like listening to a story that moved every parts of my heart. I even wanted to ask, what happened after that? when the music finished.

That’s how I felt when Ms. Qi Xiaochun played her instrument, the erhu, at a Chinese New Year Show sponsored by New Tang Dynasty Televison (NTDTV) last January.

The erhu, sometimes known in the West as the Chinese violin or Chinese two string fiddle, is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument. The instrument looks so simple that I even tried to build an Erhu when I was about 12 years old. Of course, the sound quality was not good at all, but I really loved it for a while.

The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It started to be popular in Southern China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), where it was called “Nan-hu”, Nan meaning south in Chinese.

Nowadays the erhu often plays an important role in national orchestras. In smaller orchestras, there are usually two to six erhu players, in larger ones, 10 to 12. In fact, in Chinese orchestras the erhu plays the part the violin does in Western orchestras. Like the Western violin, the erhu is renowned for its expressiveness and is often said to echo the human voice.

Growing up in Shanghai, Ms. Qi began learning to play this difficult instrument at the age of six, taught by a friend of her father’s. She was later accepted to the Shanghai Music Conservatory and won an award at the Chinese National Erhu Competition. She has also played at the Hollywood Bowl, but her most memorable performances have been at the New Tang Dynasty television network’s (NTDTV) Chinese New Year spectaculars.

In addition to performing, Ms. Qi also teaches the erhu. “When learning to play the erhu,” she says, “people must develop basic skills first. The music, however, comes from the person’s character. People carry their own things into the music. What they want to express, and also the person as a whole, is expressed through the music. As an artist, your moral character will also determine your skill.”

This idea is reflected throughout ancient Chinese culture, whether in painting, martial arts, or poetry–in order to cultivate talent, one must cultivate the whole person. Ms. Qi finds this philosophy is also also present in NTDTV’s performances. She hopes that when people see the show, they will not only be entertained, but will also experience something about the deeper qualities these ancient Chinese arts can bring to people. In Ms. Qi’s opinion, it is simple: “pure compassion, pure beauty.”

Ms. Qi Xiaochun will perform the erhu in Holiday Wonders at the Beacon Theater on Broadway, Dec. 19-24, and also at the 2007 NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular shows which are touring North America from Jan. to Mar. 2007.

About the Author

Jason Huang is an independent writer as well as a cultural activist who strives to promote the Chinese traditional culture.

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