AT THE TIME OF writing this, the most popular movie around the world includes more than an hour of Chinese-style music. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features the guitar-like pipa, the zither-like guzheng and xiao flutes—and of course lots of drums. But perhaps the most magical of all is the erhu, a deceptively simple-looking instrument that produces a lilting, emotive, voice-like tone. This is the first of a series of articles looking at Chinese music.
THE ERHU IS ONE of the most beloved Chinese instruments, played in different forms for about 1,000 years. Though it has only two strings, it can convey a wide range of emotions. It lacks frets, so the tone glides smoothly from one note to another, like a human voice.
The erhu is sometimes called “the Chinese violin” but differs from the western instrument in many ways. It originated in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to AD 906), China’s most prosperous historical period, and has only two strings. The violin, born in Italy in about the 16th century has four strings. Both instruments are excellent at conveying emotions, but the erhu has a distinctive lilting, winsome sound.
Many people in China think the sound of erhu is somewhat tragic when they listen to it, because they associate it with the famous song The Moon Mirrored in the Pool, the lyrics of which reveal the thoughts and feelings of a blind artist who has experienced the bitterness and pain of the world.
The erhu can produce a slightly husky or breathy tone, which can be used to recreate the sounds of various animals, including whalesong.
SNAKESKIN THE KEY
Unlike stringed instruments from the west, it is not the vibration of the strings themselves that create the sound, but instead the python skin “box” at the base of the instrument, which vibrates when the strings move.
Python skin has diamond-shaped tendons. This structure is resistant to pressure, resonates well with voices, and creates timbres which sound like human voices. The snakeskin also has a soft calcium layer, called the cuticle. The inherent structure and elastic characteristics of the protein fiber layer texture gave the distinctive combination of hardness and softness.
But these days, most people have become aware of the responsibilities we all have for the natural world. Some species of python are endangered. The skin of a four-meter-long python can be used for 12 erhu. If 500,000 instruments are made in a year, tens of thousands of pythons will have to be killed.
Furthermore, there are restrictions on travelling with snakeskin products. Musicians are often stopped by customs border guards, and sometimes have to show special licences.
To get over these problems, members of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra have been trying out different alternatives for the erhu’s sound box cover. They tried numerous different materials, and eventually found that a man-made material, polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET, worked well.
They even found that it was more stable than snakeskin, being not as easily affected by temperature and humidity as snake skin.
When the band performed in Norway, they tested the eco-friendly erhu in the snow and the results were very satisfactory. And because the film is an industrial product, the performance specifications are consistent, the instrument’s timbre is also uniform, very suitable for orchestra ensemble. The relatively low price can reduce the production cost of the instrument.
A SOUNDTRACK FAVORITE
Going back to the entertainment industry, we find that the erhu regularly appears in soundtracks, and not just for movies. One of the World of Warcraft games, called Mists of Pandaria, featured an erhu played by Jiebing Chen.
And the instrument’s somewhat unearthly sound was used to good effect in the 2009 movie Star Trek, where an erhu solo was played when aliens from the planet Vulcan appeared on screen.
The erhu, from humble beginnings in China, is now heard far and wide.
Image of Taoyuan orchestra at the top from Taoyuan City Government