The erhu consists of a long vertical stick-like neck, at the top of which are two large tuning pegs, and at the bottom is a small resonator body (sound box) which is covered with python skin on the front (playing) end. Two strings are attached from the pegs to the base, and a small loop of string (qian jin) placed around the neck and strings acting as a nut pulls the strings towards the skin, holding a small wooden bridge in place.
The erhu has some unusual features. First is that its characteristic sound is produced through the vibration of the python skin by bowing. Second, there is no fingerboard; the player stops the strings by pressing their fingertips onto the strings without the strings touching the neck. Third, the horse hair bow is never separated from the strings (which were formerly of twisted silk but which today are usually made of metal); it passes between them as opposed to over them (the latter being the case with western bowed stringed instruments). Lastly, although there are two strings, they are very close to each other and the player's left hand in effect plays as if on one string. The inside string (nearest to player) is generally tuned to D4 and the outside string to A4, a fifth higher. The maximum range of the instrument is three and a half octaves, from D4 up to A7, before a stopping finger reaches the part of the string in contact with the bow hair. The usual playing range is about two and a half octaves.
Various dense and heavy hardwoods are used in making the erhu. According to Chinese references the woods include zi tan (紫檀 red sandalwood and other woods of the genus Pterocarpus such as padauk), lao hong mu (老红木 aged red wood), wu mu (乌木 black wood), and hong mu (红木 red wood). Particularly fine erhus are often made from pieces of old furniture. A typical erhu measures 81 cm from top to bottom, the length of the bow also being 81 cm.
The parts of the erhu:
- Qín tong (琴筒), sound box or resonator body; it is hexagonal (liu jiao, southern), octagonal (ba jiao, northern), or, less commonly, round.
- Qín pí/She pí (琴皮/蛇皮), skin, made from python. The python skin gives the erhu its characteristic sound.
- Qín gan (琴杆), neck.
- Qín tou (琴头), top or tip of neck, usually a simple curve with a piece of bone or plastic on top, but is sometimes elaborately carved with a dragon's head.
- Qín zhou (琴轴). tuning pegs, traditional wooden, or metal machine gear pegs.
- Qiān jin (千斤), nut, made from string, or, less commonly, a metal hook.
- Nèi xián (内弦), inside or inner string, usually tuned to D4, nearest to player.
- Wai xián (外弦), outside or outer string, usually tuned to A4.
- Qín ma (琴码), bridge, made from wood.
- Gong (弓), bow, has screw device to vary bow hair tension.
- Gong gan (弓杆), bow stick, made from bamboo.
- Gong máo (弓毛), bow hair, usually white horsehair.
- Qín diàn (琴垫), pad, a piece of sponge, felt, or cloth placed between the strings and skin below the bridge to improve its sound.
- Qín tuō (琴托) - base, a piece of wood attached to the bottom of the qín tong to provide a smooth surface on which to rest on the leg.
Most erhu are mass-produced in factories. The three most esteemed centres of erhu making are Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou. In the collectivist period after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, these factories were formed by merging what had been previously private workshops. Although most erhu were machine-made in production lines, the highest quality instruments were hand made by specialist craftsmen.
In the 20th century, there have been attempts to standardize and improve the erhu, with the aim of producing a louder and better sounding instrument. One major change was the use of steel strings instead of silk. The move to steel strings was made gradually. By 1950, the thinner A-string had been replaced by a violin E-string with the thicker D-string remaining silk. By 1958, professional players were using purpose made D and A steel erhu strings as standard.
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