Erhu, or erh-hu, is one of the most prevalent instruments in Chinese folk music. The prototype of erhu was a bowed, stringed accompaniment along with other traditional Chinese stringed and woodwind instruments as well as percussion and wind instruments in Jiangnan China over the Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Chinese Republic. Liu Tianhua (1895-1932) upgraded erhu into a solo instrument. The design of erhu was finalised after the founding of the PRC, as it was produced in state-owned instrument manufacturers in the context of the planned economy. According to Liu Tianhua, huqin was another name of erhu in the Republic of China (1912-1949). Nanhu was also used for calling erhu before the Liberalisation in 1949. Therefore, the concept of erhu in general research is circumscribed within erhu as a sole instrument in modern Chinese history.
The regional and ethnic variations in China breed the diversity of artistic styles. The regional music style plays an essential role in the development of erhu performance over the past hundred years. The style originates from life but is higher than life; it has simple folk customs and is closely related to regional culture and local customs. China has a vast territory and many nationalities. Each place has its own dialect, folk song and local opera. Due to the differences in climate, soil and other natural conditions, as well as diet, habits, local customs and other factors, a robust musical style comes into being. The characteristics of erhu style are mainly reflected in the music works infused by different regional styles and artistic forms. The musical style is a comprehensive concept, encompassing rhythm, tone, timbre, dynamics and structure.
Therefore, understanding the regional culture and musical connotation in significant source areas of erhu tunes is key to appreciate erhu.
Erhu tunes in Jiangnan Style
Jiangnan Sizhu has a long history of development, and has absorbed and carried the rich influence of many operas, folk arts and music genres in the south of the Yangtze River during its development, so that Jiangnan Sizhu has become a folk music genre within Jiangnan cultural heritage and high performance level. It has become the closest relative of erhu and the carrier that directly supplies erhu nutrition. Jiangnan music requires the erhu to play a sweet and soft timbre, and the inherent timbre of the erhu instrument itself is the material basis for the timbre needed to play Jiangnan music. On this basis, through the unique performance techniques of various Jiangnan music from left and right hands, it can make Jiangnan Erhu music full of strong Jiangnan music flavor.
Erhu tunes in Northern Shaanxi Style
Because northern Shaanxi is located on a plateau with a large area and sparsely populated areas, communication is inconvenient, so people often communicate with each other in the way of “screaming” without the slightest ambiguity and softness. The music melody in northern Shaanxi has a lot of fluctuations and often uses four-degree jumps into the interval. The musical personality is impulsive and straightforward, which also makes the music of northern Shaanxi feel free and easy and crude. The music bred on this land has inherited the unrestrained, simple and unrestrained characteristics of the Loess Plateau, which makes the Erhu in northern Shaanxi possess the same style and characteristics.
Erhu tunes in Xinjiang Uyghur style
Turpan Uyghur folk songs adopt three major music systems of East Asia, West Asia and Europe, and the content is very rich, among which music and dance are particularly prominent. Its melody has three main characteristics: First, the rhythm is diverse.The second is that most of them have non-square structure, the melody is stretchable, the phrases are more irregular, and the lengths are different. The third is rich in modes, frequent alternation, mostly seven-tone scales. Comprehensive analysis shows that the artistic form of Turpan Uyghur folk songs fully embodies the Uyghur nationality, cultural traditions and national spirit; it reflects the history, social life and spiritual outlook of the nation, and is a concentrated expression of the cultural exchanges between the East and the West.
Erhu tunes in Inner Mongolia style
Inner Mongolia has lived in the vast grassland for a long time, and the free nomadic life has made Grassland Music its own unique music style. The rhythm is free and the melody is comfortable. Erhu music in Inner Mongolia is often borrowed from local musical instruments. Matouqin’s tone and technique use minor thirds vibrato, big slide, as well as horseshoe-like music rhythms and erhu bow throwing techniques to express this rhythm, and the swaying music melody and playing techniques on the horse’s back to express the unique charm of music.
Through the understanding of different music styles, the player can process the music more accurately when learning the music, and it can also enable the player to use the performance techniques more flexibly and accurately, and more appropriately express the music styles of different regional styles.
In 2019, the performer Li Wen served as a teacher assistant of Goldsmiths Confucius Institute for Dance and Performance, University of London for one year. During her stay in the UK, she has done a lot of instrumental music teaching and performance activities. She is currently conducting online Erhu teaching courses at Goldsmiths Confucius Institute for Dance and Performance, University of London and takes part in our outreach activities.