Without a doubt, the erhu is the chief bowed stringed instrument in the Chinese orchestra. Characterised by its versatile playing technique, the erhu, which is often associated with sorrow, is capable of producing the most heart-wrenching sounds.
The two-stringed fiddle is termed er (second) hu (fiddle) as it plays secondary roles to many instruments (e.g. second to the banhu in Northern music, second to the jinghu in Peking opera, second to the gaohu in Cantonese music etc). The instrument comprises an instrumental body, an instrumental stem, tuning pegs, strings, qianjin, a bridge and a bow.
The erhu is played with a bow which is trapped in between the instrument’s two strings. The bow is usually made of bamboo and horsetail hair. The rosin-lathered horsetail hairs’ movement against the strings produces soul-stirring sounds, through left-right bowing actions. The absence of a fingerboard renders the instrument’s pitch more difficult to control when bowing, but at the same time allows the instrument to have greater gradations in pitch and a richer palette of tone colours.
The erhu belongs to the huqin family, and it was only in the early 1900s that the erhu was developed and standardised. With new developments, the erhu quickly became the most outstanding and representative of all bowed stringed instruments. The instrument which was previously an exclusive ensemble instrument, has since gained a stronger repertoire and playing technique.
Over the course of a thousand years from when it had first been played, the huqin has evolved and developed into numerous other variations like the skin-membrane erhu, jinghu, jing erhu, ruangong erhu, yuehu, sihu, banmian banhu and yehu.
Today, if a higher pitch is required of a bowed stringed instrument, composers tend to assign these parts to the gaohu or banhu,as the effect produced by the erhu is mellower and less piercing.