An erhu is a Chinese stringed instrument which can be played in a solo, as part of an orchestra, or to accompany singers. The thin, slightly reedy sound of the erhu is very much associated with Chinese music in the ears of Westerners, since it is so widely used. Once one learns to identify the sound of an erhu, it can usually be readily picked out from other musical instruments, because it is so distinctive. Stores which specialize in Chinese instruments carry erhus, along with their accessories.
There are several main parts to the erhu. The first is a small resonating chamber, traditionally covered in snake skin. The resonating chamber is attached to a long, straight handle which may be curved or ornamented at the other end. Two strings run down this handle to the resonating chamber, and they are attached at the top with oversized tuning pegs.
An erhu is traditionally played with a bow. In many cases, the bow is actually attached to the erhu, with the strings of the bow threaded between the strings of the instrument and the handle. The player, therefore, pulls the bow against the back of the strings, rather than in front as is the case with a Western violin. Tuning for erhus varies, and the instruments generally span about three octaves.
The history of the erhu spans thousands of years. The first examples of erhus appear to have emerged during the Tang Dynasty, around 600 AD. Since the traditional Chinese character for “erhu” indicates that it has two strings, the erhu has probably changed little over the centuries. Alternate names for the erhu include huqin or hu, and Westerners sometimes call the instrument a “Chinese violin.”
When played by someone who is very skilled, an erhu can be haunting and quite beautiful. It is often used to accompany traditional song and dance performances in China, as it has been for centuries. Erhus have also joined Chinese orchestras, primarily thanks to arrangements written in the early twentieth centuries which include the erhu.
It can be difficult to find someone to teach erhu in the West, since the instrument is considered to be obscure by some musical teachers. In a large urban area with a big Asian population, it might be possible to find a willing teacher. Otherwise, people interested in learning to play the erhu might want to try asking at stores which sell the instrument, or posting notices asking for an erhu teacher.