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Development of erhu

By yeungkarfu Feb 14, 2015 3917 Words
Central and Inner Asian Influence on the Development of Erhu

The Silk Road played an irreplaceable role in connecting China with Central and Inner Asia. It was not just a trade route, but was also important for the diffusion of art and religious beliefs along the trade routes. One of the important cultural exchanges took place through music. Music transcends linguistic differences. Music is integral to many human cultures, and it is likely that travelers would sing a song or play instruments while travelling on the Silk Road for entertainment. When the travelers met the distinctive local culture of other regions, both sides learn from the musics of each other. The increased importance of the Silk Road in Tang Dynasty led more instruments of foreign cultures to enter China. In particular, this essay focuses on the transmission of spiked lutes and horsehair bowing from Central and Inner Asia to China, eventually leading to the formation of the erhu.

The present-day erhu is a two-stringed bowed stringed instrument. It is played seated, with the spike extending upwards and played horizontally with a horsehair bow. A key characteristic of the instrument is that the bow-hair is placed between the two strings, and the inner face of the bow-hair strokes the outer of the two strings, while the outer face of the bow-hair strokes the inner of the two strings. Depictions of the huqin first appear in the Song Dynasty (960- 1279) but until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), they are extremely rare, suggesting that the instrument was either rare or played only by members of lower social classes and thus not depicted in the visual arts. The number of depictions increased in the late Qing Dynasty, which probably indicates a wider dispersal of the instrument (Huehns 2000).

Transmission of xiqin and horsehair bowing to China
Introduction of xiqin to China
The etymology of erhu provides hints as to its origins. The word “er” means two, and refers to the two strings of the bowed lute. Meanwhile, “hu” refers to the western region and central Asia during the period of the later Han Dynasty, Weijin and North Dynasty. “Huren” was the way ancient Chinese people called the “barbarians” of the North and West. The name of erhu derived from the older name huqin, whose written record is dated back to the Tang Dynasty. One of the earliest ancestors of huqin was thought to be xiqin, a spiked lute. It was registered in Yueshu as an instrument of the Xi people: Xiqin was originally an instrument from barbarian. It developed from the instrument Xiantao and their shapes were similar. Xiqin was enjoyed by the Xi tribe people. As for its structure, a bamboo strip was used to pluck between two strings.1

In addition, the literature of Ouyang Xiu in Song Dynasty also depicted xiqin in his poem Shi Yuan Wen Xiqin Zuo: “Xiqin was originally instrument of Xi, when they play it tears fall from their eyes”.2   Xi is the name short for Kumoxi according to Wei Shu (History of Wei Dynasty) and Beishi (History of Northern Dynasties).  In Sui Shu (History of Sui Dynasty), “The Xi was originally called the Kumo Xi; they were of Donghu origin”.3 In Wei Shu, it was mentioned that the “Xi was defeated by Murong Yuanzhen and the survivors fled to Songmo”,4 and that “During the period of Dengguo (386-395), the emperor of Dengguo went to the battle in the south of Ruonuoshui and Xi was severely defeated by the imperial troops”.5 Songmo is at the present-day Balinyouqi and Ruoluoshui is at the present-day Xar Moron River, both located at the east of Inner-Mongolia. Hence, xiqin has an origin of Mongolian or Inner Asia, which was important region along the Silk Road.

Introduction of horsehair bowing to China
The way of playing changed over time during the history of China. The huqin and xiqin were originally played using various techniques, such as plucking, pressing with a bamboo slip, and bowing with a bamboo slip. The musician Chen Yang from Song Dynasty recorded that the instrument was pressed (ya) by a bamboo slip in his Book of Music. Meanwhile, a poem by Meng Haoren (689-740) mentioned that the instrument 'drawn' (yin) by bamboo. The image of huqin played with a bow was depicted in one of the panting in the tenth cave of Yulin Cave, Dunhuang (Yu 2007). This method of bowing was important for the subsequent development of huqin. The same technique was applied to the new technology of the horsehair bow, likely because the original bamboo slip had been inserted between the strings.

Horsehair bowing likely originated from nomadic tribes which have an interdependent relationship with horses, and hence would have easy access to horsehair. These include Central Asian and Middle Eastern peoples living on the Eurasian Steppe. While records of horsehair bow are scarce in Central Asia, there is an early mention of the horsehair bow in Middle East. The first mention of a horsehair bow in the Middle East dates from the tenth century. The Persian theorist al-Fdrabi (872-950) described an instrumental category in which “the strings of which are made to sound by rubbing them together with other strings (autdr) or with some material resembling strings” (Bachmann 1969).

The horsehair bow likely transmitted to China through northern nomadic people during the Song Dynasty. In late Song Dynasty, a huqin with a horsehair component (mawei) was used by the monitories of northwest China. This was recorded in Shen Kuo’s Song of Triumph: “The maweihuqin followed the Han chariot, its music sounding of complaint to the Khan; do not bend the bow to shoot the goose within the clouds, the returning goose bears no letter” (Stock 1993). During late Song and Ming dynasties, the structure of xiqin combined with the bowstring of maweihuqin. The horsehair-bowed lute, the conceptual ancestor of today's erhu, was imported into China by the eleventh century. Once in China, it was adapted for bamboo-pressed friction chordophones, which were already popular in China (Stock 1993). The horsehair bow was another important step in the development of bowed lutes that led to the erhu.

Means of transmission: migration and trade    
Horsehair bow and spiked lutes were introduced to China several times, and through various means, including migration and trade. China had well-established links with Central Asia and the Middle East and courts imported musicians, and thus their instruments and techniques, from these places. Early examples include the import of foreign and minority race orchestras by the Sui and Tang Dynasties (Stock 1993).  Major migrations of peoples, such as the splitting of the Xi tribe into two parts in the late Tang, would also have speeded up the transmission of musical instruments and techniques from places beyond China. One of the Xi tribe branches migrated to Hebei and later Henan province in central China (Stock 1993). This would have helped to propagate the xiqin further in China. In such an environment, instrument components and approaches to playing could thus have been passed through multiple means from Central Asia to China.

Adoption of huqin by peoples in China
Adoption of huqin for court entertainment
The acquisition of foreign musicians and instruments promoted the transmission of new performance techniques, such as playing with a horsehair bow. The huqin appeared in the entertainment orchestra of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1367). In the Yuan Shi (History of the Yuan Dynasty, completed in 1370), a description of the Yuan entertainment orchestra mentioned the huqin along with the xinglongsheng (Western organ) and huobusi (Central Asian kobuz). Huqin was retained in the entertainment orchestras in the following Ming and Qing dynasties and continued to be regarded as a foreign instrument. For example, in the Ming Shi (History of the Ming Dynasty), an entertainment dance called the Si yiwu (Barbarian Dance), was accompanied by huqin, along with the konghou (harp), qin (bowed zither) and other instruments (Han and Gray 1979).                                                                                In the Qing Dynasty, huqin was introduced to the court again through the importation of foreign orchestras. After conquering Chahaer in eastern Mongolia in 1628, the Houjin Emperor Huang Taiji (reigned 1627-1643) imported two orchestras from Mongolia, one being the Fanbu Hezou (Barbarian Ensemble). The instrumentation of this ensemble as recorded in the Qing Shi (History of the Qing Dynasty), and included instruments such as huqin, tiqin (4-string fiddle), erxian (2-string lute), sanxian (3-string lute) and huobusi (Han and Gray 1979).

Adoption of huqin by Chinese opera companies
Nanqu and beiqu appeared in the Song Dynasty. The term “qu” in nanqu and beiqu was used to differentiate it from the Song ci. Qu was influenced by folk songs and local songs, and broke with the strict form of the ci to become more free and lively. Huqin does not seem to be used as accompaniment prior to the Ming Dynasty. Indeed, fewer melodic instruments were used then. In one instance, a Yuan song in Lancaihe Zaju used four kinds of accompanying instruments: di (flute), gu (drum), luo (gong), and ban (clapper) (Gao and Li 1989).

In contrast, bowed lutes were used in Chinese opera in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The different styles of opera incorporated music from each other and drew from local musics as well. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, kunqu (classical opera) appeared, and absorbed the traditional qupai of the Yuan nanbeiqu. In operas such as Kunshan qiang, bangzi qiang and pihuang qiang, a greater number of instruments were used in accompaniment, and orchestras began including the huqin (Gao and Li 1989). By the end of Qing Dynasty, bowed lutes became essential instruments in many of the Chinese music drama orchestras.                                         Adoption of huqin in ensembles for family entertainment

The infamous Ming Dynasty narrative Jin Ping Mei showed that huqin was one of the instruments played in ensembles that entertain upper and middle class families. The narrative depicts the social life of fictional character Ximen. Music-making was important in the daily life of Ximen’s household, and three of his concubines were accomplished performers on instruments such as the sanxian and yueqin. Huqin was mentioned when Ximen wanted to form an ensemble for family entertainment. Four of the maidservants are sent to study pipa, zheng, xianzi, and huqin in order to form the ensemble (Zhang 1992).

Transmission of xiqin beyond China, to Korea
The Silk Road not only connected Central and Inner Asia with China, but also built a bridge between China and Korea. Xiqin was imported to Korea from China in Song Dynasty and was used in the xiangyue of Korean court. Later on, xiqin, renamed haegum, was used widely in yayue of Jongmyo, where it is utilized in rituals for paying respect to deceased royalty of the Joseon Dynasty (Si 2012). It eventually became one of the most representative traditional instruments in Korea. Although highly valued in Korea, huqin was seen as a vulgar instrument by the Chinese court. In ancient China, discrimination against foreign peoples was common and since huqin was brought by huren, it did not initially gain much respect. Compared with other instruments like the pipa and flute, records of huqin was relatively rare. Although huqin became popular over time, but it was usually limited to being one of the accompaniments of musical instruments up till Qing Dynasty and also was also associated with folk artists who played it to make a living.            

Mongolian influence on erhu music in the 20th century
Although the Silk Road declined in importance as a trade route after the demise of the Mongol Empire, Central and Inner Asian cultures continued to influence music in China. In the 20th century, influence from these cultures on erhu was evident in its compositions as well as techniques. In particular, the influence of Mongolian and Xinjiang music traditions will be discussed.

Folk song arrangement
Several prominent erhu compositions adapted melodies from Mongolian folk songs. For instance, Horse Racing (賽馬) by Huang Haihuai (黃海懷), composed in the 1950s, was partly arranged from the Mongolian folk song Red Flag Song (紅旗歌) (Yu 2012; Feng 1998). This erhu piece has been highly praised to have vividly shown the spectacular and gaily scenes of the Mongolian Festival Nadam. Curiously, Huang might have never stepped onto the Mongolian grassland in his brief life (Yu 2012). Nonetheless, he was impressed by the Mongolian folk songs and appreciated the idea of a nomadic life. Other pieces such as On the Grassland (草原上), Love And Yearning Beyond the Great Wall (塞外情思), Love Song On the Grassland (草原情歌) were to some extent arranged from Mongolian long songs, short songs and haolaibao (好來寶), the last being a genre of Mongolian narrative singing accompanied with morin khuur (Yu 2012).                             

Sound imitation
Due to the flexibility of erhu in creating a range of sounds, some Mongolian elements were added to erhu, such as imitating the sound of horse galloping, neighing, crowd yelling, etc. (Yu 2012). Thus the scenes of Mongolian nomadic life could be vividly depicted in the music. The imitation of horse clip-clop is adopted in Horse Racing and Galloping War Horses (戰馬奔騰) (Yu 2012). In addition, the latter one created the sounds of horse neighing, troops yelling and horns and trumpets on the battle field with various innovative techniques (Yu 2012).

Adoption of morin khuur style and ornaments
Morin khuur, also known as matouqin (馬頭琴) in China, is a typical Mongolian musical instrument. Like erhu, it is also a two string fiddle. It is usually decorated with a horse head shape at the top and dates back to no later than the 13th century (UNESCO 2008). The similarities between morin khuur and erhu might not be a coincident. Though some controversies exist, the predominant theories concerning the origins of morin khuur state that it is evolved from a primitive instrument used by the ancient Syan tribe located around present-day Mongolia (Batchuluun 2009). The instrument was made from a ladle and was thus named “shanagan khuur” (meaning “ladle fiddle” in Mongolian) (Batchluun 2009; Zhang 2009). As mentioned previously, the origin of erhu is attributed to xiqin (奚琴) played by an ancient Xi tribe located north of China. According to Zhang (2009), “xiqin” might be merely a Chinese transliteration of “shanagan khuur”. As such, it has been suggested that the Syan people mentioned by Batchuluun (2009) were related to the Xi tribe, and the bowed lutes in both China and Mongolia had the same origin.

Probably due to the same origin of erhu as morin khuur, the timber of the former fits well the spirits of Mongolian people just like the latter does. It is described as a tragic tone colour which is suitable for expressing the Mongolian historic heroism (Yu 2012). In addition, the heroic and bold character of nomadic Mongolian people can be rendered by playing the high register notes on erhu (Yu 2012). Some morin khuur ornaments are also used in erhu to add Mongolian music flavour directly. This is evident in pieces like New Herdsmen On the Grassland (草原新牧民) (Yu 2012), Galloping On the Thousand Miles’ Grassland (奔馳在千里草原), Pulling the Camel (拉駱駝) (Stock 1992). Playing certain ornaments might introduce some finger techniques previously uncommon to erhu (Stock 2012). After approximately a thousand years’ separate development, erhu and morin khuur might again influence each other in the modern context.               

Xinjiang influence on erhu music in the 20th century
Folk song arrangement
Similar to Mongolia, Xinjiang influence on erhu can be categorized into three types, arranging folk songs, sound imitating and adopting techniques from Central and Inner Asia instruments. The song Sunshine On Taxkorgan (陽光照耀著塔什庫爾干) was originally arranged for the violin before being adapted for the erhu. This piece integrated a previous folk song Beautiful Taxkorgan (美麗的塔什庫爾干) and a flute piece Spring of Pamir (帕米爾的春天). Similarly, another erhu piece, Third Rhapsody, used the folk song How Beautiful My Hometown Pamir Is (帕米爾我的家鄉那麼美) in its prelude (Zhang 2011). The original folk songs originated from Central Asia. Taxkorgan was an important convergence point on the Silk Road, and the Pamir Mountains in Tajikstan are among the highest in the world. Consequently, modern compositions which draw upon such folk songs show a strong Tajik flavour (Zhang 2011).                 

Sound imitation
In addition, the distinctive timber of erhu enables it to imitate human voice. In Sunshine On Taxkorgan, several melodies in the higher register was made to sound like the singing voice of enthusiastic Tajik women, while the melody on a lower octave resembles the male voice (Zhang 2009). In addition, the technique of pizzicato is used to imitate the sound of dombra in a number of erhu pieces, including Sunshine On Taxkorgan (Zhang 2009; Zhang 2011), Grapes Are Ripe (葡萄熟了), Tianshan Flavour (天山風情) and the Third Rhapsody (Zhang 2011). Dombra is a popular instrument in Xinjiang as well as Kazakhstan, played by plucking the strings with fingers (Yang 2014).  The technique of knocking the body with the bow was also added in the Third Rhapsody in addition to pizzicato (Zhang 2011).                                                                                                Learning from regional instruments

Xinjiang is seen as a melting pot of various cultures because of the geographical location between Chinese and the Arab world.  Xinjiang music, as a result, integrates Chinese pentatonic scale and Arabic 24-tone scale as well as some other irregular pitches (Ge 1994). Moreover, the erhu is suitable for playing Xinjiang music due to the flexibility of playing glissando and portamento on it, thus creating some “unstable pitches” which are typical of the Central Asian instruments like tanbur and ghijak (Ge 1994).                           

Possible causes of 20th century Central and Inner Asian influence Many of erhu compositions involving Central and Inner Asian music traditions appeared only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Thus we might be able to find the reasons in China’s policies, especially its cultural policy and ethnic policy. The cultural policy of early China was based on Chairman Mao’s instruction that the arts should reflect the life of ordinary people and artists should thus pay attention to folk arts including operas and ballads (1942). This instruction might have efficiently promoted the contact between literati artists and the folk arts including those in the ethnic areas. Meanwhile, ethnic policies in PRC emphasized the preservation of folk music styles. From the 1950s Chinese government has been sending experts to collect and preserve the folk arts of ethnic minorities (State Council 1999). Their work resulted in the compilations such as The Collection of Chinese Folk Songs and The Collection of Ethnic Instrumental Music. These collections helped to popularize the folk music of cultures that lay on the ancient Silk Road, such that even people living in coastal areas have access to them. Consequently, the composer of Horse Racing might never have been to Mongolia (Yu 2012), but he was inspired by the Mongolian folk song Red Flag which was disseminated through official efforts.

Physical changes to erhu such as changing silk strings into steel strings (Stock 1992) and the various techniques developed by Liu Tianhua in the early twentieth century made erhu a mature and expressive instrument. These changes to erhu made it possible to play techniques such as pizzicato, glissando and imitating human voices or natural sounds, as discussed above. Moreover, the same instrument xiqin has been transmitted to Mongolia, China and Korea in ancient times, developed in different social contexts and ended up to be three substantially different instruments morin khuur, erhu and haegum. Probably due to the same origin from Central or Inner Asia (Qiao 2000; Batchuluun 2009), erhu is physically similar to some popular ethnic instruments such as morin khuur and ghijak. The success in applying morin khuur ornaments or ghijak glissandos to erhu music might be attributed to their similarities.

As Yo-Yo Ma suggested with regard to his work on the Silk Road Project, “Look deeply enough into any one [musical tradition], and you will find elements of others” (2002). This essay has shown that the erhu – now commonly seen as a traditional Chinese instrument – has roots in several Central and Inner Asian cultures. Through migration, conquest and import of foreign orchestras, the xiqin and horsehair bow were transmitted to China. The resultant horsehair bowed huqin was adopted by court and commoners alike by the Ming Dynasty. Although the Silk Road’s importance as a trade route declined after the Mongolian Empire, the development of erhu, especially its melodies and techniques, continues to be influenced by Silk Road cultures. However, in contrast to the romantic vision of Yo-Yo Ma, the cultural exchange in the 20th century reported in this paper was much more politically driven.

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