It is a bowed instrument derived from the Xi tribe – a Turco-Mongol tribe. Hence in early times it was called xiqin. It made its first appearance in China during the Tang dynasty. Significant improvements on the instrument were made during the Qing dynasty (A.D. 1644-1911) and became one of the most widely used instruments. There are many variants of huqin with different ranges and tone color such as jinghu, banhu, erhu, and gaohu.
The construction of huqin: A tube or box resonator is pierced by a long spike whose upper end forms a neck; two or more strings are stretched from the resonator, over the bridge, to the tuning pegs, and an adjustable tuning loop secured around the strings and neck. The bow hair is stretched over the bow.
The erhu is popular in southern China, and so it is called nanhu. It has 2 strings and the bow is clasped between them. The soundbox, either round or hexagonal, has one covered with snakeskin and the other end usually decorated with an open-work design. The tone of the erhu is warm and very expressive, suitable for mournful music. It has been constantly improved during this century so that its tone is now bright and is capable of rapid passages. A great name to be mentioned in this respect is Liu Tian-hua (1895-1932) who extended the technical and stylistic possibilities of the erhu, particularly through violinistic adaptations. Played with a distinctive tone color and a variety of techniques, it has become important not only in ensemble music but also as a solo instrument.
It is somewhat similar to the erhu but with a smaller soundbox. It is tuned to a fourth or fifth higher than the erhu. Its mellow tone quality is very suitable for flowing melodies and fluent passages. It is a unique solo instrument as well as a leading instrument in ensemble performances.
3. The larger variants of huqin: Zhonghu, Dahu, Dihu, and Gehu
The huqin was enlarged for new ensemble and orchestral uses in modern times. Instruments of different sizes were designed in order to provide the lower parts in string orchestration. In size the zhonghu is equivalent to the Western viola, the dahu to the cello, and the dihu to the double bass. The zhonghu is larger in size than the erhu. It produces a full and rich sound to add to the tenor range of the Chinese orchestra. It is adopted as a solo instrument in northern China. The dahu and dihu are mainly used as bass stringed instruments because of their narrow compass and weak expression.
A more recent innovation of the huqin was the gehu of two types –Dagehu and Digehu. They are equivalent to the cello and double bass respectively. They can be played by bowing or plucking. The deep tone makes them effective supporting instruments in the orchestra.
The soundbox of banhu is made of coconut shell and covered with a thin slice of wood. Its tone is clear and sonorous. Moreover, it is one of the instruments that lend a strong local flavor. The instrument is noted for its capacity to pay rapid notes by bowing. It plays an important role in ensemble music. It is also used as a chief instrument for accompanying many regional operatic performances in northern China.
The jinghu has survived from the Qing dynasty. It is the leading instrument used for the accompaniment of Beijing opera. Therefore it is called jinghu. Its neck and soundbox are made from bamboo material. The soundbox is covered at one end with snake-skin while the other end is left open. Although its size is smaller than that of other Chinese bowed instruments, its timbre is sonorous and bright. It is highly suitable to be adopted as a melodic ensemble instrument, especially in Beijing opera.