Erhu: Traditional Chinese Music with a “Modern” Instrument

Traditional Chinese music is centered around three instruments: the seven-stringed zither (guqin), the four-stringed lute (pipa) and the two-stringed erhu. Whereas the first two instruments boast a history of up to 3,000 years, the erhu’s history dates back only to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) where it developed from a related instrument known as the xiqin. It wasn’t until 1915 that the first solo composition for erhu was written (“The Sound of Agony” by maestro Liu Tianhua). But the erhu has caught up with its older brethren by becoming the most popular Chinese instrument on the world stage. In this blog, I will introduce two modern compositions with the erhu as the principal instrument. The first piece is a soundtrack for the award-winning film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which also features the cello, played as a counterpoint to the erhu. The second is a modern classic by the gifted blind composer, Hua Yanjun (aka Abing) entitled, The Moon Reflected on the Second Springs. This moving melody almost did not come into existence (Abing died in 1950, shortly after it was composed). I am so glad it did.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is a well-made martial arts film with stunning visual effects. Directed by the talented Ang Lee, the story, which involves two sets of doomed lovers. The film won over forty awards and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the most ever for a non-English film at the time. In the end, it won awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography. The score was composed by noted Chinese contemporary composer, Tan Dun (born 1957) and was originally performed by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai National Orchestra, and Shanghai Percussion Ensemble. The renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma also played some of its solo passages.

Tan’s music is strongly influenced by the distinct linguistic and folk songs of central Hunan where he was raised. He received international recognition in 1983 when his String Quartet (Feng Ya Song) won the Weber Prize from Dresden, making him the first Chinese composer to win an international prize since the Communist Revolution of 1949. In 1986, Tan moved to New York where he is currently based. There, he developed a concept of the orchestra as a form of ritual which became a major feature of his subsequent work. The score of Crouching Tiger combines Western and Chinese symphonic music. The audio recording below is Farewell, #13 of 16 on the soundtrack. Farewell comprises two melodies which are accompanied by a Western string orchestra and Chinese percussion instruments. The erhu (a two-stringed bowed musical instrument that is sometimes called a Chinese violin) plays an ostinato lament in counterpoint to the cello, played by Yo Yo Ma.

Listen: Farewell, from the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (composer: Tan Dun, b. 1957).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Composition for Solo Erhu: The Moon Reflected on the Second Springs

Moon Reflected on the Second Springs is a modern classic written by Abing (1883-1950), whose original name is Hua Yanjun. Abing was orphaned early and was adopted by a Daoist monk, who taught him music. He eventually became a street musician, making a meagre living by singing and playing the erhu on the spot. However, in his mid-30s, tragedy struck again when he became blind.

Before his death in 1950, Abing wrote six memorable works, of which Moon Reflected on the Second Springs is the most famous. The melody in this work is made up of four phrases which are repeated and ornamented with many types of embellishments such as bent notes, thrills and tremolos in a pattern that has been beautifully described as “adding flowers” (jia hua). The haunting melody starts slowly, then ascends very gradually and expressively. A poignant climax is reached in the third phrase of the melody when the erhu “sings” out beautifully in the instrument’s highest range.

Listen: Abing (Hua Yangjun, 1883 – 1950), Moon Reflected on the Second Springs, Chinese traditional music. Performed by Jin Yue, erhu soloist, with the Carolina International Orchestra and the China National Orchestra.

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