From New York to Paris, from Tokyo to Dallas to Stockholm to Sydney – Xiaochun Qi has kept audiences on the edge of their seats, hanging on every one of her erhu notes. In her brief, loaded pauses, one can hear a pin drop.
One of the most popular traditional Chinese instruments, the erhu, is capable of conveying great tragedy. Whether the musical tempo is fast or slow, the erhu produces a melancholic sound that is both hauntingly beautiful and stirring.
Music in China, as old as the 5,000-year-old civilization itself, was intended not so much for entertainment, but to purify one’s thoughts. Traditional belief held that sound can influence and harmonize the universe.
Into this culture came the two-stringed erhu, which has a history of some 4,000 years. The erhu has now become one of the most popular and recognizable Chinese instruments.
Shen Yun Performing Arts’ Xiaochun Qi, who plays solo erhu numbers accompanied by a piano, learned to play the instrument from her father while growing up in southern China.
“When I was six years old, my father began teaching me how to play the erhu, and he practiced with me every day. Living space was extremely limited, so to avoid bothering our neighbors, he took me to a nearby park to practice,” she said.
The early days of Qi’s training were rigorous. Her father instructed her outdoors throughout the year, regardless of weather. She says she used to think he was “the cruelest father in the world,” until she began to understand his deep love for music and the “subdued passion” behind it.
“While practicing, we were often surrounded by crowds of people, watching, listening attentively to us for hours, nodding their heads, and tapping their feet to the beat,” she says. “I now understand why my father took such great pains to train me as an erhu artist—he wanted me to inherit the heart and soul of Chinese arts and to use music to create hope, joy, and inner strength. He was a great father.”
Although the erhu is sometimes called the two-stringed Chinese violin, it is held vertically, not horizontally, set on the lap of a seated player. It is made of dense wood, such as rosewood or ebony, and consists of a small sound box covered with snakeskin—traditionally python—and a long slim neck slightly curved at the end. Two steel strings have replaced the traditional silk strings. The bamboo and white horsehair bow is permanently placed between the two strings.
This erhu has many unique qualities that make it a difficult instrument to master. There is no fingerboard for finding the right key, and the strings are pressed but should not touch the neck. The sound is produced when the bow, rosined to increase friction, is passed between the strings causing the snakeskin to vibrate. Both sides of the bow are used to produce the sound, yet the strings are so close that they are played as if one.
Qi says ancient Chinese culture promoted harmony between heaven and earth and respect for life and nature—values that are reflected in Shen Yun’s performances. She sees her work as a tribute to people in China who share a passion similar to her father’s.
“I am on stage today because of my father’s dedication to what he considered his mission in life: preserving the essence and beauty of traditional Chinese culture for the generations to come.”
Note: this article has been edited and abridged to fit the website.