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Banhu: A Cultural Icon of Chinese Stringed Instruments

Last Updated on 2023/11/26

Regional Variations and Techniques of the Banhu in Chinese Music.

The Banhu (板胡) is a traditional Chinese string instrument with a history spanning over 300 years. Known for its piercing, high-pitched, and robust sound, the Banhu is a prevalent accompaniment in northern Chinese operas, storytelling, and singing performances. It is also used in ensemble and solo performances.

Originating alongside the emergence of regional Chinese operas, particularly the Bangzi (梆子) genre, the Banhu evolved from the family of Huqin (胡琴) instruments, which are played by bowing. Its name, literally meaning ‘board Hu’, derives from its construction where a thin wooden board forms the sound box. This design was notably referred to as “Banqin (板琴)” during the Qing Dynasty.

The Banhu’s construction is quite similar to the Erhu (二胡), with the main differences being in the sound box and the use of a wooden board instead of a skin membrane to cover the front opening. The sound box is typically made from a hard coconut shell, but variations include wood, bamboo, copper, and even modern materials like low-foaming ABS. The instrument’s neck is often crafted from durable woods like ebony or rosewood. It traditionally uses two strings, with a bow typically made from bamboo and horsehair.

The Banhu is notable for its role in various regional operas and musical performances, especially in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Shanxi. It’s integral to styles like Hebei Bangzi, Peking opera, Yu opera, and Qinqiang. The instrument’s ability to convey intense, passionate, and fiery emotions makes it a favored choice in these genres.

Post-1950s, the Banhu underwent significant development in both construction and playing techniques. New varieties such as the Mid-range Banhu, High-pitched Banhu, Three-stringed Banhu, Bamboo Banhu, and Qinqiang Banhu were introduced, enhancing its versatility and expressiveness. The Banhu’s soundbox varies in material and size, using either a coconut shell or wood, with the front panel made of thin fir wood.

The instrument has adapted to various regional musical styles, with each region’s Banhu exhibiting distinct characteristics. For instance, Shanxi’s Banhu is known for its large sound box and thick bow, adept at playing slow, deep tunes, making it the primary accompaniment in Shanxi Bangzi opera.

In terms of tuning, the Banhu traditionally uses either a fifth or a fourth interval. The choice of tuning often depends on the accompanying opera or the vocalist’s range. In ethnic orchestras, the Banhu is typically tuned to a fifth interval, with the inner string tuned to D2 and the outer string to A2. This tuning gives it a range from D2 to G4, spanning two and a half octaves.

The Banhu’s evolution has seen it transition from a mere accompaniment instrument to a leading instrument in solo and ensemble performances. Its distinctive sound, capable of expressing both robust, lively tunes and deep, intricate melodies, has secured its place in the heart of Chinese musical tradition. Additionally, the Banhu’s adaptations and variations cater to different regional operas and musical styles, underscoring its versatility and cultural significance.

Care and maintenance of the Banhu are crucial. After use, it’s essential to clean the instrument with a soft cloth and store it properly, away from moisture. Oiling the wooden parts annually with food or walnut oil helps prevent cracking. For players, particularly those in the Qinqiang style, maintaining an elegant posture and style while playing is considered vital, with common positions being either sitting with flat legs or with one leg raised.

The Banhu has inspired numerous compositions and remains a beloved element in Chinese cultural heritage, symbolizing the richness and diversity of the nation’s musical landscape.

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Source: Baike Baidu

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