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Erxian: A Symbol of Cantonese Musical Tradition

Last Updated on 2023/11/27

Erxian (二弦): An Overview of the Traditional Chinese Instrument

The Erxian, also known as the Guangdong Erxian (广东二弦), is a distinctive musical instrument integral to the traditional music of Guangdong Province in China. It plays a central role in the ancient Cantonese operatic music known as “Gucang Yueju” and is a leading instrument in the “Ying Gong Wu Jia Tou” (硬弓五架頭), a classical ensemble in Cantonese music. This ensemble typically includes the Erxian, Yueqin (月琴), Sanxian (三弦), Zhuti Qin (竹提琴), and either the Zhixiao (直簫) or Hengxiao (橫簫).

Instrumental Groups Featuring Erxian

In various traditional ensembles, the Erxian often assumes a leading position. These groups include:

  • San Jia Tou (三架頭): A trio formation where the Erxian is accompanied by the Zhuti Qin and either the Yueqin or Sanxian.
  • Si Jia Tou (四架頭): A quartet configuration that can include combinations of the Erxian, Zhuti Qin, Yueqin, Sanxian, and either the Zhixiao or Hengxiao.
  • Current “Wu Jia Tou”: This modern quintet typically comprises the Gaohu, Yehu, Yangqin, Qinqin, and either a throat pipe or a bamboo flute (Zhixiao or Hengxiao).

Construction and Sound of the Erxian

The Erxian features a bamboo body and sound tube, covered with python skin. It is strung with either two silk or steel strings. The instrument is played with a hard bow (characterized by tighter horsehair compared to the softer bow), and it is tuned in pure fifths. The sound produced by the Erxian is vibrant, intense, and high-pitched, reflecting the lively spirit of Cantonese music.

Historical Context and Adaptations

Originally known as the Zhui Qin (坠琴), Qu Hu (曲胡), or simply Erxian, this instrument has roots in Henan and Shandong provinces. It is a key accompaniment instrument for Henan Opera, Shandong Qinshu, and Lü Opera. The Zhui Qin evolved from the smaller Sanxian, adapting to the needs of narrative singing and opera. Performers found plucked instruments less compatible with vocal styles and thus modified the instrument to be played with a bow, similar to the Huqin family, and changed the drum-like body to a Huqin-style sound cylinder.

The body of the Zhui Qin resembles that of the Si Hu but is shorter and thicker, made of either copper plate or hardwood, with the front covered in python skin. The neck and head resemble those of the Sanxian, with the neck doubling as a fingerboard. It is strung with two strings, typically tuned to a and d1, covering a range from a to d3. Besides accompaniment, the Zhui Qin is also used for ensemble and solo performances.

Source: Baike Baidu

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