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The Huqin: A Chronicle of China’s Bowed Heritage

Last Updated on 2023/11/27

Historical Origins and Cultural Impact of the Huqin.

The Huqin (胡琴), also known as Xianghu (乡胡) or Ji Qin (稽琴, similar to 奚琴), is a historic and simplistically designed string instrument, primarily used in solo, ensemble, and as accompaniment for dance and song performances in China.

Historical Context and Origins

The Huqin is a term that historically referred to a range of string instruments used by ethnic minorities in Northern and Northwestern China. In modern times, it specifically denotes a family of bowed string instruments.

The inception of the Huqin dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Its earliest mention is found in the music theory book “Leshu” (《乐书》, Volume 128) written in 1099 by Chen Yang, a music theorist of the Song Dynasty. The book describes the Huqin as originating from the Xi tribe’s music, noting that the instrument was played using bamboo slides between its two strings, a method akin to the playing of the ancient Zheng. The Xi tribe, known as Kumoxi during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, resided in the Xilamulun River area in Northeast China. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, some Xi people had moved to Gui State (present-day Huailai County in Hebei Province) and became known as Western Xi. Over time, the Eastern and Western Xi gradually integrated with the Khitan people during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

Development and Evolution

During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Huqin was played both as a bowed and plucked string instrument. Notably, Ouyang Xiu, a Northern Song writer, mentioned the instrument in his poetry, indicating its dual playing methods at the time. The Song Dynasty saw the transition of Huqin from a plucked to a bowed instrument. The term “Ji Qin” appears in this era, with references indicating that it was still predominantly played by plucking.

By the late Song Dynasty, the Huqin had evolved with the introduction of horsehair bows, a significant development marking its transition to a predominantly bowed instrument. This change is evident in the murals of Yulin Caves in Shaanxi and Yanshan Temple in Shanxi, dating back to the Western Xia period (1038-1227 AD) and the end of the Song Dynasty.

Ming and Qing Dynasty Developments

The Huqin underwent further refinement during the Ming Dynasty with the rise of drama and Quyi (traditional performing arts). It became a staple in ensembles and solo performances, as depicted in the Ming Dynasty’s “Lintang Autumn Banquet” scroll by You Ziqiu (1522 AD). The instrument featured in Korean music as well, as described in the Korean book “Music Learning Guidelines” (1494 AD), indicating its spread beyond China.

Modern Huqin

In contemporary times, the Huqin measures about 60 cm in length, with a wooden or bamboo body and a half-spherical or cylindrical shape. It is strung with silk or steel strings, tuned to A and E, covering a range of A to a1.

The Mongolian Huqin, known as the Hu’er, Xina Gan Hu’er (“Spoon Huqin”), or Maowei Huqin, is a variation popular in Inner Mongolia, especially in the Eastern Khorchin and Zhaowuda regions. It is played seated, with the instrument resting on the left thigh and the bow held in the right hand.

Innovations: Four-Stringed Huqin

The 1960s saw the creation of the reformed and four-stringed Huqin by Korean-Chinese musicians like Li Yinan. The four-stringed Huqin, used in professional music ensembles in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, comes in soprano, alto, and bass ranges, extending the instrument’s versatility.

Craftsmanship and Cultural Significance

The making of the Huqin is an intricate art. Historically, craftsmen used wood from Changbai Mountain for the soundboard, bamboo for the body, silk for strings, and horsehair for the bows. Modern adaptations include the use of Paulownia wood for the soundboard and steel for strings. The Huqin’s ability to express subtle emotions makes it a cherished instrument in traditional music.

Huqin in Literature and Arts

The Huqin has been immortalized in Chinese literature and arts, with references in classical poems such as “Bai Xue Ge Song Wu Pan Guan Gui Jing” by Cen Shen during the Tang Dynasty and contemporary works like “Huqin Fu” by Xue Gang.

Huqin Art Festival and Global Recognition

The Huqin Art Festival in Xuzhou, established in 2004, has become a significant cultural event, promoting Huqin music and fostering its innovative development. The festival has garnered international attention, showcasing the charm of Chinese Huqin music in prestigious venues like Vienna’s Golden Hall.

Source: Baidu Baike

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