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The Jing Erhu: The Soulful String of Beijing Opera

Last Updated on 2023/11/29

The Jing Erhu: A Journey Through Its Historical Significance and Sound.

Jing Erhu, also known as 京二胡, is a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, distinctively used in Beijing opera, which is a key element of Chinese traditional theatre. It evolved from the generic Erhu, another Chinese string instrument, towards the end of the 18th century, coinciding with the formation of the Beijing opera. With a history spanning over 200 years, Jing Erhu has become an integral part of the musical accompaniment in Beijing opera.

Sound Characteristics

The Jing Erhu is known for its rich and mellow sound, with significant volume, making it suitable for the theatrical setting of Beijing opera. It has a similar structure to the Erhu but differs in size, being slightly smaller than the standard Erhu but larger than the Jinghu (a smaller variant used in Beijing opera). The soundbox is often hexagonal, crafted from quality woods such as rosewood, red sandalwood, or redwood, with rosewood being preferred for its superior sound quality.

Unique Features

One of the key differences between Jing Erhu and the standard Erhu is its soundbox, which is traditionally covered with python skin. This feature significantly contributes to its distinct sound quality, aligning it closely with the tonal characteristics of the Jinghu. The choice of python skin, particularly those that are thick and oily, plays a vital role in the instrument’s acoustic performance.

Usage in Beijing Opera

In Beijing opera, the Jing Erhu is mainly used for accompanying various scenes and acts, particularly those featuring singing. It is tuned in fifths and classified as a middle-range instrument. It often plays alongside other traditional instruments such as Jinghu and Yueqin, forming a vital part of the opera’s musical ensemble.

Origin and Evolution

The Jing Erhu was introduced into Beijing opera around 1923 by the famous opera artist Mei Lanfang. He sought to enrich the musical accompaniment of his plays and found that the Jing Erhu, derived from the standard Erhu, perfectly suited his needs. Since then, it has been a mainstay in the Beijing opera orchestra, adding depth and complexity to the musical arrangements.

Structure and Craftsmanship

The Jing Erhu shares a similar structure to the standard Erhu but with notable differences in the material and design of the soundbox and bow. The instrument’s body is often made of bamboo, with attention given to the selection and treatment of the bamboo to ensure the best sound quality. The bow, a crucial component of the instrument, is carefully crafted, often using horsehair, with the quality of the hair significantly affecting the sound produced.

Variants and Specifications

There are two main types of Jing Erhu: the round-bar and half-round bar variants, with the half-round bar type, also known as the “Wang-style Jing Erhu,” being more refined and preferred by professional opera troupes. Over time, different specifications have been developed to suit various styles within Beijing opera, leading to the creation of specialized Jing Erhus for specific roles or scenes.

Maintenance and Selection

Proper care and maintenance of the Jing Erhu are vital for preserving its sound quality. This includes protecting the python skin from moisture and direct sunlight, regular cleaning, and proper storage. When selecting a Jing Erhu, attention should be paid to the quality of materials, particularly the bamboo and python skin, as well as the craftsmanship of the instrument.

Prominent Jing Erhu Players

  • Wang Shaoqing (1900–1958): A notable musician from Jiangsu, he played a pivotal role in introducing the Jing Erhu into Beijing opera, working closely with Mei Lanfang.
  • Zhang Siyun: Renowned for his mastery in Jing Erhu performance, Zhang collaborated extensively with opera masters and contributed significantly to the development of the musical styles within Beijing opera.
  • Pan Yongling: A distinguished performer from Shanghai, Pan is known for her skillful play of both the Jinghu and Jing Erhu, collaborating with various famous artists and contributing to the rich tradition of Beijing opera music.

Source: Baike Baidu

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