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The Maguhu: Traditional Melodies of the Zhuang Ethnic Group

Last Updated on 2023/11/30

The Maguhu (马骨胡): A Comprehensive Overview

The Maguhu (马骨胡), a traditional Chinese string instrument, belongs to the Zhuang ethnic group. It is also known as the “Horse Bone Fiddle.” In the Zhuang language, it is referred to as “Ran Du” (冉督) or “Ran Lie” (冉列), where “Ran” signifies the category of Huqins (a family of bowed string instruments) and “Du” indicates that it’s made from bones, typically of horses, mules, or cows. “Ran Sen” (冉森) is another term, where “Sen” suggests a small size and high pitch. The Maguhu is similar to the Xi Qin type of instruments and is known for its clear, bright, and melodious sound. It is primarily used in solo performances, instrumental ensembles, and as accompaniment in various folk and dramatic forms.

Playing Techniques and Tuning

The Maguhu shares similarities in playing techniques with the Erhu. Its structure allows for easy transposition, and common tunings include F, G, C, and D. The instrument’s sound is characterized by its brightness, clarity, and strong regional flavor, making it a favored accompaniment in Zhuang opera.

Geographic Popularity

The Maguhu is prevalent in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, particularly in Longlin, Xilin, Tianlin, Baise, Leye, and Lingyun. It’s also found in Qianxinan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou Province and Funing County of Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.

Historical Development

Originating from the Xi Qin family of string instruments, the Maguhu’s development can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty. Its evolution was influenced by increased cultural exchanges among ethnic groups in China. Notable musicologist Mr. Yang Yinyu (1899-1984) mentioned its emergence in his “Draft History of Ancient Chinese Music.” The instrument has been integral to Zhuang opera’s evolution since the Qianlong period (1736-1795), undergoing several reforms to enhance its tonal quality, especially since the 20th century.

Instrument Structure

The Maguhu consists of a sound box made from the femur of horses, mules, or cows, a neck, pegs, tuning pegs, a nut, a bridge, strings, and a bow. The sound box is typically oval-shaped, and modern versions may incorporate bones from larger livestock or synthetic materials. The neck and head are usually made of hardwood or bamboo, often featuring a horse head carving. The instrument traditionally had silk or animal gut strings, now frequently replaced with steel. The bow is traditionally bamboo with horsehair.

Sound and Range

The Maguhu’s original range spanned from A1 to D4. Following modifications, its range extends from D1 to E3, spanning over two octaves. Its sound lies between the Gaohu and Jinghu, closer to the Jinghu in timbre but softer and more melodious.

Performance Technique

Played seated, with the sound box resting on the left thigh or between the knees, the Maguhu uses a variety of left-hand and right-hand techniques akin to those of the Erhu. It’s primarily tuned in fifths and is a staple in solo performances, ensembles, and Zhuang dramas.

Famous Pieces and Performers

The Maguhu repertoire includes pieces like “Zheng Diao” (正调), “Ba Ban Diao” (八板调), and “Guo Chang Diao” (过场调). Notable performers from Longlin, Xilin, and Tianlin have greatly enriched its tradition.

Cultural Significance and Preservation

As a vital aspect of Zhuang cultural heritage, the Maguhu faces challenges in transmission, with fewer younger players taking up the instrument. Efforts to preserve it include educational initiatives and cultural preservation centers.

Comparison with the Erhu

Though both the Maguhu and Erhu are Chinese bowed string instruments, they have distinct cultural origins, design, sound, and playing styles. The Maguhu’s unique construction and regional charm hold a special place in the rich tapestry of Chinese traditional music.

Source: Baike Baidu

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