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Sihu: China’s Four-Stringed Heritage

Last Updated on 2023/12/05

Sihu (四胡) – A Traditional Chinese Stringed Instrument

The Sihu (四胡), also known as the Four-Stringed Fiddle, is a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. It is historically referenced in various Chinese texts, indicating its deep roots in Chinese culture. Its name, translating to “four-stringed huqin”, signifies its four strings, which are a distinctive feature. The Sihu is particularly popular in northern Chinese regions, including Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hebei, Henan, and Sichuan.

Historical Background

The origins of the Sihu can be traced back to the Warring States period, originating from the Donghu, a northern minority ethnic group. It was initially known as the Huqin (胡琴), a term used for a family of Chinese bowed string instruments. During the Yuan Dynasty, it gained popularity among the Mongolian ethnic group.

The transformation from a two-stringed to a four-stringed instrument, known as Houlehe Huwuer (侯勒禾胡兀尔), occurred no later than the end of the Ming Dynasty. This evolution is documented in the Qing Dynasty text “Lü Lv Zhengyi Hou Bian”. The instrument was then referred to as Tiqin (提琴), a term found in various Qing Dynasty documents such as the “Qing Huidian” and “Qing Dynasty Wenxian Tongkao”.

Cultural Significance

The Sihu has been a significant part of the Mongolian culture. It was notably mentioned in the “Huang Jin Shi” (黄金史), a historical record by the famous Mongolian historian Luo Buzangdanjin. In his account, the Sihu, alongside the Morin Khuur (Horse-head fiddle), is highlighted in a song dedicated to Genghis Khan.

Variants of the Sihu

High-Pitched Sihu (蒙古四胡)

This variant, also known as the Mongolian Sihu, is known for its crisp and melodious sound. It is used primarily in solo and ensemble performances and is popular in regions like Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang. Notable pieces played on this instrument include “Bayin” and “Flower Waist Tune”.

Mid-Pitched Sihu (中音四胡)

This variant is similar in construction to the low-pitched Sihu but slightly smaller. It is prevalent in farming and semi-nomadic areas of northern China. The mid-pitched Sihu is known for its bright and rounded tone, often used in storytelling and singing accompaniments.

Low-Pitched Sihu (低音四胡)

Also known as the Da Sihu or Haolai Bao Sihu, this variant has a deeper, more resonant sound. It is widely used in Inner Mongolia’s pastoral areas. The low-pitched Sihu has a unique structure that allows it to be easily transported, especially useful for nomadic lifestyles.

Design and Structure

The Sihu is commonly made from rosewood or sandalwood. Its body is often octagonal, covered with python or cow skin. The strings, either made of silk or metal, are attached to a neck without frets. The bow, traditionally made of bamboo and horsehair, is used to play the instrument.

Playing Techniques

Unique to the Sihu is the technique of using the second joint of the fingers rather than the fingertips to press the strings. This method produces a distinctive, rich, and melodious sound characteristic of the instrument. It is particularly adept at playing styles like slides, trills, pizzicatos, and double stops.

Modern Developments

In recent times, there have been efforts to modernize the Sihu to expand its expressive capabilities and adapt to contemporary musical contexts. These modifications include changes to the size of the body and alterations in the tuning to accommodate a broader range of musical styles. The Sihu continues to be a vital component of Mongolian and Chinese musical traditions, adding a unique timbre and cultural depth to the music it graces.

Source: Baike Baidu

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