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The Zhongdihu: A Comprehensive Guide to China’s Traditional Bass Instrument

Last Updated on 2023/12/08

Varieties and Uses of the Zhongdihu in Chinese Orchestras.

Zhongdihu, known in Chinese as 中低胡, is a traditional Chinese string instrument. It is a medium-sized dihu, a type of bowed string instrument, which is tuned one octave below the zhonghu. The term 低胡 is an abbreviation for “低音二胡” (low-pitched erhu), serving as a bass instrument in Chinese orchestras. Historically, Chinese orchestras lacked quality low-pitched instruments. Before the Zhongdihu’s development, the Guangdong music genre’s Qinhu (similar to today’s Qinqin) was used for bass parts. It was during the period of the Anti-Japanese War that music workers in the liberated areas began to develop the Zhongdihu, although its design continued to evolve for perfection.

Structure and Construction

The structure of the Zhongdihu is similar to the Erhu, yet larger than the Zhonghu. Its sound is consequently lower. The instrument consists of two main types of soundboxes: cylindrical and octagonal. The head of the instrument often features scroll or dragon head designs. Python skin is commonly used for the membrane, although sheepskin or horsehide are also options.

Experts believe that the development direction for low-pitched string instruments should combine membrane and fingerboard structures, as seen in the Zhongdihu. This approach is based on the foundational design of the Erhu.

Varieties

The Zhongdihu is categorized into three sizes: large, medium, and small, each suited for orchestras of different sizes. The small Zhongdihu (also known as “Dahu”) is used in smaller ensembles, while larger orchestras use the larger variant. A four-stringed large Dahu was developed in the 1960s. This variant, featuring a round soundbox covered with python skin, a fingerboard on the neck, and a unique bowing technique, produces a rich and harmonious sound compatible with other Chinese string instruments.

The small Zhongdihu produces a deep, powerful sound, ideal for orchestral accompaniment or local opera music. The large Zhongdihu, on the other hand, offers a deeper and broader timbre. Both are not typically used for solo performances. Traditionally, the outer string of the Zhongdihu is made from older silk strings, while the inner string uses wrapped silk or gut strings.

Tuning and Range

The Zhongdihu is tuned an octave lower than the Zhonghu, generally to A and E. Its effective range is about two octaves. Due to its longer neck and wider spacing between finger positions, the Zhongdihu is less suited for fast-paced melodies or tunes with numerous position changes. It excels in simpler, slower compositions and strengthens the orchestra’s sound, especially its foundation. Apart from traditional orchestras, the Zhongdihu is also widely used in Northern Chinese blow songs, Jiangnan Sizhu, and Cantonese music.

Musical History

A notable historical piece is a “homemade” low-pitched Erhu made from a Mobil oil drum, housed in the Harbin Music Museum. This unique instrument, consisting of a wooden stick and an oil drum, once played the stirring melody of “The Yellow River Cantata” and was featured on China Central Television, attracting the attention of millions.

In 1946, musicians from Yan’an University’s Lu Yi Academy, while in Harbin and facing a scarcity of low-pitched instruments, created this unique low-pitched Erhu for the performance of “The Yellow River Cantata,” as per a sketch by the renowned composer Xian Xinghai. Professor Gu Weiquan, the curator of the Harbin Conservatory of Music Library and Music Museum, remarked on the instrument’s representation of a spirit striving for musical excellence despite material limitations.

Topics: Zhongdihu traditional Chinese music, Construction of Zhongdihu instrument, History of low-pitched Erhu in China, Chinese orchestra string instruments, Zhongdihu tuning and playing techniques, Varieties of Zhongdihu in Chinese music, Cultural significance of Zhongdihu in China
Source: Baike Baidu

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