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Zhonghu: China’s Traditional Alto String Instrument

Last Updated on 2023/12/08

The Art of Zhonghu: The Instrument That Enriches Chinese Orchestras.

Zhonghu (中胡), commonly referred to as the “Chinese viola,” is a traditional Chinese string instrument derived from the Erhu (二胡). This instrument plays a vital role in Chinese orchestras, especially in the alto range. Although similar to the Erhu in design and playing techniques, the Zhonghu is distinguished by its larger size, deeper tuning, and richer timbre.

Historical Overview

The Zhonghu was developed from the Erhu, a well-known Chinese string instrument. Its creation can be traced back to the 20th century when various attempts were made to enhance the middle range of Chinese orchestral music. One of the significant contributors to the development of the Zhonghu was Zhou Rongting (周荣庭, 1907–1975), a renowned Chinese instrument maker and musician. He was inspired by his experience in the Wu Ping National Music Orchestra and sought to create an instrument that could strengthen the mid-range tones in an orchestra, leading to the birth of the modern Zhonghu.

Structural Characteristics

The Zhonghu shares its basic structure with the Erhu but has notable differences:

  • The body is larger, typically with a round soundbox covered with python skin, although there are variations like the octagonal soundbox.
  • The bowstring is longer, approximately 86 cm, often adorned with a dragon head or crescent shape.
  • The instrument is equipped with thicker strings, usually steel, which contribute to its distinct sound quality.
  • The tuning of the Zhonghu is generally a perfect fourth or fifth lower than that of the Erhu, enhancing its ability to fill the middle range in orchestral pieces.

Playing Techniques

Zhonghu playing techniques are similar to those of the Erhu, but certain aspects demand special attention:

  • The bowing technique requires precision, avoiding unnecessary contact with the non-playing string.
  • Plucking techniques (both single and continuous) must be executed with finesse, ensuring clear and distinct tones.
  • The instrument’s larger size demands a slightly different approach to finger placement and bowing compared to the Erhu.

Performance Posture

There are three common postures for playing the Zhonghu:

  • Sitting with legs flat, which is the most common and stable posture.
  • Sitting with one leg crossed over the other, often used in solo performances.
  • Standing, which is less common and generally not preferred for long performances.

Maintenance and Care

Proper maintenance of the Zhonghu is crucial for its longevity and sound quality:

  • Avoid direct sunlight and extreme temperatures.
  • Store the instrument in its case with desiccants in humid conditions.
  • Regularly check and adjust the components like the soundbox, strings, and tuning pegs for optimal performance.

Source: Baike Baidu

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