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Yehu: The Traditional Chinese Coconut Fiddle

Last Updated on 2023/12/22

A Detailed Look at the Yehu’s History and Construction.

The Yehu (椰胡) is a distinctive Chinese two-stringed fiddle with a resonating body made from a coconut shell. It is particularly prevalent in Cantonese and Chaozhou music genres. Known in history as “Chao Ti,” it is also referred to as “Xiao Hu” in Chaozhou music, where it’s called “Mou Xian.” The Yehu resembles the Banhu in shape but produces a rich and deep sound. It is widely used in ensemble and accompaniment roles in various Chinese provinces such as Hainan, Guangdong, and Fujian.

Historical Development

The Yehu emerged in the folk music scene, especially in Chaozhou music, as early as the 18th century. It is mentioned in the “Continued General Study of Qing Dynasty Literature” as an instrument with a quiet and gentle sound, featuring a blackwood handle, a coconut shell body, and a clamshell bridge. In the 1930s, it was adopted into Guangdong small tunes and became an integral part of the accompaniment in Guangdong operas and narrative music. Its soft and rich tone made it a favorite in various musical contexts.

Physical Structure

The Yehu’s body, materials, and craftsmanship are similar to the Qin Opera Banhu, but with a slightly thinner and shorter neck, measuring around 67 cm in length. The resonating body is made from half a coconut shell, covered with a thin board of paulownia wood, and features a unique pattern of five sound holes on the back. The traditional bridge is often made from small shells or bamboo, and the strings are thinner compared to those of the Banhu.

The neck and head of the Yehu are crafted from hardwood, often redwood or rosewood, with the top of the head being flat, crescent-shaped, or decorated with a dragon head carving. The tuning pegs are made of hardwood and are positioned parallel to the body of the instrument.

Playing Techniques

The Yehu is played in a seated position with the body of the instrument resting on the left thigh (or between both legs). The left hand holds the neck and presses the strings, while the right hand uses a horsehair bow to play the strings. It is tuned in fifths, commonly to g, d1, c1, g1, or a, e1, spanning a range of two octaves from g to g2. Its sound is soft, deep, and richly characteristic of its regions of popularity.

Regional Variations

Chaozhou Yehu

The Chaozhou version of the Yehu has a unique charm with its coastal characteristics. It is widely spread in the Chaoshan region and even among the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. This instrument has historically been linked with the lives of the common people, often featured in films and folk songs depicting the life and struggles of the working class. The Chaozhou Yehu is known for its versatility and is widely used in various theatrical and musical performances.

Fuzhou Yehu

The Fuzhou Yehu stands out with its side-mounted tuning pegs and a longer neck. It is prominently used in Fujian opera accompaniment, Fuzhou puppetry, Fuzhou tea house music, Zen music, and Annam puppetry.

Cultural Significance and Applications

The Yehu is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of the regions where it is popular. It is an instrument of the people, accessible to the masses, and also appreciated by the affluent. It has a special place in the hearts of the elderly as it is easy to learn but challenging to master. The Yehu is an essential part of the ensemble in various traditional Chinese music forms, operas, and theatrical performances. It also serves as a gateway instrument for beginners in Chinese music education.

Collections and Acknowledgments

The Music Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts in Beijing houses several Yehus in its Chinese Musical Instrument Museum, including one that is 67 cm long with a flat head, featured in the “Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Musical Instruments.”

Source: Baike Baidu

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