Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Chinese Cellos
In China, there have been many attempts at creating variations on the cello (and bass) to fill out the string section of traditional Chinese Orchestras. The èrhú (二胡), an ancient instrument that likely originated in Central Asia nearly a millenea ago, probably has the quintessential “Chinese sound” that Westerners imagine when they think of Chinese music though I’m sure a close tie would be the sound of the gǔzhēng (古箏).
The instrument in the photo to the left is a géhú (革胡). As Brandon Voo states:
The Gehu comes in two sizes, the Da-Gehu (large) and the Diyin Gehu (bass). In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra. The four strings of both sizes are tuned exactly like the cello and double bass and are attached to a machine head with gears.
The wikipedia article for the géhú states that it was “developed in the 20th century by the Chinese musician Yang Yusen (杨雨森, 1926-1980)” which I’ll have to confirm once I do some research but given the time frame referenced by Brandon Voo in his article regarding the changes undergoing Chinese Orchestras during the 1950s, Yang Yusen’s dates would fit in fine.
Here’s what the géhú sounds like:
However, there was a bass version of the èrhú created even earlier in the 1930s. In fact a whole family of èrhú type instruments. These dīhú (低胡) were modeled after the èrhú with the same basic shape and the bow played between the two strings. The photo of the dadīhú (大低胡) below shows the relative size of the cello ranged instrument in comparison to the smaller and higher pitched èrhú.
Though I remember reading in a Strad magazine many years ago about a Chinese String Quartet using all the members of the dīhú family, these instruments seem to have fallen out of use, and likely were first replaced by cello hybrid instruments like the géhú above as well as some other interesting cello variants. Eventually it seems like many traditional Chinese Orchestras replaced the variants and hybrids with Western Cellos and Double Basses though apparently in Hong Kong and Taiwan the Chinese instruments are still favored.
While I don’t generally use the Cello Chat forum as a good starting point for anything dealing with the cello (hah), there had been some conversations about these Chinese instruments (see links below) that have been fruitful and led me on a chase to find other variants of the cello in Chinese Orchestras that I had not heard of (other than the géhú and dadīhú mentioned above).
One of these is the lāruǎn (拉阮) which is a cello modeled after the Chinese ruǎn (阮). In this video of Hua Yan Jun‘s (華彥鈞) “Reflections of the Moon on the Water of Erquan” (二泉映月) you can see the lāruǎn in action as part of the traditional Chinese Orchestra at roughly minutes 1:25; 3:00; and 4:09. The piece is arranged by Wang Zu Jie (王宇婕) and the èrhú soloist is Song Fei (宋飞). The China Central Chinese Orchestra is conducted by Chen Xie Yang (陈燮阳).
But more interesting yet is the fact that so many different models have been attempted by the Chinese–the variety is just astounding and almost reminds me of what it might have been like in Europe during the time of the prominence of the viols and before the eventual dominance of the violin family in Western history.
Here is a thread I started at the Cello Chat forum a couple years ago after discovering a post in a forum at the (now defunct website) 21st Century Chinese Orchestra Development Group–the post I’m quoting in full below:
Here are some attempts over the years at designing a chinese cello:
These 3 are variations on the erhu. The square gehu has a python skin hidden inside the body, just under the bridge. The dahu is just a bigger erhu.
Paqin = Cello with Pipa shape
Laruan= Cello with ruan shape
Dihu = cello with … cherry shape?
大汉琴 (2nd from right) = cello with square shoulder. It doesn’t look remotely chinese at all. why bother.
龙吟琴 (rightmost) = cello with flower pot shape
In a way, I find it kinda sad that, on the mainland at least, the Chinese Traditional Orchestras now use Western Cellos and Double Basses. But then again, these orchestras are already modeled after Western Orchestras with having the long tradition of accretion of parts/instruments/acoustic development that Western Orchestras have so different concessions needed to be made with respects to having a full bass sound for these ensembles.
As for the string playing style in Chinese music, there’s an obvious difference between Western strings and Chinese húqín (胡琴). But probably the best way to show that other than to listen to a humongous number of èrhú soloist videos (for which there is no lack on youtube) is to hear a cellist playing what was originally a sonata for piano and géhú on the cello. This is a tune called “Traveling Xiang Ji Monastery” (過香積寺) composed and performed by Cheung Man Chun (張文進) with Lam Kai Yu (林啟宇) on piano:
For some more info and videos of Chinese stringed instruments, please visit BennyT85Erhu‘s HuQin page! Otherwise, more info can be found on the wikipedia links in the text above or at the other resources I’ve linked below.
- for those following the Erhu/Chinese Cello discussions at Cello Chat
Not exactly a lost cello, but… at Cello Chat
Chinese cellos with a twist – REALLY Chinese cellos… at Cello Chat
- Benny85erhu’s HuQin page
- Brandon Voo’s article, The Chinese Version of the Cello and Double Bass and Confessions of a Chinese Orchestral Cellist, at the Internet Cello Society website
- past Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello posts