For Chinese instrumental music, I’ve showed how the conservatoire solos are merely the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of instruments are played not solo but as part of ensembles, not on the concert platform but as part of social life. Bowed strings mainly accompany vocal music—the ritual genres that I study in north China are dominated by wind and percussion ensembles (the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here, making a useful introduction).
So ironically, the four solo instruments (pipa, zheng, qin, and erhu) that dominate the popular image of “national music” are rather rare in the countryside. But even if it’s bowed fiddles (“friction chordophones”, ha) you’re after, don’t limit yourselves to the erhu. Much as I love fine renditions like this, there’s a wide range, to rank alongside all the variety of world fiddles.
One guide, mainly useful for historical sources on early fiddles (huqin, xiqin, and so on), is the 1999 book
- Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi 中国弓弦乐器史 [A history of Chinese bowed string instruments].
For illustrated introductions, see e.g. Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴, pp.236–73. For folk practice in modern times one should look to field reports on local traditions, setting forth from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (for leads, see my book Folk music of China).
On a journey south, passing the tiqin of Kunqu and Daoist groups of south Jiangsu, regional traditions along the southeast coast have several types. The nanyin of south Fujian and the ensembles of Chaozhou (areas that are nearby yet culturally very different) use distinct fiddles (both written as erxian 二弦).
The exquisite Hokkien tradition of nanyin (nanguan) of south Fujian and Taiwan uses a core chamber ensemble of pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, xiao, end-blown flute, and erxian fiddle—all regionally distinctive versions. The large repertoire of long slow sustained ballads somewhat resembles the last page of Mahler 9 elevated into a whole genre. The pipa and xiao are focal to the group, but the erxian is also amazing, demanding extraordinary bow control, full of inflection. For an introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.
Guangdong province has several other fiddle types, such as the yehu, and the Cantonese gaohu.
If strings are better known in south China, note that wind and percussion ensembles are just as common there. But northern fiddles are also varied, such as the banhu, huhu (some played with metal rings on the left finger, as in the photos below) and sihu, the Beijing-opera fiddle jinghu, and zhuihu and ruyigou in Henan and Shandong. What most of these fiddles have in common is a gritty timbre, quite far from the suave polished ideal of the conservatoire erhu.
An honorable mention too for bowed zithers (zhaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghur satar and ghijak, and so on.
Of course, one may end up specializing, but musicians are versatile: they pick up various instruments in order to learn how to take part in the social activity of musicking. The repertoires of such regional traditions took shape long before the modern standardizations of “national music”.
Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not at all popular is the erhu! It has commonly been added to ensembles accompanying regional vocal genres since around the 1920s, but remains subsidiary. As always, we should rejoice in regional diversity.