Message from China, with strings attached

Message from China, with strings attached
Chen Yimiao Erhu Berklee College of Music Massachusetts USA Beijing China

The sound of the traditional Chinese musical instrument erhu is becoming better known globally thanks to the effort of one college student.

Chen Yimiao, born in 2004, comes from a Beijing family steeped in musical tradition. Her grandfather Chen Yaoxing and father Chen Jun are both well-known erhu players.

Unsurprisingly, as a child, the now 17-year-old developed a keen interest in music, and in the erhu in particular. Now studying at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, USA, she has also taken part in various musical events at home and abroad, in addition to combining erhu with contemporary music, exposing a greater number of people to the timbre of the instrument.

“Playing erhu is part of my daily routine, an indispensable part of my life, like eating and sleeping,” says Chen Yimiao, who started practising the instrument at when she was four.

Her passion for the two-stringed, bowed musical instrument comes almost entirely from her family, she said.

“The home environment has always influenced me and helped me to keep practising. Now not only can I not live without it, but I also hope more people can enjoy it. It helps me to speak out.”

The erhu, known as a key Chinese traditional bowed instrument, dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, its acceptance and recognition lags far behind popular Western instruments such as the piano and violin. Difficulty mastering its sonorous tones and learning to play it may well be some of the reasons for this.

Playing it requires a unique dexterity of hand, Chen Yimiao said. “We mostly use the thumb, index, and middle fingers in our daily life, however, playing the erhu requires flexible pressing of strings with the ring and little fingers.”

She first performed on China Central Television with her grandfather and father when she was five, went with her father to erhu concerts across China and has performed with renowned orchestras. She has also taken the erhu to countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand and the United States.

Earlier this year (2022), she gave a speech and performed at Bowers Museum in the USA. A video of her speech and performance, which was uploaded on the video-sharing platform Bilibili, has won her strong support among young people. In it, she speaks fluent English and plays the erhu gracefully, showing her emotions through the instrument.

One viewer of the video said: “It turns out that playing Western music with an erhu is so wonderful, which really opens up a new world for me. It’s our pride.”

“The feeling of performing the erhu in various countries is never the same, because people have [various levels of] understanding of Chinese culture,” Chen said. “I see the great potential of the erhu, but I also realise that there is still a long way to go in its development.”

As a first-year student at Berklee College of Music she considers promoting the instrument as her most important goal. In addition to influencing people around her in the ways of the erhu, she is learning composition and music arrangement.

“There are so many people who want to play the piano or violin because they can replicate a lot of classical music works, and I think, to promote an instrument, beautiful and catchy melodies count. I hope to create beautiful melodies and music that reflect the timbre of the erhu.”

Previously published on