Title: The Hugo Masters: An Anthology of Chinese Classical Music v.1 Bowed Strings--Lament of Zhaojun, performers not listed. Label: Hugo Productions. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 13042-2. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The gaohu is a bowed spike-lute chordophone of the Han Chinese. It is smaller and higher pitched than the erhu, and its name reflects this--‘gao’ means ‘high’ and ‘hu’ originally meant ‘barbarian,’ but now ‘fiddle’. It was introduced to Southern China from Shanghai in the 1920s and featured prominently in the Cantonese instrumental ensemble. One or a few gaohu are found in modern Chinese orchestras where they are used as a high register erhu. A carved animal head (perhaps a horse, a serpent, or a dragon) adorns the headstock that apparently carries no symbolic meaning.


The long hardwood neck of the gaohu runs through its constructed tubular wooden resonating chamber the front of which is covered by a snakeskin soundboard (affixed with glue). The backside of the resonator is open but adorned with a carved wooden screen. Near the top end of the neck are two friction tuning pegs, which are inserted through the backside of the neck. One end of each synthetic string is attached to and wrapped around a tuning peg while the other end terminates in a loop that is looped over the stub of the neck that protrudes from the bottom of the resonator. The top end of the vibrating segment of the strings is articulated with an adjustable sliding nut (called qianjin) of nylon cord; the lower end of the vibrating segment is where the strings pass over a small wooden bridge on the soundboard. The bow is made of bamboo, its black hair held taut by the instrumentalist. The bow hair passes between the two playing strings.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the gaohu roughly vertically with the resonator resting between the thighs so that the sound table is facing to the right. The end of the bow is held in the player’s right hand; the thumb of the left hand is hooked around the back of the neck leaving the other four fingers to stop the strings. The strings are free stopped, i.e., they are not pressed against the neck (and the instrument has no finger board). The two strings are tuned to the interval of a fifth, the thicker string, which is closest to the performer, to G4 or A4, and the thinner one to D5 or E5; the instrument has a range of nearly three octaves. When bowing, the performer applies inside pressure to sound the closest string and outward pressure to sound the other string. There are three or four left hand positions used by performers playing the modern repertoire, and all sorts of subtle melodic effects such as glissandos, appoggiaturas, and vibrato can be produced in part due to the free stopping of the strings.


The gaohu was developed in the 1920's in or around Shanghai as a high range version of the erhu, which has a history dating back at least to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE) when Mongolians ruled China.

Bibliographic Citations

Huang, Jinpei. 2002. "Ensembles: Guangdong Yinyue." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 217-221.

Thrasher, Alan R. 2000. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Formation: Han

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.313 chordophone--spike tube lute: the handle/neck passes diametrically through the walls of a tube

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - spike

Resonator design, chordophone: tube with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to sliding nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by direct free stopping)


30.1 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - reptile skin
string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin