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A French erhu player reaching out to China

Li Jianhua


Growing up in the southern French city of Grenoble, Eliott Tordo could not have known his life would be changed by a Chinese instrument - the erhu.

And even when he first heard the instrument's distinctive tones, he did not know where it was from.

Tordo first experienced its soulful and haunting sounds back in 2016 in a film's theme song – and he was instantly in love.

"I went to the erhu from a pure liking of the sound," Tordo says. "Like many people in the Western world, when I heard the sound, the next thing I did was to research what is producing this song – but I did not know it was from China at first."

Believing that his professional background as a music producer may help him, Tordo came up with what he admitted was a "crazy" idea: learning how to play the ehru in a country where it was nearly impossible to find any teachers.

And so, over the course of a few years, Tordo basically taught himself how to play the instrument. His learning experience has made him an influencer on YouTube – and one of the most renowned European erhu players, with live performances around China.

What is the erhu?

The erhu, with a history dating back nearly 2,000 years, is a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument, sometimes known in the West as the Chinese violin.

Strong in expressing both melancholy and uplifting sentiment, the erhu is widely used as a solo instrument or in small ensembles and large orchestras. As a versatile instrument, the erhu is now used in both traditional and contemporary music arrangements, including jazz, pop and even rock.

The first Chinese character of the instrument, "er," is believed to be based on the fact that it has two strings. The second character "hu" suggests that it was an instrument of the nomadic Hu peoples – who used to inhabit the north and west of China.

The erhu has a maximum range of three and a half octaves – fairly comparable to Western stringed instruments like the guitar, violin and cello, which all have ranges around four octaves.

What makes the erhu distinctive are its unusual features compared with Western instruments. There is no fingerboard, and although the two strings are close together, the ehru artist only plays on one string at a time. The sound, created by bowing, reverberates through a relatively small soundbox, situated at the base of the ehru and traditionally covered in python skin.

The erhu has been played for around 2,000 years
The erhu has been played for around 2,000 years

The erhu has been played for around 2,000 years

A journey started in music

Tordo's learning experience from the beginning has not been as smooth as expected, largely due to language barriers and a lack of professional erhu teachers in the southern French city of Grenoble. 

"For the erhu – especially [eight] years ago when I started – you got nothing, like nothing at all," Tordo reminisces. "There were only Chinese teachers, and they speak English, but they cannot explain the concepts properly without using Chinese because it’s too interlinked with the culture itself."

What Tordo did was to observe and copy the gestures of an erhu artist in videos. Apart from that, he also went to all the forums he could find to pick up how to play the instrument properly - which he says was like an "investigation."

Tordo's profession as a keyboard player and music composer to a large extent helped him get the hang of it. Plus, his unique learning experience makes his style "more epic and more grand."

Tordo shares his skills with CGTN's Li Jianhua /CGTN Europe
Tordo shares his skills with CGTN's Li Jianhua /CGTN Europe

Tordo shares his skills with CGTN's Li Jianhua /CGTN Europe

Sharing and teaching

As soon as he started to play the instrument, Tordo began to share his learning experience of the erhu playing on YouTube. 

However, it was not until 2020 that Tordo's YouTube videos began to take off, and his posts have reached hundreds of millions of views so far.

"Truly breathtaking! Thank you for always treating us to the most wonderful experiences," comments one of Tordo's YouTube followers. 

Such feedback enthuses Tordo, who says he realizes that he has been doing something useful for others whenever he reads those inspiring comments from his followers on social media.

"It's always nice to share something that you find amazing ... It's a big part of the enjoyment obviously," he says.

For Tordo, the erhu changed his life completely - how he works, how he travels, how he composes and how he understands music.

Now he has been teaching people to play the instrument, with students from various countries including France, the UK, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

"With most of my students, it's like a conversation. It's like we are both studying the instrument," he says. "It is a complementary way of understanding the instrument."

Tordo believes that a bridge builder is an accurate metaphor to describe how he has contributed to the popularity of the erhu in France and the music dialogue between East and West.

"[Eight] years ago when you typed 'erhu' on the Western internet, you would not find much," he recalls. "Now I see all those people that enjoy the sound and love the sound of China. Of all the students that have asked to learn the instrument, I think something has been created."

Tordo''s style is 'epic'
Tordo''s style is 'epic'

Tordo''s style is 'epic'

To China and beyond

Ever since he started to learn to play the erhu, Tordo had been planning his future China trip. As he got the hang of the Chinese instrument and became confident enough to perform on stage, he knew his time had come. 

Seven years in the making, Tordo's dream of performing live across China materialized in November 2023, which brought him to 12 major Chinese cities within a month. 

"I remember I told myself that the first time I visit China will be to go on tours of the country," he smiles. "It was this crazy idea I had, and it finally happened. And the tour was very exhausting physically, very hard. It was a big challenge also to be able to play at that level, but it was a tremendously great experience."

It was the first time Tordo could explore the country. More importantly, it gave him the first opportunity to communicate face-to-face with a Chinese erhu master.

"I met a true Chinese master of the erhu," he says. "I think he played in front of me for maybe five or six minutes – I learned more in five or six minutes than I'd learned for the past six years. It was mind-blowing. Just to see the little things he does, the level of strength, the level of intensity. It was something else."

A French erhu player reaching out to China

What he has learned in China is how to play more with "style", which explains how Chinese erhu masters command their energy when playing the erhu.  

"It's like you and the erhu become one," he reflects. "This is the biggest thing that I learned by watching a Chinese master, and the way they use the instrument is that you have to be able to command the intensity. Basically, you have to be able to switch from very quiet, very gentle to mad intensity in a matter of seconds."

For the future, Tordo has been working on an album of original songs tailored for the erhu to promote what he loves. 

"It's very natural," he says. "It's a by-product of what I do – the promotion of Chinese culture, just because I like it. I like to share it."

A French erhu player reaching out to China
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