String music performer Tsendsuren Enkhtur bridges Mongolian and Chinese repertoires

Khuuchir performance with Tsendsuren Enkhtur. Photo used with permission.

Bordering nations often share a common food or musical heritage that develops as a process of mutual influences. Mongolia, with its rich and distinctive musical traditions, is bordered by Russia in the north and China in the south, sharing a common history as a power that once dominated those two empires. One less known trace of Mongolian–Chinese cultural hybridity can be found in music, as both nations have a tradition of performing on bowed string instruments.

To understand the links but also differences in this repertoire, Global Voices interviewed Tsendsuren Enkhtur, a Mongolian musician of the string instrument called a “khuuchir.” She began her musical journey at age 12 in a family deeply rooted in music, and later studied at the State Conservatory of Mongolia. She went on to earn her master's degree at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. As an artist, Tsendsuren is dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Mongolian music, expanding the khuuchir repertoire, and supporting local craftsmanship. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Portrait of Tsendsuren Enkhtur. Photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN):  Can you describe the string instrument you play, its different names in Mongolian and Chinese, and their history?

Tsendsuren Enkhtur (TE):  The string instrument I play is called “khuuchir” (хуучир) in Mongolia, reflecting its deep roots in Mongolian culture. The instrument is closely related to a family of string instruments known as the “huqin” in Chinese. The term “huqin” (胡琴) literally translates as “the instrument of the Hu people” where “Hu” refers to a collective of nomadic tribes known historically in both Mongolia and China.

Historians believe that the huqin originated with the nomadic Hu people, who played a pivotal role in the cultural exchanges along the ancient Silk Road. This historical pathway facilitated not only trade but also the interchange of cultural and musical traditions between the East and West. As a result, instruments like the huqin spread across Asia, evolving differently in various regions.

In Mongolia, the khuuchir retained a unique form and playing style, suited to Mongolian musical traditions. It typically features a trapezoidal wooden body and a horsehair bow, mirroring Mongolia's equestrian culture. The sound it produces is inherently resonant and evocative of the vast Mongolian steppes.

In China, the huqin family includes several variations, with the “erhu” being the most renowned. The erhu consists of a cylindrical sound body, typically made of wood, with two strings and a bow interlaced between them. It is known for its expressive range and emotive sound, capable of conveying a spectrum of feelings from melancholy to joy.

Both instruments reflect the shared heritage and divergent cultural paths of the Mongolian and Chinese peoples, stemming from their common ancestry with the ancient Hu nomads. Playing the khuuchir not only connects me to Mongolia’s rich musical tradition but also to a broader, intertwined history with the diverse cultures throughout Asia.

FN: What made you decide to study in China and what is your experience of bridging one musical heritage to another one by playing traditional erhu Chinese music on a khuuchir? 

TE: My decision to study in China was significantly influenced by two accomplished khuuchir players who graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, which is now also my school. Their skill and mastery in playing the khuuchir left a profound impression on me, inspiring my journey to study the erhu in China.

Bridging the musical heritages of the khuuchir and the erhu has been a fascinating and enriching experience. Although these instruments share similarities — both being part of the huqin family and played with a bow — the khuuchir and erhu have distinct musical repertoires and playing techniques. Historically, the khuuchir was adapted to use many elements typical of the Chinese erhu since the 1990s when Mongolia began importing them from China. This adaptation made the transition to learning the erhu’s repertoire more accessible.

One of my standout experiences was performing the 5th Rhapsody by Wang Jianmin (王建民), a piece inspired by Inner Mongolian melodies. This performance was particularly special because I incorporated a unique technique reminiscent of the morin khuur, another traditional Mongolian instrument. This technique, novel to my audience in China, was highly appreciated and demonstrated how blending these musical traditions could yield exciting new sounds. My time in China has not only enhanced my skills but also provided me with valuable insights into how I can contribute to the development of the Mongolian khuuchir. Learning from a diverse erhu repertoire, experimenting with new techniques, and understanding different musical expressions have equipped me with ideas and directions for enriching Mongolia’s musical heritage upon my return.

Here is a performance of Wang's 5th Rhapsody:

FN: How did music develop in Mongolia in the 20th century and what were the main trends and influences between Mongolia and China?

TE: The 20th century was a period of significant transformation for Mongolian music, marked by the onset of professional musical education and the strong influence of Western and Soviet music traditions. Early in the century, Mongolian musicians commonly used a four-stringed khuuchir, known as the sihu in Chinese, to perform folk songs, praises, and traditional compositions. This era saw the establishment of formal musical education in Mongolia, initially independent of Chinese influences.

As the century progressed, the four-stringed khuuchir became widely used. However, the mid-20th century brought a pivotal change influenced by Soviet intervention. During this period, a Soviet music specialist, while helping to establish a national orchestra in Mongolia, advised that the four-stringed khuuchir was unsuitable for orchestral use due to tuning standards among other reasons. This led to a significant modification of the instrument, where two strings were removed, adapting the khuuchir to a two-stringed format much more akin to the Chinese erhu. The late 20th century two-stringed khuuchir, for instance, reflected a direct influence from the Chinese erhu, facilitating easier integration into diverse musical ensembles and allowing for a broader repertoire.

FN: Ulaanbaatar has a vibrant music scene. Where do you play your music and who is your audience in the city?

TE: As a solo professional khuuchir player, I perform primarily at the Grand Theatre of National Arts, Mongolia's largest national performing arts organization. My music spans two main categories: traditional Mongolian professional music and a more contemporary genre.

To date, I have released four albums. Two of these albums, Portraits and Mother Tongue, include a mix of Mongolian and global professional music, all accompanied by piano. These albums showcase the traditional capabilities of the khuuchir, blending seamlessly with classical and world music elements.

The other two albums, Born Retro Vol.1 and Vol.2 venture into more experimental territories, mixing jazz and hip-hop with the traditional sounds of the khuuchir. This fusion aims to reinterpret the traditional uses of the khuuchir, presenting it within the framework of popular music genres to reach a broader audience.

Through my performances and recordings, I strive to demonstrate the versatility and beauty of the khuuchir, not only within the realms of professional music but also in popular music settings. My audience in Ulaanbaatar is diverse, encompassing lovers of traditional Mongolian music, as well as younger generations and international listeners drawn to innovative musical fusions.

Here is a video of a joint performance showcasing the mix of musical styles:

Find a playlist of Tsendsuren Enkhtur's music below, and for more eclectic music from around the world, check out Global Voices’ Spotify account. 

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