Erhus are made from a variety of wood types, red sandalwood being the most prized. The erhus that are now being mass produced in factories with impressive quality seem to be of African ebony, but redwoods are still considered to produce the best sound. Unfortunately, the cheapest redwood erhu I could find on Jinling Lu was at the shop of the dishonest erhu dealer (see Purchasing an Erhu – Part IV). I was conflicted because I took a liking to the ruddy-colored erhu that only cost 350 Yuan (50 USD) after haggling through an interpreter, but didn’t trust the dealer who was eager to sell it as redwood. Other shop owners told me it had to be fake for such a low price. Hearing conflicting opinions was getting tiresome. I asked an old man visiting the shop to play on three differently priced erhus of what looked like the same wood to me, and I could hardly hear a difference. In half Chinese and half English, the dealer’s crony explained to me that there are several different quality woods erhus are made from and pulled out a box of these wood samples from behind the counter. It reminded me of the scene from Three Cups of Tea in which a lumber seller shows Mortensen chunks of Pakistani and English wood that not only have innate discrepancies, but also have but been cut differently to give preference to the English lumber.
The salesmen compared the timbre of a stick of wood and the instrument to show me that the erhu I had chosen was in fact made from peach wood, the cheapest of the redwoods. Both the translation of the word peach and the matching of the stick’s wood to the instrument’s were dubious. He also claimed that the lighter the scales of the snakeskin are, the better quality the sound will be. This could be true if the color indicates the part of the snake used to cover the soundbox. The salesman then attempted to convince me to buy a more expensive erhu, while the dealer was ready to accept cash for the one I had chosen. While pretending to play on opposite sides, they pressured me into making a fast decision. My reaction, instead, was to promptly get out of there and come back the next day with someone who actually knew about Chinese instruments. “Mingtian!” I yelled, “tomorrow,” after they thought an erhu deal was imminent. I later realized that if I had purchased that erhu, I wouldn’t have been able to export it with me to the States.