A blind Beijing beggar and his erhu
The erhu — compact, cheap and easy to use to make noises that sound like music — is a favorite of itinerant Chinese beggars and buskers.
I wanted to speak to an erhu-playing beggar in Beijing about his instrument so I headed for the Silk Market, on the east end of Chang An Boulevard in Beijing. Just near the Silk Market’s front door is an underground passage that leads to the other side of the boulevard’s 12 lanes of car traffic.
I went down the stairs and saw a blind guy sitting about ten strides away from the bottom of the stairs and playing an erhu. I only realized he was blind when I got close to him. I wasn’t sure what kind of instrument it was, as the erhu, gaohu, zhonghu, banhu, zhuihu and jinghu all look similar. Only when I was right in front of the blind guy was I sure it was an erhu.
I asked the blind guy if he was a musician, and if that was his erhu. He said “Yes.”
I wasn’t sure if he was not playing, or if he was just taking a break, so I asked him: “Are you taking a break?”
“Yes, I am taking a break.”
“When are you going to play again, because I’d like to listen.”
“I can start now.”
He started feeling for his erhu to start playing, and asked me, “What do you do?”
I was supposed to be the interviewer, but I was being interviewed first.
I said, “I’m a musician”
“What do you play?”
I asked him where he was from, and he told me Shandong Province. He smiled and then started to play his erhu. I put a few kuai in his begging bowl. Then I took two photos.
A few seconds later, he stopped playing and started feeling around for his little stool and his stuff, trying to pack everything up. Suddenly, I heard some repetitive hand slapping: clap-clap-clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap-clap-clap.
I saw a man, a country looking guy, pretty big, running towards the blind guy. He grabbed him and they started running away from the tunnel before disappearing. I was shocked and held the camera while everyone in the tunnel looked at me. I carried on walking towards the end of the tunnel where the blind erhu player and the big guy disappeared.
I went up the stairs on the right side and saw the two of them. I asked them what happened. The big guy said, “Oh, there were chengguan” and I said, “Oh?” He said sometimes they will take the erhu or money or beat the blind guy.
I asked him where he got the instrument. The big guy said, “From one of these local street markets. I noticed the pitch of this erhu was higher than that of a regular erhu.” He added, “It’s a crappy one, cost just ten kuai.”
I asked the blind guy: “Where did you learn to play the erhu?”
“I taught myself.”
The big guy added “He listened to the radio and learned it himself.”
I said “thank you and have a good day, I hope you make more money today.” Then they started walking back into the tunnel, while I headed the other way, desperate for some sunshine.
I never saw any chengguan. Maybe there weren’t any chengguan coming. Maybe the big guy was a kind of criminal who managed the blind guy like a pimp, and he was scared of me taking photos.
A few days later, I went back to the same area to look for the blind beggar. I wanted to ask some more questions about his instrument. He was nowhere to be found.
Update: A reader pointed out a video of a similar looking blind busker playing the erhu on Tudou.
This post belongs to Music