Audio Transcript:

China now makes 70% of the world's violins. And the quality at the top-end is quite good. In fact, it's making Italian violin makers nervous. In today's Global Hit, Mary Kay Magistad checks out China's violins.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Chinese entrepreneurs seem to have a knack for figuring out how to make what global consumers want. The goods may not always be of the finest quality, but they're often good enough. In recent years, Chinese entrepreneurs have applied that approach to making stringed musical instruments. And today, China produces more than 70 percent of the world's violins. The cheapest go for as little as 30 bucks and the quality is improving fast, so fast that even the Italians are starting to sweat, as the World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: In a village classroom after school little kids in red neckerchiefs furrow their brows, draw their bows, and try to make their violins sing. Well, everyone's got to start somewhere. This town near Beijing, Donggaocun started, about 20 years ago, to make violins for export. Zhang Qiu Yan is the town's economic management director.

ZHANG QIU YAN: [Translated] Twenty years ago there were some young entrepreneurs who wanted to start their own business, and back then it was when the state-run musical instrument enterprises went bankrupt. So it gave them the opportunity.

MAGISTAD: Zhang admits that the initial quality of the violins made here was marginal. But she says it has improved quickly, and now the town of Donggaocun alone, population 30,000, produces one-third of the world's new violins. That's about 300,000 a year. There are a couple dozen violin factories here in Donggaocun, but one monster, Huadong. It makes most of Donggaocun's violins, and markets them globally under the brand Huayun. In the factory's assembly room, workers take parts that were each honed by specialists, and piece them together, into new violins and cellos. Ninety percent of these instruments will be exported to the United States, Germany, South Korea even Italy, home of premium violin-making. Italy's craftsmen can't compete on price with the lower to medium quality violins, because Italian craftsmen won't work for what Chinese violin-makers will gladly take. A competent Chinese craftsman or woman in this factory earns perhaps $800 a month, a good middle-class salary here, especially since many of these violin-makers are former farmers. Huadong's General Secretary is Geng Zhan Hua.

GENG ZHAN HUA: [Translated] I think the quality and also the skills of our workers are improving fast, and I think the quality of the violins we make here will be better and better.

MAGISTAD: Geng says the factory regularly invites in master craftsmen, and holds competitions among the factory's violin-makers. She says each is trained for up to a year to become competent at making one violin part. The different parts are then assembled here at the factory. The system works well for low to medium quality violins, and China's violin industry now dominates the market in that range. But even at the upper range of the market, quality is coming up fast. Violin-making in factories like Huadong's may be mostly about technical competence, but among China's master violin-makers, it's an art. The most renowned among those masters is Zheng Quan. He studied for five years in Italy's violin-making center of Cremona, and has won international violin-making competitions. Now, in his early 60s, he has a dream, to nurture a new generation of world-class Chinese master violin-makers.

ZHENG QUAN: We have eleven years for education, very long. And after that I think they were really good violin-makers.

MAGISTAD: Eleven years of education for learning how to make a violin?

QUAN: Yes. It is a lot, yes.

MAGISTAD: Zheng Quan says he's impressed with what he's seeing so far.

QUAN: The new generation not only talented for using use the hand, but knowledge for the science, for physical acoustics, for material, for wood. So I think this is different from the tradition violin-making education.

MAGISTAD: Zheng Quan is referring to the old style of education where a student worked with a master, but the old style, of learning from the master is clearly still alive between Zheng Quan and his students. One student comes in while we're talking, to ask for help with her cello. It's sounding off. Zheng listens, takes the instrument and makes a swift adjustment to the wood, tapping lightly with a tool. Then he listens again. Much better. Zheng Quan himself has been playing violin since he was five, except for the years during the Cultural Revolution when his family was punished for being bourgeois because his father had owned a factory.

QUAN: So everything was taken away. Even my violin was taken away. And no more violin. So everything stopped, and I went to the countryside and work like a peasant.

MAGISTAD: Which was a bit ironic since Mao Zedong used to call the violin a revolutionary instrument. Many kids learned to play the violin to avoid being sent to work in the countryside as Zheng Quan was.

QUAN: But I think five years after maybe one of my friends gave me a violin so I start to play again.

MAGISTAD: And eventually, he met a master violin-maker, and set the course of his life. Now, as a professor at the Chinese Conservatory of Music, Zheng Quan says he makes sure his violin-making students also learn how to play.

QUAN: They must understand the color and the feeling of the music.

MAGISTAD: At the high school attached to the Chinese Conservatory of Music, a select group of teenagers is learning to do just that. It's the only high school in China that teaches the fundamentals of violin-making. The students saw and shave and sculpt spruce for the front of the violins, maple for the back, and sheep's gut for the strings. It takes them about a year to make their first violin. A lanky 18-year-old named Chen Kemeng, in black jeans and a pop star haircut, is now starting his fourth.

CHEN KEMENG: [Speaking Chinese]

MAGISTAD: He says he hopes in the future to be both a concert violinist and a master violin-maker. When I ask what happened to the other violins he's made, he pulls out one that he crafted, start to finish. He cradles it under his chin and draws the bow.

KEMENG: [Playing Violin]

MAGISTAD: It's a moment so poignant it stops time, a glimpse of the passion and potential of China's next generation of master violin-makers. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.

WERMAN: To see photos of the Huadong Violin-Making Workshop, come to our website, the world dot O-R-G. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. Join us again tomorrow for another spin of The World.