China's violin-makers

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Huadong violin factory in Donggaocun, China. (Image: The World)

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Story by Mary Kay Magistad, PRI's "The World"

About 20 years ago, the town of Donggaocun, near Beijing, began making violins for export. According to Zhang Qiu Yan, the town’s economic management director, when some state-owned instrument enterprises went bankrupt, it opened up opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Donggaocun.

Zhang admits that the initial quality of the violins made there was marginal. But, she says, it has improved quickly and now the town of Donggaocun alone -- population 30,000 -- provides one-third of the world’s new violins. That’s about 300,000 a year.

There are a couple dozen violin factories in Donggaocun, but one, Huadong, makes most of the town'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 and 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 the Huadong factory earns perhaps $800 a month, a good middle-class salary here, especially since many of these violin-makers are former farmers.

"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," said Huadong’s General Secretary, Geng Zhan Hua.

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. That system works well for low-to-mid-quality violins, and China’s violin industry now dominates the market in that range.

But even at the upper end 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. He’s doing it through a program he runs at the Chinese Conservatory of Music.

"We have eleven years for education, very long. And after that I think they will become very good violin-makers," Zheng asserts. "In high school we have three or four years for preparing; in university we have four years. After that, we have the Master, three years course."

Zheng says the new generation of violin-makers not only have the necessary skills, they also have more knowledge of the science behind violin-making -- the material that goes into the instrument and the physical aspects of playing the instrument. The students are no longer learning the traditional way, from one master. Now, he says, there’s a wealth of information and many technical advances to draw from.

Zheng himself has been playing violin since he was 5, except for the years, during the Cultural Revolution, when his family was punished for being bourgeois, because his father had owned a factory.

"So everything was taken away, even my violin was taken away. No more violins. So everything stopped and I went to the countryside work like a peasant," he recalls.

Which was a bit ironic since Mao Zedong used to call the violin a revolutionary instrument, one that was used to play the eight revolutionary operas; the only ones allowed to be performed during the Cultural Revolution. Many kids learned to play the violin to avoid being sent to work in the countryside, as Zheng was.

Eventually, Zheng 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.

At the high school attached to the Chinese Conservatory of Music, a select group of teenagers are learning to do just that. It is the only high school in China that teaches the fundamentals of violin-making, so the students have a good base of knowledge when they move on to study at the Conservatory under Zheng Quan.

In school, the students saw and shave and sculpt spruce for the front of the violin; 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 in black jeans and a pop star haircut, Chen Kemeng, is now starting his fourth.

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

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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