A childhood string to his bow

28 Nov.1998,《HONG KONG Standard》 By Sherry Lee

\ZHU Ming-Jiang, 42, used to make toys from scraps of wood as a child.

But it was a hobby that led him from the hard lab our of a political reeducation camp in Guangdong province to international acclaim as one of the world’s leading violin makers.

Recently he added another certificate of merit in workmanship, which was awarded by the prestigious Violin Society of America in its 13th international competition and exhibition in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mr Zhu entered the craft after half a year’s training in a violin school, when he literally added another string to his bow. “Violin-making can be an art,” says, the winner of a dozen international craft awards.

The mainland is one of the world’s biggest exporters of violins, he says, but its instruments are notorious for their inferiority and sold by the truckload primarily because they are cheap.

“I wanted to show the world that China has good craftsmen who can turn out good violins, so my country would earn a healthy reputation in the craft,” Mr Zhu says.

Like the famous Italian violin-makers of the 17th century, Mr Zhu turned out his recent prize-winning instrument, by hand, over four arduous months. He thought the violin factory was grim, gloomy and dirty.

“I felt making violins was like working in the production line in pant,” Mr Zhu recalled.

Mr Zhu found the craft was demanding at first.

“It took me more than a month to learn how to sharpen dozens of knives. We often cut our fingers and hands while using the sharp knives,” he recalls.

After that, young Mr Zhu learned other skills, such as carpentry and then how to play and tune violins.

Under the tutelage of Liang GuoHui, the prominent mainland violin-maker, Mr Zhu rapidly improved his skills, and by 1986 he had graduated as one of the school’s best students.

Mr Zhu was chosen as one of three technicians to work in the prestigious Guangzhou Musical Instruments Research Institute, where his skills were enhanced further.

Despite that, he remained a little-known violin technician until 1986 Mr Zhu was awarded his first certificate of merit by the Violin Society of America and so began his rise to international fame.

“I was happy, not only because of the award but it was a proof that my decade-long efforts were not wasted.

I was convinced I had taken the ‘right path’,” he recalled.

In an effort to explore his talents further, Mr zhu decided to strike out on his own in 1991, when he set up a tiny workshop at his home in one of the dusty backstreets of Guangzhou.

There the craftsman organized his production processes, dividing his workshop into a carpentry room, painting area and store.

Inside the carpentry a cabinet contains dozens of tiny, thin drawers for various tools, while the store houses unfinished violins, along with displays of several award-winning instruments.

A light and dehumidifier are on all the time to protect the instruments from the fluctuations in temperature and humidity.

Mr Zhu, who insists he is not a violinist, says the quality of an instrument’s sound highlights its craftsman’s skill.

“A good violin must sound beautiful and be heard from far away…its sounds must stand out, even in a big orchestra,” he says.

Sound and workmanship determine the price of a violin, too, and the cost of an instrument can vary from a few hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr Zhu says.

The years of dedicated work finally paid off in 1994 when Mr Zhu won the gold medal from the Violin Society of America its highest accolade.

His successes attracted media attention not only in the mainland and Hong Kong; he was also featured in Time newsmagazine in April 1997.

The art of violin-making originated in Italy in the 16th century and reached its golden age in the 17th, says Mr Zhu, adding the country remains one of the most famous centers of the instrument’s production, along with Germany, France and the US.

Chinese-made instruments could be made as well as any in the West, Mr Zhu says, claiming he is now flooded with orders from musicians, dealers and collectors in the US, Europe and Asia.

One of his customers is a friend in Hong Kong, violinist Wong fu-Wing. “The hand feel on Zhu’s violins is very different to others,” Wong says, taking one of the craftsman’s instruments to his shoulder at his Quarry Bay’s home.

“It is very comfortable to hold his violin, It feels small, but in fact it is in the same size as others.

“It is like a magic,” adds the musician, who has one of Mr Zhu’s violins and is ordering another.

Wong then plays some Bach.

“It is very easy to control the sounds with his violin,” he says, mesmerized by his instrument’s tone. Mr Zhu is there too. He closes his eyes and enjoys the enchanting “voices” from his “Baby”.

As Wong plays, Mr Zhu seems a mellow man at peace with himself.