Violin-maker takes a bow

14 Dec.1994 ,《Hong Kong Eastern Express》 By Ye Chun Photos by Mei Ge

Angelica Cheung meets a man from the Chinese countryside whose reputation has spread worldwide

A carpenter's son from the Guangzhou countryside is an unlikely winner of an international violin-making competition.

Zhu Ming-Jiang, 38, who grew up without seeing a violin, defeated 300 competitors from across the world to win the gold medal awarded by the Violin Society of America.

The competition, help by the society every two years, was judged by 18well-known violinists and violin-makers from the United States and workmanship of Zhu's violins suggested to admirers that he was a student of Italian masters. Yet Zhu, who began making instruments to escape farming during the Cultural Revolution, had never set foot outside China.

Overnight, Zhu found himself the centre of attention, and won enough orders from collectors, violinists, teachers and students to keep him busy for two years. But he remains level-headed despite worldwide acclaim. Even the lure of the Unites States-Zhu was asked to apply for a Green Card leaves him unmoved.

“I want to be a professional violin-maker, but not a violin businessman,” he says. “Before going to the US, I thought the country was a happy land. After staying there for a while, I changed my view.

“The living standard is too high, people worry about money all the time. You are forced to make as many violins as possible for a living and it is difficult to guarantee quantity and quality at the same time.

“In China, I don't have so much pressure. Selling one violin is enough for me and my family to live on. So I don't worry about money and can concentrate on the quality.”

The young Zhu had no knowledge of musk, let alone the violin which was alien to many Chinese. Learning furniture-making from his father appears to be the only link to Zhu's later career.

He liked drawing but did not have the chance to go to art school after graduating from middle school during the Cultural Revolution. Forced to farm in the countryside. Zhu harbored dreams of becoming a painter until he discovered an escape.

In 1976, Guangzhou Musical Instrument School recruited rural students and Zhu was enrolled after being tested on his hearing memorizing and observation abilities.

“Actually, I don't have a clue what I was going to learn at that time and I don't have any interest in music or violins. But I wanted desperately to get out of the countryside. This was my only chance.” Zhu says.

“Gradually, after learning the history and artistic value of violins, I realized that it was a profound art and developed interest in it. I decided to make violin-making a life-long career and gave up drawing.”

He studied hard, staying at school during holidays. He was a top student and was given work at Guangzhou Musical Instruments Research Institute.

He wanted to learn to play the violin but realizing he was too old, turned to reading about, and listening to Western music while trying to cover what violins the famous violinists used and what made them special. At concerts he would try to meet performers and examine their violins.

Under the instruction of Liang Guo-Hui, China's finest violin-maker Zhu's skills rapidly improved and by 1986, he began to win international awards. However, he never had the chance to go abroad because his superior party cadres claimed the credit and the opportunity to travel abroad to collect the prizes.

“I didn't really mind this.” Zhu says. “There were more problems with the system. The institute had a lot of money but only a small amount was used for making violins.

“When I asked for an air-conditioner to keep the wood dry, the cadres rejected me because they had not had one. They never cared for my work.”

Feeling there was no hope of gaining support from his readers, Zhu began to secretly make violins in his home during his spare time in 1985, He borrowed HK$400 from a friend to buy wood and made his first violin, which he sold to a violin teacher for HK$500.

In 1991 he left his job and set up the Zhu Ming-Jiang Workshop making and selling his own brand, Zhu Ming-Jiang violins. He has now made more than 100 and has customers of many different nationalities.

Despite all the interest in his work, Zhu remains wary of the demands a factory would make and is reluctant to mass-produce instruments.

He sees violin-making as an art rather than a business and feels it would be difficult to guarantee the quality of work coming off a production line.

“China has the biggest violin-making industry in the world but has made few good products. The main reasons lie in the system, which does not encourage people to work hard and make progress.

“I believe there are a lot of people in China who are working hard and achieving under difficult conditions. But they are not known because their cadres take the credit.”

Zhu says quality of workers is low and international standards are seldom aspired to.

“In most violin factories in China, workers are from the countryside and have no knowledge of music or violins. They make violins as if they are making a piece of furniture.”

Violins, like antiques, grow more valuable with age. The oldest surviving violins were made more than four centuries ago and the best instruments date from the 18th century, when two Italian masters made about 1,000 instruments.

Leading players use old violins worth several million US dollars. The best new ones only sell for a fraction of that.

Zhu's violins range from several hundred Hong Kong dollars to $10,000, Some violinists come to him with special requirements. But he says that because his violins are new, thy can only be used for orchestral playing, rather than by soloists.

Even though he has more and more orders, Zhu wants to keep his own pace, making three high quality and 10 ordinary violins a year.

His wife, a former electric factory worker, is helping him with administration, correspondence and purchasing materials, and is learning violin-making from Zhu.

They have an eight-year-old daughter who, despite her parent's wishes, has no interest in music. The family lives in a 1,000 square-foot flat that Zhu bought for US$200,000 (HK$1.54bn) several years ago. The flat is now worth US$700,000.

A comfortable life does not make Zhu less ambitious. “I hope I can occupy a place in world violin-making history,” he says.