Zhu turns his craft into an art

Chinese violin maker’s instruments rank among the world’s best

11 Jun.2001,《CHINA DAILY 》 By Hu XiaoDon


GUANZHOU: The art of violin making is often forgotten or overlooked-yet it is indispensable to the expression and preservation of great works of music.

For centuries, the name “Stradivarius” from Italy has been almost synonymous with the finest violins, and they are among the most valued and sought after artistic creations in the world. Alongside this great history, China has only a decades-old tradition of violin making.

However, Zhu Ming-Jing, a distinguished violin maker from South China’s Guangzhou, has been changing the almost barren landscape of violin making in China.

To date, Zhu is among the biggest winners of the biennial International Violin Making Competition help by the Violin Society of America. His instruments have consistently earned praise from the world’s leading violin experts for their beauty, craftsmanship and tone. Last December, Zhu added another silver medal to the 11 medals he has claimed since 1986. “Zhu is in the top 5per cent,” aid Edward C. Campbell, an award-winning violin maker in the United States.

When asked why his instruments were making waves in a world dominated by Italian violins, Zhu said: “In my attempt to reach perfection, I treat each violin as a work of art.”

Zhu’s artistic integrity is more than merely lip service.

Fewer than 10 violins come out of Zhu’s workshop every year, and sometimes a single violin takes him more than a year to complete.

The various tools he uses reflect the time and care Zhu has devoted to the instrument.

In the centre of his workshop stands a special cabinet with dozens of drawers. Each drawer contains different types of tools for his craft. Zhu uses more than 200 tools for the whole process.

The more delicate a violin is, the more specific the need for tools, Zhu said. Specialized knives, planes, chisels and gouges are always kept razor sharp.

“The materials chosen are the most important element in determining the quality of a violin,” Zhu said, since it affects both the appearance and the tone of the instrument.

The primary woods used in violin making are spruce and maple, usually selected from old trees growing on northern slopes at high altitudes in Europe and cut down in the cold, dormant, winter months.

Spruce is chosen for the front, or sound board. It is light in weight, but strong and flexible.

Maple is used for the back. The “flame” or “curl” figure is the most prominent feature of maple.

Zhu finds it hard to explain how to choose quality materials. He said he chooses with an intuition which comes from more than 20 years of experience. “The maple, for instance, when split, looks something like corrugated metal; when cut, as in a finished instrument, it produces an interesting optical effect of alternating light and dark flames,” he said.

Good wood needs to be stored for a long time before it is used.

Ideally, the front board needs five years and the back and sideboards at least eight. Zhu’s workshop maintains a steady humidity and temperature and a light in the closet is always on to dry the different violin parts. On sunny days, the balcony is filled with new parts. Air darkens the wood by oxidation, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays tan the wood, so that the visual depth and figure become more pronounced.

Once materials are properly prepared, they have to be delicately carved. The meticulous carving in violin making is looked upon with a certain amount of awe, as all parts are cut and carved by hand. The next step is the varnishing. Varnishing itself may account for up to 30 per cent of quality of the instrument, said Zhu. He said varnishing was the most elusive element, focusing on colour quality, transparency, sound and colour fastness all at the same time. It has to be carried out with the greatest care.

Before varnishing, a “ground” coating will be applied to the wood’s surface. This not only enhances the wood’s beauty by further accentuating its depth and transparency, but also penetrates and strengthens the wood. Although well-experienced in violin making, Zhu is still in search of the best recipe for his varnish. He has tried many different ingredients, keeping data on the effects and feedback from users.

More than 40 layers of lacquer must be applied to the surface of the violin, Every coat of lacquer weds with the previous coat, and every coat is applied as thinly as possible, until “the co lour turns a mellow golden red like crystallized amber. ”Five varnishing gives a brilliant appearance and sound to the finished violin. When played, the smallest good-quality violin is capable of filling the furthest corner of a large concert hall with sound and overtones, conveying fiery emotion or subtle nuances to every listener.

Violinist, Lu Chun-he from the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, who owns one of Zhu’s creations, said “his instruments have that rare pitch that is both haunting and inspiring at the same time.”

Devotion and inspiration are indeed essential, but strict and formal education is the first factor in becoming a skilled violin making,

Zhu recalls how he turned from an apprentice to a professional violin maker.

In 1975, he was chosen to study at the Guangzhou Musical Instruments School under the instruction of Liang Guohui, the finest violin maker in China at that time. Two years later he was working for the Guangzhou Musical Instrument Research Institute, where scientific research and hand-on practice in instrument making prepared him for his craft. In 1991, Zhu opened his own workshop and embarked on a professional violin making career.

Compared with his former classmates and colleagues, Zhu’s choice to become a violin maker could seem less ambitious. Some of his former colleagues have gone abroad to make big money from their violin making skills and some now produce assemble-line violins.

But Zhu clung to his ideal to make the craft an art, making the most of every possibility and putting the utmost care into each step of the creation.

With the advent of Zhu in the violin-making world, China can now justly claim that it is producing a contemporary equivalent of the famed Stradivarius.