Luthiers set free

The closure of China’s state-owned violin factories has created the ideal environment for independent makers to flourish

15 Aug.1999,《The Strad》 By Ching Lam

\Eight years after my first work on violin making in China, I have seen my predictions come true : the new privately owned violin-making factories and workshops which emerged after the closure of the state-owned factories have come into bloom.In order to investigate this new era of violin making I undertook another trip in January 1999,as a follow-up to my original research in December1991(see THE STRAD,Oct l995),

My trip this time starts from Hong Kong and Shenzhen,then to Guangzhou,Shanghai,Beijing and the surrounding areas,to Guangzhou,Shanghai,Beijing and the surrounding areas,Manchuria and the northern provinces,In all these places I am overwhelmed by the number of makers and factories that have sprung up since my last visit In each area I find both luthiers working individually and Workshops or factories,some well organised,others quite primitive,Some of the factories employ more than a hundred people, producing container-loads of instruments which are exported to North America and Europe.

Most of the owners of the workshops are makers who were previously employed in the state-owned factories,which had almost all closed by 1992. As the old state-owned workshops employed something like 50 people each, this created an explosion of new workshops and factories, with the makers starting up their own businesses. Consequently, there is now a greater diversity in the type of instrument being produced, as some makers concentrate on creating better-quality instruments while others produce a greater volume.

Most of the present active makers belong to the third generation in the short history of lutherie in China.This generation of the 40s and 50s is divided generally into two groups: the ones who work in China, achieving considerable success in making new instruments,and those who have settled in foreign countries,branching out in the fields of restoration and dealing Some makers are beginning to enjoy a world-wide reputation having won international competitions in Europe and US. Such Makers are dedicated to the art of violin making, far removed from the old notions of Chinese mass production.

Some of the best of the third generation makers are Quan Zheng, Hai-De Lin, Shu-Kun Cao, Jian-Min Li and Ming-Jiang Zhu. Between them they have won more than 20prizes in international competitions in the past ten years.

Ming-Jiang Zhu studied with Gou-Hui Liang at the Guangdong Violin Making School, which was set up by the town’s ministry of light industries, from 1975 to 1979. He then worked in the Institute of Musical Instruments in Guangzhou and has won several prizes for his violins and violas in the Violin Society America International Violin Making Competitions, including five certificates of merit in workmanship and sound quality, a gold medal in 1994 and a silver medal in 1996. In 1991 Zhu left the Institute of Musical Instruments and decided to work independently, “I made the right decision to concentrate on the art of high-quality violin making,” he say, “even though it was a huge

struggle in the beginning, Also, I could never have succeeded without the help of friends in America, who had left China earlier and were able to send me information.” He has never had the opportunity to travel abroad, so he has not been able to be influenced directly by makers in other countries, but besides being very hard workmanship is noted for its precision, and be uses European wood exclusively, He works alone using traditional methods, and makers around 15 instruments a year.

A maker who has set up workshops producing a small number of higher-quality factory instruments (around 20 a month) is Zhen-Hua Ling, Ling founded one of the first private violin-making factories in China in the mid-1980s. After ten years of mass production he decided to concentrate on good-quality instruments. He bought new premise outside Shanghai1 and now has a workshop with about ten employees. They work in in excellent conditions, with lots of light and a quiet atmosphere, which is very untypical of Chinese workshops. Ling, too, uses imported wood. Mainly following the methods described in Simone E Sac-coni’s. The Secrets of Stradivari he personally controls the finish of each instrument, thereby ensuring its quality.

Shang-Chi Guan is one of three joint owners of a factory employing 115 workers, the other owners being Shu-Kun Cao and Chi-Ming Shen. They stared in November 1991 with 20people, and their range of products extends from student models to master instruments, including all instruments of the violin family, bows and cases. The factory has been expanded very quickly, using the most modern management techniques, and it produces approximately 800 instruments a month. As the owners are themselves prize-winning makers they control the quality of the output very strictly. In this way the factory works very efficiently and has overcome the problems the owners encountered previously with unreliable suppliers.

The working conditions here too are much better than in many other factories, being both clean and tidy. The staff work in a purpose-built building, with living quarters for them and their families and a canteen where they eat all their meals (this is very common in China). The factory is also equipped with special rooms without natural light for some parts of the process of wood cutting and shaping, which helps them to judge the thickness of the wood better.

Due to the competition between individual makers and factories in China, the quality of the instruments that are produced is improving all the time. The standard of work on master instruments, which mostly follow a Stradivari model, has already reached the highest levels. The makers use oil varnish exclusively, experimenting with new mixtures, combining old Chinese varnishes with European mixtures and achieving very good results. In fact my father, the violin maker Anton Sic, claims that the old Italian varnish still exists in China. Some have also introduced new types of tools, which originally came from traditional Chinese handicrafts.

The quality of the instruments produced by the larger workshops and factories is also now well controlled. They are completely handmade, following a production-line process, with high-quality wood, good oil varnish and excellent workmanship. Chinese makers have also now found a method to stain the wood, which is the new fashion. As a result, student instruments made in China are now very serious competition for the instruments from renowned factories in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many Westerners criticize Chinese instruments for being too loud and lacking good sound quality. This is probably due to cultural differences. European literature refers to a good sound in terms of sonority, meaning a rich, full, soprano voice with a light and bright character. Chinese makers also aim to produce the finest sound possible, but this may not necessarily be in the same terms as the European makers. They may have a different idea of sonority. For example, a soprano in Chinese opera produces the sound from the throat, without using the diaphragm, which sounds completely different to a European soprano. The Chinese concept of a good flute sound is also completely different, as they are more accustomed to the sound of a bamboo flute than a modern Western flute.

It is important that an instrument is well constructed, but here again cultural differences create problems for Chinese luthiers. A maker can create a copy of an instrument from a picture, without having any real understanding of the arts or of Western musical cultures. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it is only during this century that China has any close cultural contact with the West.

Like all countries, China has minority of opportunists who are simply interested in making money without having any idea of serious instrument making. Some unscrupulous people use treated wood which is not properly dried in order to speed up the process, and they sell their instruments, which are liable to crack, to unsuspecting clients. There also continues to be a category of machine-made instruments that are churned out at incredibly cheap prices but which are of very poor quality, badly set-up and impossible to tune; they are about as worthless as a disposable plastic cup. I hope that in the future this type of instrument will disappear, as it continues to give a bad name to Chinese instruments to the detriment of the more serious makers. For this reason many of the better-quality instruments that are exported do not carry a made in China’ label.

China has many advantages with regard to its instrument making, including easy access to raw materials, a skilled workforce and a positive mentality towards the work. It remains difficult for individual makers to have closer contacts both within China and beyond, because of difficulties in traveling, ignorance of foreign languages and so on. But it is only a question of time before these problems can be overcome and Chinese makers will be able to compete on equal terms with West makers.

Western makers may feel apprehensive about the prospect of competition from China. The working costs are still much lower in China, with lower labour costs and cheap raw materials, and the country seems to be helping to answer a need for good but inexpensive instrument, as music education is opened up to a much wider public internationally.

I hope in the future that there will be more contact between luthiers internationally, which will bring together the available talent, and that there will be fewer discrepancies between East and West. Adjusting to a new situation always requires some adaptation and tolerance on all sides. But healthy competition normally leads to a better-quality product, and I believe that China has the potential to be a big player in supplying the demand for cheap but well-made stringed instruments in the next century.