Made In China

by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, May 2005 Vol. 116 No. 1381 page 42

What’s so special about this label? Laurinel Owen visits Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing to investigate.

‘We are overcoming lots of prejudice because in the past China only produced $30 violins and that is what people think of. Remember when no one would buy a Japanese car? They were thought of as junk. We face the same problem.’ I’m sitting in a plane with Ni Qian, president of Eastman Strings, and it’s our first real chance to talk. We’re on route to Shanghai from Beijing, where Ni runs one of China’s largest violin making workshops. ‘But slowly the perception is changing,’ he enthuses. ‘We have worked very hard to improve. You wait and see – this show is going to give a you a sense of how big the violin business in China is.’

Filling five enormous airplane hanger exhibition halls, the Music China exhibition in Shanghai is the third largest in the world. There must be 300 violin makers displaying inside and many more outside in the parking lot, all hoping to sell to an international mix of visitors. The impact of all these instruments flooding to the West has undeniably changed the student string market over the last decade and many dealers tell me that China is the story of the century. So what’s changed since I wrote my over-view of Chinese lutherie for The Strad in August 1999?

In the area designated for European exhibitors I ran into the French luthier Pierre Barthel. ‘The level of violin making has dramatically improved,’ he says. ‘Farmers from the countryside come to the factories and show a skill of craftsmanship that leads me to believe that we professionally trained violin makers are too arrogant. I ask myself, “What do we do that is so special?” These violins look good and sound. And just wait. I think that within two years we will see bows of an international standard coming out of China.’ Further down the corridor the New York based dealer and maker, Christophe Landon, shows me the cellos coming out of his Chinese workshop. ‘The woodcarving skills of these people are as good as any in the world,’ he says. ‘In fact, I call it exquisite.’

David Morris, a partner at J. & A. Beare in London, is familiar with the scene: ‘Twenty-five years ago we knew almost nothing about China. During the first years after the Cultural Revolution only a few makers were able to leave the country. Now there is completely free movement in and out, and people like me can walk into a factory and make suggestions such as, “The root of the neck is poorly varnished.” Incredibly, a week later they have it right. Under difficult conditions, the Chinese have come a very long way.’

Carol Johnson of Johnson String Instrument in Massachusetts, who in addition to a full retail store has a rental program with 8000 instruments, tells a similar story: ‘When we first started I wouldn’t touch Chinese violins: necks were in wrong, fingerboards crooked, the wood was green. Now, several years later, they are winning gold medals at international competitions. When the world opens and travel and information is available, things change. I remember when Qian (of Eastman Strings) came to us years ago with a violin. We pointed out the problems. Three months later he came back and those things were corrected. We repeated the process several times. He is always improving and not just sitting on 100 years of tradition saying, “You can’t teach me anything because we have always done it this way.” The Chinese have changed the standard. German instruments became too expensive and are made by machines. Chinese violins are all handmade.’

And, indeed, they are entirely made by hand. At the Eastman workshop, which makes about 30,000 instruments a year and exports throughout North America, Europe and Japan, I saw a single drum sander and one drill press that sat idly in the middle of the floor – they must deal with the problem of generating their own electricity by shoveling coal. In Xi’an, the city noted for being the beginning of the Silk Road, and again made famous by the discovery of its buried Terracotta Warriors, I visited Angels Musical Instruments, a small factory of about 70 workers owned by Xue Ji Suo. The only machinery was a fan in the gluing room and a rice cooker in which glue is warmed. China is still at the stage where labor is cheaper than buying and operating power tools.

At both factories the tours begin with the wood. Saul Friedgood, vice president of Eastman Strings, shows me around six enormous sheds where maple and spruce are naturally dried after being cut into planks and wedges. ‘Our wood comes from all over China, Tibet, and Burma. We buy entire trees, bring the logs back, quarter-cut, and let it air-dry. We also buy wood from Romania, Yugoslavia and Germany because some of our customers prefer the sound and look of European wood,’ he explains. At Angels 1500 pieces of quarter-sawn maple had just arrived the day before. ‘This wood comes from the Xinjiang Province and will stand out in the sun for one week, then stay inside for at least five years. Some I have had for fifteen,’ Xue explains. Walking into the warehouse there are shelves stacked with wood almost as far as the eye can see. ‘I also buy beams and columns from old houses and palaces. Today everything that is old is torn down to make way for skyscrapers.’ He picks out a piece of maple meant for a violin back and wipes away the dust. The flame in the uncut wood ripples in the light. ‘This is my treasure, my temple. I spend all my money on wood.’

Not all are as conscientious. ‘Sometimes a maker takes beautiful wood that should dry ten years,’ Xue complains, ‘but he makes the violin anyway because he needs money to support his family. This is the biggest problem – dry materials. The salaries in China are very low and the competition is very high. Makers are pushed to produce. This is like a cancer.’

Over the years I had heard rumors of poor working conditions in China. This is certainly not the case at the two facilities I visited. The Eastman building was originally a clothing factory. The rooms are huge with large windows running the entire length of the walls. Workers, wearing identical Eastman String jackets or aprons to protect street clothes (the women sport high-heeled toe-crunching shoes, fake Versace, Gucci and Armani handbags resting on the floor), sit at individual tables or desks with additional lighting from low hanging florescent fixtures. The rooms are airy, sunny and overlook courtyards where willow trees and blooming roses grow. Though there are 40-50 workers in the room there was total silence; yet a feeling of cooperative camaraderie along with concentration prevailed. What was shocking was the incredible speed and precision with which the makers worked. I watched a woman cut a violin f-hole in 10 minutes! Friedgood smiles: ‘The work ethic here is really scary. Our people come in early and leave late. Even though Saturday is optional most are here six days a week.’ Employees are paid by the piece and the better the craftsmanship the more they are paid. Wages are between $150 and $200 per month. This seems very low, but the cost of living in China is far below that of the West. (In Xi’an we had a fabulous 16-course meal in the restaurant’s private dining room for eight. The bill was about $25.)

I am surprised to learn that many of the workers come from rural areas. Master violin makers are responsible for teaching each part of instrument making. Family members come to apprentice. ‘These are carved by a master who has made only scrolls for fifteen years.’ Xue points to a cello scroll with inlaid ebony. ‘He has three apprentices who work under his guidance for one or two years. I prefer training youngsters and teach them the correct way from the beginning. In China often families can’t afford for their children to attend high school. I give them a craft and they can earn good money.’ Picking up a bow I tune a cello, sit on a nearby stool and play a movement of a Bach Suite. A dozen or so apron-clad workers gather around and applaud with genuine appreciation. I am left with the impression this is the first time they have ever heard the instrument they spend thousands of hours creating. The wood has a magnificent flame, the tone is big, rich and responsive and the price was right, so I bought it.

The craft has come a long way since the Cultural Revolution when access in and out of China was very limited and violin makers studied pictures of violins for designs. Eastman, trying to develop a market for higher-end instruments, has hired luthiers such as the American-trained Mark Moreland, to design a select line that are made under his instruction and carry his label. At the Shanghai show I heard stories that Cremonese trained liutai have been hired to come to China to train local makers. At Angels the hallways were filled with violin posters from The Strad and I saw several replicas of cellos in the show room, magnificently decorated with ebony, pearl and bone inlay copied from the Stradivari book. This is certainly a skill the Chinese excel at.

China is also producing accessories at a fierce rate. Girls working at Angels meticulously sand and polish fittings. Four women sit sewing canvas case covers. Chin rests made of the same material, chicken-wing wood, formerly used for the emperors’ beds, stand ready to ship. Cases are copied from European models and sell for a fraction of the price. Xue comments: ‘I began in music in 1986 exporting instruments and setting up factories for the government and fell in love with the violin – its sound, color and shape. I want to set an example in China for fine workmanship and catch up to the Germans.’

There are those in the business who might argue that China has already caught up. ‘At the last Frankfurt Messe the German violin making scene was dead,’ Carol Johnson reports. ‘They did not adapt to the competition and got buried. They took a real kick in the pants because the Chinese have changed the standard. In fact, I have heard good makers here say why do we bother when their work is so good? But when someone comes with a higher standard, at first you are scared, then you improve.’

Consider the results of the last international competition sponsored by the Violin Society of America in November 2004. Six years after leaving a teaching position at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Feng Jiang won a gold medal for a violin and his brother Shan, who still lives in China, won a silver medal for workmanship. ‘I believe part of the bad reputation Chinese violins has had came from the dealers themselves,’ he tells me. ‘They may call it a VSO (violin-shaped-object), but still profit 200% or 300%. There is a market for these instruments just like there is for a $30 million violin. Also, there is negative competition in that the dealers try to undercut each other. I predict that in twenty years there will only be a handful of big factories and perhaps a few artistic shops like my brother’s.’

Other predictions abound. Christophe Landon feels that Chinese instruments are good because students are able to get great quality at a small price. ‘Western makers are worried there will be less work for them, but they don’t realize that the Chinese themselves will want European and American instruments,’ he remarks. ‘And as far as the future goes we still don’t know how these instruments will age. The varnish tends to be hard for easy transport. This is only practical for a commercial instrument. I also feel the price is currently artificially low. The time for cheap violins will be over when the Chinese Yuan is no longer pegged to the dollar. It will have to rise in value. Then when the Chinese are earning proper wages you will see that 1.3 billion people want to play the violin!’ China certainly is a big market. People are getting richer, there are more schools, and Chinese who lived abroad are returning. Learning strings is beginning to be part of basic education and since families can legally have only one child they tend to spend all their money on him.

‘One must realize that with cheap instruments there will always be problems,’ confirms Carol Johnson. ‘The industry is getting sorted out and high quality will win. Ni Qian is a jewel. He changed the level of manufacturing and distributing. He made a big difference.’ And, as Ni himself would say, ‘Remember when no one would buy a Japanese car?’

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