By Zachary Moen
Chinese violin star Siqing Lu raised his bow and violin aloft, as the audience rose around him on all sides to roar its approval—not just for his thrilling performance of a Paganini caprice, but for the instrument and bow as well. Earlier that evening, both had been declared the gold-medal winners of the Fourth China International Violin and Bow Making Competition. This awards concert, held at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), just steps from Tiananmen Square, featured all of the winning violins, violas, cellos, and bows. Some of China’s finest classical musicians played a range of Chinese and Western repertoire, reflecting the international string community that had gathered in Beijing for the event.
The concert was followed by an exhibition of all 400+ competition entries in the NCPA’s underwater gallery, which, as its name implies, resides under the reservoir that surrounds the venue—the water shimmers overhead through a glass ceiling. The jury of experts agreed that the level of workmanship of the entries, the majority of which were from Chinese makers, was impeccable. Olivier Pérot, the Canadian delegate on the ruling committee of Entente Internationale des Luthiers et Archetiers, said that in his opinion, the China Competition met the most stringent requirements of other international competitions, including Mittenwald, the Cremona Triennale, and the Violin Society of America. The vast majority of Chinese makers who entered, he added, had risen to those standards.
Despite these accolades, it is not uncommon to hear that many players still steer clear of Chinese violins, believing that they are inferior to violins made in other countries. Although this belief may have been well founded in the past, China’s emergence in the top tier of violin-making countries in recent years is difficult to ignore. It may be time to reconsider those beliefs.
A Brief History of Violin Making in China
Unlike many European countries, which have hundreds of years of violin-making history, China’s violin-making tradition is comparatively short. Interestingly, is in large part a legacy of Mao Zedong, who, although he banned Western classical music in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), considered the violin to be a revolutionary instrument. It was included as a part of his theory that China needed both military and artistic strength to prosper. To further Mao’s theory, many new pieces of Chinese music were composed during this time and, although the traditional Peking Opera had been banned along with Western music, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing commissioned what are now often referred to as “model operas” or “revolutionary operas,” that used large, Western-style orchestras instead of smaller traditional Chinese ensembles. These new compositions and model operas were the exclusive form of musical and theatrical entertainment for the approximately 800 million people in China at that time.
The popularity of these compositions and operas resulted in a demand for violinists to perform them, and because schools and universities had been forced to close, many former university students learned to play the violin in order to be afforded better opportunities to live in the city and avoid being sent to the countryside to work.
This increased number of violinists created a corresponding surge in demand for violins in China, and state-owned factories that had previously produced items such as furniture and sewing machines were converted to make violins, almost exclusively for use in China.
In 1972, as students returned to universities, the demand for violins in China fell and the few large state-owned factories that survived began to export many of the violins that they produced to other countries. Those factories were often run by political appointees who knew little about violins, and often manufactured instruments of very poor quality that were impossible to play. Chinese-made violins were thus poorly regarded for decades, and were avoided by musicians in the West. During this time, the international market for better-quality student violins was dominated by Germany and France, followed by Japan.
To improve the quality of its instruments, China began sending violin makers to study abroad in Italy and Germany to learn the craft in the early 1980s. By 1992, the state-owned violin factories in China were closed by government mandate and privately owned violin-making factories and workshops emerged in their place. These factories and workshops were run by trained violin makers instead of political appointees. With the switch to a free-market model, these factories had to make a good-quality instrument to survive and turn a profit, leading to rapid improvements.
Today, just over 25 years after the emergence of privately owned factories, China is the largest producer of violins in the world. And although the sheer quantity of violins produced means that there is a wide range of quality levels, China has developed a reputation for producing high-quality student instruments at low prices. This has taken significant market share from many German, French, and Japanese student-instrument brands that were once dominant in the field.
Fine Violin Making in China
In addition to high-quality and affordable student instruments, individual Chinese violin makers also continue to develop a reputation for making fine instruments for advanced and professional players.
This is evidenced by the increasing number of Chinese violin makers who have won awards at recent international violin-making competitions. By my count, for example, approximately 10 percent of the award winners at each of the past three VSA competitions have been from China. Though some of these makers have relocated throughout the world, often to the US, all of them made their start in China, where the violin-making community is concentrated in three geographic regions—Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.
The violin-making community in and around Beijing emanates from the work of master violin maker Zheng Quan, who has arguably done more than any other individual to promote and expand the development of fine violin making in China. In 1983, he became the first Chinese student to attend the prestigious Cremona International Violin Making School. After his training in Italy, he returned to China and founded the violin-making and research center at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1988.
Since then, he has tirelessly promoted and expanded the development of violin making in China, trained countless Chinese makers, and won over 20 awards at international competitions. Zheng also served as the first judge from China at the VSA Competition in 2008, and founded the China International Violin and Bow Making Competition, which he has organized and served as jury chair for in all four competitions to date.
Beijing has produced many other internationally awarded violin makers as well. Perhaps best known in the United States is Feng Jiang, a second-generation maker who graduated from the violin-making program at the Central of Conservatory of Music in Beijing before moving to the US to apprentice with violin maker Gregg Alf. Jiang has won six awards at VSA competitions, including the rare double-gold medal for violin tone and workmanship in 2012, and an honorable mention at the Cremona Triennale Lutherie Competition in 2018. He served as a workmanship judge at the VSA Competition in 2018.
Other award-winning makers from Beijing include Shan Jiang, Shiquan Zhao, and Yunhai Xu, who won the gold medal for violin at the Fourth China Competition; in addition to two silver medals for violin and three awards for workmanship in quartet, cello, and viola at VSA competitions; and a gold medal for cello in the Third China Competition.
The violin-making community in Guangzhou stems from the work of Guo-Hui Liang, who is regarded as China’s first maker and, at 95, the world’s oldest living maker. Liang taught himself to make violins in the 1950s by buying two good German instruments, taking them apart, and copying them. He taught at the Institute of Guangzhou Musical Instrument Industry Company from 1976 until he retired in 1991 at age 67. His students have won over 40 awards at international violin-making competitions.
Three violin makers who trained in Guangzhou are well known in the US—Ming-Jiang Zhu, Haide Lin, and Scott Cao. Zhu, who passed away in 2014, won numerous international awards for his instruments, including two gold medals for violin, two silver medals, and 17 certificates of merit at VSA competitions. Today, his workshop, Noble Heart Violins, continues to produce high-quality instruments under his name.
Haide Lin learned violin making as a student of Liang before moving to the United States in 1986 to work at Ifshin Violins in California, where he continues to run the workshop. Lin has won a silver medal for cello tone along with 14 other awards at VSA competitions, and he served as a judge at the Fourth China Competition. In addition to his own instruments, Lin created the popular and well-regarded Jay Haide line of student instruments with Jay Ifshin.
Scott Cao also learned violin making as a student of Liang before moving to the United States in 1985. Cao’s instruments have won multiple awards at VSA and other international competitions. In 1990, he founded a line of student instruments under his own name that are made in his workshops in China and California that have been very popular and well regarded. Many of Cao’s students have also won awards in international competitions.
Shanghai is considered the traditional birthplace of violin making in China and springs from the work of Shuzhen Tan, who, in 1927, became the first Chinese musician to join what is now the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. In 1947, Tan was appointed as a professor at the predecessor to the Shanghai Conservatory and established a violin-making program there in the 1950s, which began to offer a professional violin-makers program in 1978.
The most well-known graduate of the violin-making program at the Shanghai Conservatory is Tianren Hua, who graduated from the program in 1982 and further studied in Germany before returning to teach at the Shanghai Conservatory. Hua’s instruments have won international awards, including at the VSA competition in 1990. Shanghai is also home to Rong-Di Ma, who is widely regarded as the best Chinese bow maker, and who served as a judge at the Fourth China Competition
The Present and Future
It is clear that in the student-instrument market, China has become a dominant player. With some diligence, a player can find an instrument that meets or exceeds the standards of student instruments from other countries, and at a more affordable price.
China is also continuing to emerge in the fine-instrument market for advanced and professional players, and there is no reason to believe that this upward trajectory won’t continue. The entries in the China Competition were virtually flawless from a workmanship standpoint, and the judges noted that the primary area for improvement is in the development of a more personal style.
So does this mean that you should buy a Chinese violin? The selection of an instrument is one of the most personal and important decisions that you will make as a musician, and can’t be the result of geographical concerns alone. But players certainly shouldn’t rule out instruments solely because they were made in China. Instead, play as many instruments in your price range as possible, from all countries, to find your perfect match.