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China, the violin prodigy

COLUMN ONE

In the last decade, the country has mastered the art of turning out quality instruments for a song. `Just gorgeous,' says a U.S. craftsman.

January 13, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Xiqiao, China — FOR more than 10 years, Wu Hong Fang's days have been filled with the same gentle sound, the quick chafe of sandpaper on spruce and maple. Working briskly, methodically, her hands a dusty blur, she sands violins all day, six days a week.

There is a rhythm to what she does, but you wouldn't call it music. Wu laughs when she's asked whether she feels any connection to the melodies these violins will one day produce.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
China map: A map in Saturday's Section A with a story about violins made in China showed the city of Xiqiao, home to Taixing Fengling Musical Instrument Co., in south-central China. The company is in the Xiqiao in Jiangsu province, on China's east coast.

"Basically," she says, "it's a living."

Wu earns about $100 a month working for Taixing Fengling Musical Instrument Co., the largest violin maker in the world. Its low-slung, low-tech factory sprawls over the center of this once-sleepy farm town in southeastern China.

The people of Xiqiao once grew cabbage, rice and other crops. Today the town of 35,000 is home to about 40 violin companies, giving it a credible claim to being the violin capital of the world.

In the last decade, Chinese companies such as Fengling have transformed the world of stringed instrument manufacturing, which for centuries had been dominated by tradition-steeped craft workers in a few cities in Italy, France and Germany.

As they have done in countless other industries, Chinese companies have crushed the competition with a combination of cheap labor and rapidly evolving skill. The overwhelming majority of the world's student-level violins, violas, cellos and string basses are being made, in whole or in part, in China.

"The combination of high quality and low price in Chinese-made instruments puts everything else to shame," said Christopher Germain, a Philadelphia violin maker who is president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. "The quality has improved exponentially."

Eric Benning, a third-generation violin maker who owns Studio City Music in Studio City, called the instruments from China "incredible."

"They're just gorgeous instruments for the price," he said.

That price is almost unbelievably low. Using an assembly-line process and skilled craft workers who are lucky to earn 50 cents an hour, Fengling is able to turn out violins that it can sell for less than $25, with bow and case.

The Chinese haven't yet conquered the market for fine instruments, the kind used by professionals and serious amateurs. But that, too, may just be a matter of time. Last year's gold medal for violin making at the prestigious Violin Society of America competition, which attracts fine luthiers from all over the world, went to Zhu Ming-Jiang of Beijing.

ON the one hand, the story of China's rise to dominance in the stringed instrument business is not so different from that of other industries -- toys, clothing, washing machines, furniture, TVs, rebar, you name it.

And yet, a violin is not a washing machine. At its most superlative end, a Stradivarius or Guarnerius represents the pinnacle of European craft and culture, each instrument seemingly perfect, yet idiosyncratic, unique. Even the humble violins played in student orchestras reflect no small amount of craftsmanship, with their thin, curving bodies and delicately carved scrolls.

In fact, though, musical instruments are "something that developing economies have really seized on," said Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades magazine, a New Jersey-based publication. Unlike many other products, he said, instruments require little if any research and development. The violins built today are scarcely different from those made 300 years ago. All a competent craftsman has to do is copy.

Before China entered the market, Majeski said, Japan and then South Korea had been major producers. "If you have human energy, human capital, you can do it," he said. "China's playing out exactly like Korea and Japan."

The emergence of a robust musical instrument industry in China is, in fact, a legacy of Mao Tse-tung and his Cultural Revolution -- two powerful forces generally seen as antagonistic to Western culture, to put it mildly. But far from seeing the violin as a decadent tool of the bourgeois West, Mao saw it as an instrument of the revolution, said Zheng Quan, director of the Violin Craft Research Institute in Beijing.

"Mao Tse-tung said we have two

armies: one is with a gun, and one is with this," he said, raising his arms

as if to play a violin.

Zheng is a warm and worldly man whose office is filled with the showpiece violins of his best students. Fluent in Italian and English, with a love for Italian food, he is one of China's best violin makers, and a central force in raising the quality of Chinese instruments.

In addition to training young violin makers at his institute, which is part of the Central Conservatory of Music, he is president of the Chinese Violin Makers Assn. and dabbles in scientific quests, such as figuring out why violins sound better as they age (it has to do with the moisture absorption qualities of the wood, he believes) and how to artificially reproduce the aging process (in a word: silicone).

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