China's violin industry aims high
The violin only has a very recent history in China. Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China, considered it a revolutionary instrument and workshops sprung up around the nation during the Cultural Revolution.Pinggu -- A district near Beijing has become one of the world's centres of violin production in just 20 years -- an industry that is aiming to look upwards and inwards amid growing domestic demand.
Geng Guosheng opened a small workshop here in Pinggu at the beginning of the 1990s, and he now employs around 20 people -- a number that fluctuates as orders come and go.
"Before making violins we were peasants, but this has allowed us to increase our income," the 47-year-old said.
His mid-range instruments are exported to countries including the United States, Japan, Germany and Switzerland.
The violin only has a very recent history in China. Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China, considered it a revolutionary instrument and workshops sprung up around the nation during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
But they produced poor-quality instruments -- good for expressing socialist fervour through music, but less suitable for playing melodious tunes.
When China opened to the outside world in the 1980s, it became clear that these violins could never be exported.
So China quickly learned the tricks of the trade, as it did in other commercially viable areas, and became "the world's lutherie" -- referring to stringed musical instruments -- for mid-range violins costing less than 1,000 dollars each for students.
Several hundred enterprises, located mainly in Pinggu and in the eastern province of Jiangsu, now churn out more than a million instruments every year, according to Zheng Quan, a 59-year-old lutherie expert trained in Italy.
These account for nearly 70 percent of the world market, according to Zheng.
"Most distributors and users consider the Chinese violin good value for money," said Zheng, who founded the school of lutherie at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at the end of the 1980s.
"One of the main problems that Chinese manufacturers have is that they do not have their own brand. Some distributors buy their products and then put their own brands on them," he said.
For Zheng, the future of violin-making in China lies in recognised brands and better quality. The cheapest violins made in Pinggu cost 500 yuan (73 dollars), for example, but special pieces sell for up to 15,000 dollars.
"A lot of musicians and collectors ask for my instruments, but they have to wait three years to get one," said Zheng, who is organising China's first international lutherie competition next May.
Aside from improving quality, another challenge for Chinese lutherie is the rise of the nation's domestic market.
As living standards improve, an increasing number of parents enrol their children in music classes in big cities, "not necessarily for them to become professionals, but for their own personal culture," Zheng said.
"If you come to the conservatory on a Saturday or a Sunday, you will see a lot of parents accompanying their young kids with violins, and the teachers are all very busy."
In Pinggu, Beijing Huadong Musical Corp -- the district's largest violin-making company with 1,000 employees and annual production of 200,000 pieces -- has already taken advantage of this trend.
"The domestic market is increasing, we've gone from five to 10 percent, to 20 to 30 percent," said Liu Yundong, head of the company.
"We are aiming for 60 percent of our instruments to go abroad, and 40 percent to China," he said.