Dancing to a new tune

Welcome to violin town

Dancing to a new tune

There is a scene in the movie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress where a violin is fought over. The film, set in the Cultural Revolution, sees a city boy sent to a remote Sichuan village for re-education. After burning his “bourgeouis cookbook”, the village chief sees a violin in the boy’s luggage.

He is about to throw it into the fire when the violinist takes up the instrument and plays Concerto in G for Violin.

He tells the village chief that this piece of music is a mountain song called Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. The villagers nod in approval and the instrument is saved.

In a curious case of reality mirroring art, a young man named Song Maolin was also sent to a remote village in Inner Mongolia in 1973. And this young violinist survived his re-education too, to help his birthplace, Donggao Town, become the violin factory of the world. Donggao (near Beijing) boasts that it now makes a third of the world’s violins.

Song learned how to make violins from China’s then master, Dai Hongxiang. After the Cultural Revolution, he was admitted to the China National Opera House where he made the instruments in his spare time. In 1985 he set up his own violin making firm.

The party secretary of Donggao then approached him in 1986, with a vision of transforming his agricultural town into a major violin manufacturer. Playing to Song’s local loyalties, the party secretary got him to take on two boys from Donggao and train them how to make violins, reports China Business.

The boys, Liu Yundong and Liu Jianli, then returned to Donggao, and with local government funding set up the New Star Violin Factory. The company, which gained its first foreign orders in 1992, was renamed in 2000 as Beijing Huadong Musical Instrument. But Liu Yundong was put in charge.

A disaffected Liu Jianli left the company and set up Yiyuan Musical Instruments as a rival. An era of creative competition ensued, as both companies vied to be bigger.

But this being modern China, industrial mutation accelerated. According to Zhang Qiuyan, the director of Donggao’s Office of Economic and Trade Fairs, there are now nine large scale violin firms in the town – plus as many as 150 small scale workshops. In all cases, the owners were trained at New Star.

A good example is Liu Jinsheng (yet another Liu), who was a salesman with New Star but then left to set up on his own. He initially tried to clone New Star’s mass production model – which targets the low end of the violin market (the type gainfully employed by five year-olds) – but soon realised that he couldn’t compete on volume. So he changed strategy and moved to a niche approach, producing just a dozen high quality violins per month. Margins improved from just Rmb20 ($2.92) per violin to more than a Rmb1,000 per instrument, says China Business.

Indeed, the town as a whole now wants to follow his example, and move its violin production upmarket. Mass market margins have fallen from 30% to 3% in recent years.

Although Donggao is a long way from Salzburg, it would like to be the Chinese equivalent. According to the South China Morning Post the town has just opened its Instrument City – which houses a museum of world famous violins, a 500 seat concert hall, and a musical fountain.

The rebranding exercise included one of those de rigeur renaming efforts too. So Donggao is now billing itself as China’s first “string instrument experience centre.”

One of these experiences is a new annual festival (once concentrated on the annual peach blossom season, it now pays homage to Mozart and other giants of Western classical music). It features a violin extravaganza that boasts a cast of 1,000 fiddlers. Made possible by the town’s decision to train 40 violin teachers, the SCMP calls it “an auditory tour de force”.

Not bad for a place with just 33,000 inhabitants. And according to Wang Junying, the town has good reason to champion the violin’s virtues. “It has helped us to become a more cultured and elegant place,” says the town’s propaganda chief.

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