The “other” Chinese violins: Distinguished masters working in the shadow of the factories. An overview of outstanding violin makers from China and Taiwan
Who are the best Chinese violin makers? Chinese violin makers are most commonly known for producing affordable instruments for beginners, and as a matter of fact, industrial violin making is one of the fields in which the Chinese economy has enjoyed remarkable international successes. Certain parallels to other periods such as Saxonian violin making in the 19th and early 20th century are unmistakable, even though history never repeats itself. Today’s Chinese instrument-manufacturing sites are at the peak of their global influence, much like the factories nearly a hundred years ago in the “music corner” around Schönbach and Markneukirchen. We should not lose sight, however, of the excellent Chinese violin makers and masters amidst the vast majority of simple violins; many of these luthiers practice traditional craftsmanship at outstanding levels, and they are often successful entrepreneurs and teachers as well. It is to be expected that the elite of Taiwanese violin makers and Chinese violin makers and bow makers will enhance the image of their art in the years ahead, much as luminaries like Ernst Heinrich Roth and Hermann Richard Pfretzschner did in their day. In this overview, we are pleased to present the names, life and work of exceptional masters from the new world of Asian violin making.
Chinese violin makers portrayed:
Despite his limited knowledge of basic Italian, Zheng Quan came to the violin making school of Cremona in 1983, the first Chinese student ever. Zheng Quan brought other things with him, however: craftsman knowledge, the art of which he had acquired at the music research institute in Beijing under Dai Hongxiang. Zheng Quan was born in Shanghai in 1950 and began playing the violin at the age of five. As intellectuals, his parents were victims of the systematic expropriation of the upper class during the Cultural Revolution, and consequently young Zheng Quan’s violin was taken away. He was later forced to work as a farmer in a village in Anhui province as part of the state-mandated re-education programme. Towards the end of the Revolution, Zheng Quan joined a small music and dance ensemble as a violinist, and he gained attention there because of his ability to repair instruments. This eventually led him down the path to Dai Hongxiang and ultimately to northern Italy, where he remained until 1988 so he could perfect his skills in making and restoring stringed instruments. Motivated by the desire to train a new generation of excellent Chinese luthiers, Zheng Quan soon became the head of the institute of violin making and luthier research at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He is the winner of over 20 awards in international competitions – including a first place for sound at the Cremonese Triennale in 1991 – and the president of Chinese violin making association; furthermore, Zheng Quan has served as the initiator and organiser of the two international Chinese violin making competitions held in Beijing to date.
As the son of two bookkeepers in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, Ming-Jiang Zhu was born in 1956 and grew up without ever having seen a violin. Ming-Jiang Zhu, too was heavily affected by the state re-education programmes and had to do gruelling physical labour in the sugar-cane fields of the Panyu province as a youth. When the Guangzhou violin making school was opened in 1976, Ming-Jiang Zhu applied for a spot, primarily to get away from farm work. He was selected as one of only 25 students due to his talents in wood-carving. Under the tutelage of master luthiers Xu Fu and Liang Gouhui at the school, Ming-Jiang Zhu who had originally hoped to become a painter or pursue one of his father’s interests by becoming a carpenter discovered his enthusiasm for crafting violins, and once again he demonstrated that he was extremely talented. After his training was finished, he proceeded to the research institute for musical instruments in Guangzhou, where he continued his theoretical and practical studies of violin making. In 1991, Ming-Jiang Zhu opened his own “workshop” on a side street in Guangzhou, although it was hardly more than a corner of his home of 20 square meters. It eventually grew into the Noble Heart Violins, Ltd. company, which still operates in that town. Ming-Jiang Zhu took part in the VSA international violin making competition for the first time in 1986, and his submission won a certificate of merit for workmanship. In the meantime he has brought home 19 awards from VSA competitions, including two gold and two silver medals. At the first international Chinese violin making competition in 2010, Ming-Jiang Zhu served as a juror for craftsmanship. Ming-Jiang Zhu is the vice president of the violin making association in his home, and since 2008 he has been a member of the Entente Internationale des Maîtres-luthiers et Archetiers d’art.
Gao Tong Tong
Gao Tong Tong is the first Chinese violin maker and master luthier to win a prize at the renowned Henryk Wieniawski violin making competition in Poznan. Having played violin since he was a child, Gao Tong Tong learned how to make stringed instruments as a young adult. After completing his studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, he went to the violin making school in Cremona to further refine his knowledge. At the same time Gao Tong Tong began an apprenticeship under Gio Batta Morassi. The Cremonese master equipped him with the skills he needed to perform very well at the Triennale and succeed in Posen, where Gao Tong Tong won fourth place in 1996. That was the year he also returned to China, where Gao Tong Tong established his own atelier in Beijing in 1998. To this day he conscientiously follows the principles of historic Italian masters’ approach to violin making and crafts premium instruments himself.
Lin Dian-wei’s first violin was one he made at a simple card table in a small garage as he followed the instructions in a book about making violins. Today the Taiwanese violin maker has his own atelier in the city of Taichung and holds violin making workshops to promote the craft in his native land. A biochemist by training, Lin Dian-wei had always loved the sound and silhouette of the violin, and upon taking over his father’s wood processing company in 2002, Lin Dian-wei began studying violin making in earnest during his spare time. He referred to the craft as the “apex of wood crafting.” Due to his background, Lin Dian-wei has extensive knowledge about different kinds of wood and their properties, and he is also well-informed about the fields of mechanics, physics and chemistry – all of which make positive contributions to his self-taught work as a violin maker. Lin Dian-wei became famous through his blog, where he writes about his experience as a “hobby luthier,” and shortly after he launched it, he was able to expand his atelier and share his skills with his first two students. His indefatigable quest for perfection has earned him many honours; the greatest to date was a nomination at the violin making competition in Cremona.
It was his dissatisfaction with the instruments available to him that inspired Taiwanese violinist David Lien to become a luthier himself. Born in 1961 in Keelung, a harbour city near Taipeh, David Lien studied music in his native country before continuing his studies at the Franz Schubert Conservatory in Vienna as of 1988. As a member of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and an instructor at different music schools, he spent years looking for what he considered to be the perfect instrument, but to no avail. Consequently, taiwanese violin maker David Lien spent his free time becoming acquainted with the traditions and techniques of crafting instruments at a Viennese violin making workshop. After further studies and intense experimentation, David Lien ultimately achieved an admirable level of mastery; this allowed him to found the Galaxias company in 1997, which has operated under the name “Lien Violins Instruments Ltd.” since 2000. At his atelier in Taipeh, David Lien makes top-quality artistic violins. He strictly upholds the classic principles of Cremonese violin making, and his violins have achieved noteworthy successes at different instrument exhibitions such as the Mondomusica in Cremona, the Musikmesse in Frankfurt and Music China in Shanghai.
Even as a high-school student, Chiao Chung-hsing knew that he would pursue a career as a singer. Born in 1959 in Keelung, Chiao Chung-hsing studied at the College of Arts in Taipeh in 1986 and then went to Italy. It was there that his fate took an unanticipated turn: he suffered a serious injury that made it impossible for him to keep singing. Chiao Chung-hsing did, however, come into contact with a mentor who successfully helped him make his way into the art of violin making: Francesco Bissolotti. The Cremonese master took Chiao Chung-hsing under his wing, taught him at his atelier and even bankrolled his studies at the local violin making school from 1988 to 1992. The fact that Francesco Bissolotti correctly assessed Chiao Chung-hsing's potential became clear no later than when he won 16th place at a violin making competition in Cremona in 1991, followed by a silver medal for sound in 1992 at a VSA competition in Pennsylvania. At the age of 33, Chiao Chung-hsing returned to his home country, determined to share the wealth of his experience with his Taiwanese colleagues. In the meantime Chiao Chung-hsing teaches at the National Taiwan University of Arts in the Banqiao District of the city of New Taipeh, and his atelier is host to violin making courses that are open to the public.
Shu Sheng Kot
The material Shu Sheng Kot used for his first homemade violin came from an armchair and a coffee table he took apart. As a young man growing up in Shanghai, Shu Sheng Kot heard the recording of a violin concerto and fell so hopelessly in love with classical music that he taught himself to play the violin on a 14-dollar factory instrument. Soon, however, he grew frustrated with the limited tonal options this instrument offered, and the violin he made for himself out of furniture parts turned into the point of departure for a noteworthy career. Like several of his Chinese colleagues of the same generation, Shu Sheng Kot had to spend several years doing farm work after completing high school. During the period he spent fulfilling his duties in the rice fields of Yunnan province, however, he continued to make violins and bows by following instructions in books, and he successfully sold his instruments in China. Eventually Shu Sheng Kot was given the opportunity to move to Sydney, where amongst other things he worked as a restorer for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. From there Shu Sheng Kot made his way to Cremona and ended up under the tutelage of Pierangelo Balzarini and Alessandro Voltini, despite the fact that he spoke not one word of Italian. They continued to train him until 1991, when he opened his first atelier in Philadelphia. Today he run Kot’s Violins in Bryn Mawr, and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra rank among those who purchase Shu Sheng Kot's instruments and bows. Shu Sheng Kot's numerous awards include a certificate of craftsmanship for a violin as well as multiple gold medals for bows at VSA competitions; the Walter Stauffer gold medal for special acoustic qualities of a violin at the Cremonese Triennale in 1991; and a gold medal for a violin bow at the Mittenwald international violin making in 2010.
Feng Jiang learned the art of crafting violins from his father in Beijing; he produced his first instrument in 1989 whilst still a teenager. In the late 1990s Feng Jiang made his way to William Harris Lee in Chicago and from there to Alf Studios in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he now lives and works. Feng Jiang's pieces can be admired at international exhibitions, including Klanggestalten in Berlin. Feng Jiang is a member of the Violin Society of America and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. The violins and violas he submitted at several VSA competitions have earned him several gold and silver medals. Feng Jiang was also a great success at the British Violin Making Association in 2004.
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