Incredible growth supported by innovation!
In the space of 20 years, China has become the largest centre for the production of mid-range violins worldwide (70% of the global market currently). The Chinese domestic market is also expanding quickly to meet the needs of the education sector and the middle classes.
The Chinese have learned quickly. They have made good use of all aspects of Chinese thought, conveyed in particular via ideograms. Chinese writing encourages associative thought, mobility, integration, precision, a holistic view and a concrete and non-conceptual view of the world. At the same time, humility is a key factor and changes take place in a very discreet manner.
A quiet transformation is underway in China
It all began in the late 1980s, when dozens of stringed instrument production workshops were set up in Donggaocun, in the district of Pinggu, to the east of Beijing. The region benefited from a profusion of wood, particularly maple. The wood producers found that stringed instrument making provided an added source of income. In 1995, stringed instrument production was declared as a strategic industry by the local government, which decided to make Pinggu China’s violin capital. The local government provided training in the production of stringed instruments for the local workforce, which had traditionally been involved in agriculture (this region is well known for its peaches) and re-focused economic activity on a high-growth global niche market, by financially supporting this sector.
By the mid-1990s production was rising but the instruments were of poor quality with rough finishes and terrible acoustic characteristics. Being unfit for exportation, they did not meet the age-old quality criteria associated with the international stringed instrument market.
Improving…. The Chinese way
The Chinese violin makers then embarked on the second phase of their learning process. They went to Europe and in Italy, France and Germany they purchased high-quality violins, stringed instrument production manuals and instrument plates dating from the 18th century. I saw them do this myself, having been involved in a stringed instrument store in Paris. As the instruments they proposed were always refused internationally, they would say “show us the high-quality violins which you sell”. After having purchased some of them, they would go back home.
Back in Pinggu, the Chinese violin makers and manufacturers launched an ongoing improvement process rather than simply copying the instruments, as many people still like to claim today. They set up acoustic research and development centres to reach the quality levels required by the international stringed instrument market. They also improved the aesthetic aspects of the instruments and refined the finishes.
They very quickly redesigned the classic industrial production methods for violins by introducing a continuous assembly line comprised of 30 separate tasks to complete the violin. Each worker focuses on just one task, enabling him to quickly become highly skilled and to improve his technique each day.
At the same time, the Chinese violin makers drew upon their combined creativity and their associative way of thought. They assembled 18th century violin plates and modern components to produce hybrid instruments, combining the advantages of modern technology with the acoustic and aesthetic qualities of old instruments. Thanks to this innovation, they gained a foothold in the market for Baroque violins and quickly moved up range. In Europe, no stringed instrument maker had dared deviate from the strictly-enshrined rules inherited from the violin trade of the 17th century. For their part, the Chinese were not hampered by such cultural baggage.
To further encourage this quiet transformation, since 2005 the local government in Pinggu has encouraged the local population to learn to play the violin. It has financed the training of teachers and today the pupils play the violin in all elementary schools in Music Valley!
Laure Dykstra, Akteos consultant