China as producer of high-quality low price violins

January 14, 2007 at 06:23 AM · Today the LA Times published an article about the emergence of China as a producer of high-quality, low-priced violins. They do it with an assembly line of low paid but highly skilled workers. What do you think?

When I was getting fractional violins for my very large first-grade public school class, a mother found a vendor of very inexpensive Chinese violins, who was willing to sell entire outfits (eighth and quarter size) for $20 apiece. They even came with two bows! I gave her the go-ahead to help us procure these violins for students, feeling grateful to be able to offer every child a violin but also wondering about how this kind of price was possible.

In the end, 26 of my 57 students bought these. Obviously, they are not as nice as a Suzuki or Scott Cao student instrument, but they have stayed reasonably in tune and intact.

Replies (51)

January 14, 2007 at 06:47 AM · Without having read the article, I was thinking about this recently. I think for the time being, it's a good thing; but, I think on down the road that saturation may effect quality on some level--I'm just not sure when and how.

I spent some time in South Korea, and the piracy market is pretty bad (speaking of software and other name-brand consumer goods), so I also know from experience that those Nikes may look good, but there's often a durability issue that creeps in.

Also, there is an article somewhere if you can find it discussing the macro considerations of the "Chinese economic churn" on that nation's working people, as well as more significant implications for previously agrarian rural sensibilities.

So without writing my scale and scope sermon about sustainability, I'll just say, I pray daily. The compare and contrast between Schumacher, Keynes and Hayek, I'll have to leave to others. Hope that wasn't TMI.

January 14, 2007 at 07:25 AM · It’s a beautiful world that we are living in if everyday there are more beautiful violins instead of wars are being made.

Al, I understand your concern about quality, but I'm not sure if you are comparing apples with oranges here. We are talking about hand-made violins with measurable qualities. Anyhow, I've read the stroy and I find it fascinating. And as the violin maker Zheng very well puts it, let's face it, nothing lasts forever.

January 14, 2007 at 07:47 AM · Actually, I think very broadly in these matters, and the viewpoint is very broad as well. And the quality issue is grounded in the fact that like in physics, systems become less organized over time--by nature.

I understand the point about quality really well, and appreciate that entirely. For example in rural America, there once was a time, when people's lives were very much attached to taking care of themselves and their families with their own hands in almost irreplacable ways--now that's quality, sustainability, and scalable adaptability.

Because I've read the other article I cited, I just know that all that glitters is not gold--that's all. I just jumped over and read the article (at this point), and it was what I expected.

There was also a time in western history, where mixed approaches to life were common. And in modern times, work at the factory, then in the garden. This too has become somewhat rare. And in 1890, the signficant majority of at least American census entries had "farmer" as employment. The lack of diversity in adaptiveness can also be seen as maladaptive.

China in the 20th century told the world it could feed it's people. Let's just hope this remains true. But my point, and I don't think it was apples and oranges, is the balance of sustainability, culture and continuity for those not working in the violin shop.

For instance, what is the difference between a sweat-shop pumping out Nikes and this value added premise of quality? It's a very tough question--one that I don't have the answer to.

The blending and melding of economies and culture is a very overwhelming thing for most of us. The Zheng quote has very telling implications, and I think they go far beyond the context of the article--and I think for good reasons.

There are many positive outcomes to quality craftmanship cited by the article--and being an optimist I hope I can see that the positives can be far reaching--or at least I hope so. But, I think we should remember that throwing the baby out with the bath water is a real concern as well.

Nope, not apples and oranges--though I have been known to make a little cider.

January 14, 2007 at 10:11 AM · I've been offering violins from China alongside European instruments for over ten years now. Generally speaking they're very good value for money. Some of the workmanship is absolutely outstanding and there is a commonly held suspicion in the trade that some of the better instruments are being passed off as old and new European instruments.

I suppose it's confusing for a parent buying an instrument for a child, the best advice I could give would be to buy from a reputable dealer and enlist the help of a teacher if possible.

January 14, 2007 at 01:32 PM · not sure about high quality, but low price is pretty much established. but then, for a fraction student quality violin, for couple dollars, how long do you expect it to last anyway?

it makes as much sense for a chinese worker to make 100 dollars per month as beckham about to make one mil dollar per week...justified by the market, at least for now.

January 14, 2007 at 07:32 PM · Some of my students have bought very nice (student level) Chinese violins that have great sound and playability for the money.

One of the shop guys I deal with told me last year that because the Chinese student violins have gotten so much better, the Germans have been stepping up and producing better product for the money too.

January 14, 2007 at 08:06 PM · Al,

I've been thinking lately maybe we all tend to think broadly when it comes to issues regarding the environment and sustainability. I don’t know how to make cider, but having two degrees in philosophy and one in law (yes, including environment law), I’m certainly familiar with the issues, studies and arguments in this area and am mindful of how complex the issues are; consequently, I didn’t want to start the broader issue, but am quite happy that you did. Having been growing my own organic heirloom fruits and vegetables in my little city-lot backyard for the past 10 years, making my own clothes in the past five years, living a busy professional life without driving or owning a car, I also know how extremely lucky that I can afford to live an apparently self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable life. However, based on what I’ve got from the article Laurie cited, I failed to see a clear link between the matters that you’ve addressed and what’s been described in the article.

Rapid economic development happening in China and the environmental problems are well-known in general terms, but not every developmental cases are the same. If we were to have a good understanding of what’s described in the article Laurie referred to, some sort of impact assessment on the Chinese violin-making and local and global environment and sustainability will be more helpful. In the absence of this information, we can only speculate, and speculate is what I’m going to.

There are at least three issues you’ve addressed:

1. Environmental issues (physical and cultural)

2. Sustainability (physical and cultural)

3. Quality issues.

In terms of quality, if we assume that things come out of China must be inferior, we are in big surprises. If the fact that last year's gold medal for Violin Society of America competition went to Beijing doesn’t tell us anything, I’m certainly won’t be the one to second guess the judgment of experienced luthiers in the West so I’ll leave this topic to them for now.

In terms of environmental concerns, first, let’s assume that the latest development described in the article is or will have certain negative impact on the environment. How bad could this be? These people are craftsmen and are making violins by hand based on 300-year old tradition that they adopted from the European makers. Alternately, they could be making toys, electronic devices, cars, weapons, etc., since they won’t go back to farm the land that has been so depleted of nutrients due to thousands of years of farming and to again live in extreme poverty. People have to make a living and I can see a lot worse alternative than violin-making.

Second, let’s assume that there will also negative impact on the sustainability. Physically, how much damage can violin-making do to our physical environment? If we have too many violins in the world, we folks in the north will not have a problem of recycling them. If we are talking about cultural sustainability, that’s even more interesting. Now, the century-long European violin-making culture is dying out in Europe, but looks like it’s going to Asia. Hmmm, not so sure if we like this, although come to think of it, had Buddhism been kept in India, we probably wouldn’t have such a rich tradition now. But that’s comparing apples with oranges, after all, violin is not a Chinese thing. Or is it? Last time I checked, violin-making has been part of the Chinese culture for some time, not simply because the Chinese want to make money out of the business, but also because there has been a huge demand by ordinary young and old people in China, based on a genuine love for Western classical music in China that is truly heartwarming, a scene you don’t see much these days in North America. For one thing, I’ve never heard a Chinese person came to me saying stuff like “Classical music is boring” or “Classical music is sad.” I couldn’t believe my ears when store owners bragged in North America bragged about how effective it has been for them to drive away their unwanted customers (usually the young and the poor people) by playing classical music in the store all the time… Okay, okay, I’ve made my point and it’s time to go back practicing Kreutzer.

January 15, 2007 at 08:42 PM · Chinese violins have come on leaps and bounds since I started in the violin trade. I believe that the top end Chinese trade instruments are superior to any of the 'trade' instruments which have been produced in Mirecourt, Dresden, Markneukirchen etc over the last 150 years. Obviously they need a little playing and they generally benefit massively from a good professional set up.

The views and pre-conceived opinions of some musicians and dealers are rooted in conservatism and bias. No country has a monopoly on the information or skills relevant to violin making, and chinese soil is as capable of growing good timber as European soil. Perhaps Chinese makers are raising the bar for everyone!

January 15, 2007 at 09:05 PM · Martin,

Also, one doesn't have to grow their own wood to produce good violins. Aren't the best wood for bows from Brazil?

BTW, any idea whether China is producing good bows these days?

Thanks.

Yixi

January 15, 2007 at 09:07 PM · They're producing bows of fine workmanship but the pernambuco generally seems to be weak. I've only seen bows which retail at a max of £400-£500, I don't think they're great but if they had good pernambuco I'm sure they'd turn out good bows. The really basic student bows made from a native chinese timber are excellent for the price- good weight, balance and excellent strength.

Regarding wood grown in China, I was making the point that some people do harbour the notion that wood can't be suitable if grown in China.

January 15, 2007 at 09:29 PM · Excellent point. Looks like it’s an exciting time for violin-making and related business, and of course, for all violin lovers I should think.

January 15, 2007 at 09:32 PM · Why has no one mentioned the appallingly low wages that these craftsmen are being paid? The article says that most of them earn less than 50 cents an hour. Sure, it's great that consumers can get high-quality student violins at super-low prices, but consider why those low prices are possible.

I'm no communist, but do the phrases "dark satanic mills" and "exploitation of the workers" come to mind?

January 15, 2007 at 09:34 PM · That's a fair point, I'm no expert but it does seem to be an issue- and an enormously complex one. Anyone have any information?

January 15, 2007 at 10:25 PM · I think it is a wonderful thing. It seems to me that lowering the barrier for someone to learn a stringed instrument can only be a benifit. Its frieghtening how few schools are left which even offer a string section in their orchestra/band. I don't know what the reason is (cost, instruction, popularity, etc).

January 15, 2007 at 11:42 PM · Hey Maura,

Isn't Free Market Communism wonderful???!!!

January 16, 2007 at 12:06 AM · Gennady,

Yeah, long live Lenin, Inc.! :)

The Chinese situation really is mind-bogglingly weird. All the worst aspects of socialism mixed with the worst aspects of capitalism. Yuck!

January 16, 2007 at 12:12 AM · maura, have you ever insisted on paying more than you are asked when buying something?

if the answer is no, that pretty much explains the basis for the wage structure in china.

what was maria antoniotte's famous line again?:)

January 16, 2007 at 12:55 AM · let them sniff coke????

January 16, 2007 at 01:01 AM · Wages in different parts of the world and even different pars of China vary a great deal so the numbers have to be viewed in relative terms. If you’ve visited China or any developing countries, this will be very easy to understand. It depends very much on the living costs and relative job options one has. People may live quite comfortably in some part of China for $100 per month but not so in other parts. The cost of living is very different from that of North America and the housing and tax situations are also very unique there. Also don't forget the exchange rates between $ and RMB yuan. Lot of low income people in China that I know have more bank savings than most of middle-class North Americans can dream of. It’s a mind-boggling matter indeed when it comes to income and actual financial situation in China, and I caution us not to quickly draw any conclusions based on $ number and what it means to those of us live in the West. Unless in situations where people are forced to work for a certain trade, I would say it’s pretty good bet that if a person choose to work for $100 per month when there are other options for her, then $100 may not be such a bad deal for her.

January 16, 2007 at 01:01 AM · Buri, LOL!

More like, take Soviet-style repression, censorship and cultural stupidity, add 19th-century, Industrial Revolution, lassez-faire, Dickensian working conditions and exploitation, and American-style crass materialism and cultural stupidity, and you get........China, which looks strikingly like the situation in Tsarist Russia that set off the first Bolshevik revolution.

Sigh. Don't you just love how history always comes full circle??

January 16, 2007 at 01:02 AM · ...just noticed Yixi's post. You make a good point, but I've heard enough horror stories about Chinese sweatshops to be a bit concerned about these violin factories.

January 16, 2007 at 01:10 AM · Maura,

I'm concerned too, but I don't see this is the case based on what I've read. I'm from Shanghai originally and visited there just a couple of years ago. I saw a lot of porverty there but so am I seeing everyday here. I don't want to compare who is worse off, but all I can say is that violin-making in China so far sounds pretty decent to me, and until I have evidence to worry or criticise, I should refrain myself so just be fair too the people who are working hard to improve the boxes that sing so well.

January 16, 2007 at 01:16 AM · sigh. wish i can be as diplomatic and accurate as yixi:)

often, things boil down to...yes understand, no understand, and no interest to understand:)

and buri, very likely that is the problem.

January 16, 2007 at 02:06 AM · I think that the Chinese Buble (economy that is)will come to explode fairly soon. Perhaps after they enter the auto industry in full swing...which is coming shortly.

Free Market Communism is a very new thing, and is not "fool-proof".

January 16, 2007 at 02:03 AM · Yixi,

OK, fair enough. I've never been there, so I guess I should take your word for it. :)

Gennady,

Yes, and when it bursts, the debris will rain down absolutely everywhere...metaphorically speaking of course.

January 16, 2007 at 02:33 AM · it may comes as a surprise to some that USA owes china money, yes, to the tune of over 200 billion USD, yes not M, but B as in Billion.

how is that possible, you wonder? how can the strongest economy, the most powerful nation in the world burrow money from a third world country like china? well, thanks to the success of the free market communism of the past 20 years, china is flushed with cash.

the US federal programs are largely supported by foreign debts, that is, uncle sam issues iou to foreign countries to raise money to freely spend at GW's whim.

before the chinese bubble bursts, if it comes to that ever, remember this: there will be a knock on the door asking for the 200B back. if it comes to that, i don't think fun loving violinists will be happy campers:)

don't rock the boat too hard. it is a small world we are living in.

January 16, 2007 at 02:31 AM · No worries, after the Chinese bubble bursts, we'll just relocate the cheap violin factories to impoverished Eastern European republics. There's always new places to exploit! :) (Ugh, but can you imagine owing Hungary $200 billion?)

January 16, 2007 at 02:37 AM · Maura,

No, don't take my word for it. I didn't mean to say that you have to visit China to make a fair point, and just because I came from China doesn't make me an expert in China affairs. What I was trying to say is that China is a very big country and the situation there is very perplexing. It’s just kind of weird for me to see very smart people start to assess one case based on some stories about something else we read in the past:)

January 16, 2007 at 03:39 AM · Well, you probably know a lot more about China than I do. :)

It wasn't my intention to make any huge sweeping pronouncements about what exactly is going on in that particular factory. I was just struck by the apparently very low wages that are being paid there, and it reminded me of lots of similar stories I've heard. So yes, perhaps a leap to conclusions, but not an entirely unreasonable one IMHO.

January 16, 2007 at 05:14 PM · I was gonna ask why USA doesn't support or rectify the Kyoto Treaty on the Environment, why USA is holding citizens of other countries in jails without trial, why USA keeps propping up dictators while accusing countries of being dictatorial, but that would just inflame many here and make the entire discussion go off tangent.

So I would just like to say that one should probably read a bit more widely before making comments and passing judgement (and I don't mean just reading more US based newspapers). Otherwise, we should just stick to talking about violins.

January 16, 2007 at 05:48 PM · Wow, how quickly everyone forgets history of just 60 years ago...............where would the world be today if things turned out otherwise?

January 16, 2007 at 06:16 PM · Gennady, what I want to know is, what would the world look like today if Gavrilo Princip hadn't shot Franz Ferdinand on that nice sunny day in Sarajevo in 1914...but that's such a tangent I'm not even going to go there. :)

Samantha, I see your point, but even musicians like to talk about other things sometimes. :) (And you don't have to be a college professor to have an opinion worth expressing...)

BTW Samantha, I totally agree regarding Kyoto, puppet dictatorships etc....

January 16, 2007 at 06:36 PM · BTW Samantha,

Who do you think has always supported the revolutionaries in North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba etc. etc.

It was Soviet Union.

January 16, 2007 at 08:13 PM · Yes, but the crimes of the Soviet Union don't make the crimes of the United States any less serious.

January 16, 2007 at 08:55 PM · Politics and "Diplomacy" is a dirty business indeed.

January 16, 2007 at 09:14 PM · Amen! :)

January 17, 2007 at 12:12 PM · stick to sticks.

January 17, 2007 at 01:56 PM · Eh, never mind...

Wait, I thought of something else. $20 for a violin and two bows? That's cheap! It also means somebody somewhere paid only $10 for it...

January 17, 2007 at 03:05 PM · what is happening to the chinese violin industry (not the bench made vsa winners) on some levels is similar to the japanese car industry in the late 70s. if one can put aside ethnic prejudices, pseudogeopolitcal wisdom, the adorable and sexy self righteousness and the fear that one's own business agenda may be adversely affected, it is quite clear the landscape on entry level violin has changed and very likely it is here to stay. it is also quite clear what you need to do to stay ahead of the game if you choose to stay in the game.

from the little sporty hondas and nissans of the early 80's to the lexus that can self parallel park, the japanese carmakers have gone a long way and so did the entire industry as a result. it is challenging for american and european car cos to stay competitive, but for a consumer, you benefit because the entire industy has become more efficient.

i speculate that the chinese violin industry will go through a similar evolution at a smaller scale. cheap first, gain the market share, putting the competition in check. then, improve quality, solidify the lead. next, move toward mid-tier.

the ferraris of the world will always find its niche, but if you carry a mediocre line of products and cannot compete price-wise or, soon, quality wise, yo, what's up?

hate or boycott walmart all you want for the same reasons how you view the chinese violins. it is an individual thing. may be it is not about violins, but about you..how you look at the world you live in. the trend is here and trend can be your friend. exploitation, forgive me, is in the eye of the beholder.

January 17, 2007 at 02:56 PM · Jim - Unless someone is taking a loss. In my lifetime of over half a century, I have yet to make money in reselling.

Gennady - "Who do you think has always supported the revolutionaries in North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba etc. etc.

It was Soviet Union."

Who do you think supported Manuel Noriega, Pinochet, probably Sadam Hussein himself at one time?

People are more alike than not.

Maura - Do you think working conditions were any better in the West in the early days of industrial revolution? Maybe we, in the third world, are just as behind of the West in providing proper working conditions as we are in becoming prosperous.

Ihnsouk

January 17, 2007 at 03:02 PM · to make money at reselling...

sometimes it takes luck, but mostly it is a matter of knowing what to buy at what price and look for that gap of comfort.

give 50k dollars to me and gennady each to buy bows and resell IMMEDIATELY in an auction, he will come ahead leaps and bounds simply because i need luck and he does not.

on the USA: whatever our feelings towards the USA, i have yet to see a USA citizen trying to smuggle into another country to live. on the other hand,,,

January 17, 2007 at 02:51 PM · Xixi, your enthusiasm as a spokesman for China is admirable; however, the millions of Chinese being left behind in it's industrialization is just too well documented. I'm an Appalachian scholar, and see levels of this same leveling occuring in central Applachia. But, the forecasts for what is happening in China is a huge leap in perspective, and in my mind somewhat disturbing--and it cannot be painted over.

When 'any' industry starts dominating self-sufficency, at first in a micro-economic scale, even if it is seen as outdated many many things are lost that cannot be replaced.

I can live on less than most Americans, because I did not throw the baby out with the bathwater; or, rather over time I revisited the water with a strainer before it reached it's destination.

For me, it's not even really a worker's issue. The issue is a person, then family, then village, then broader community issue. I believe on that level also is the tolerance, appreciation for diversity and other qualities that have been hijacked by group think as well. Broadly speaking, both the left and right like to spend our money.

January 17, 2007 at 03:28 PM · 1. Machiavelli applies to all powers.

2. People get left behind.

3. Microbes influence human suffering more than humans.

4. China is the 1st world, not the third.

5. The U.S. is in debt, but the Chinese have no market without it.

6. Communism is not truly an international movement. Communism is merely a different set of people oppressing, but with the same native cultural basis. I.E. Chinese communism is not Russian communism, or Tzar = Comintern more than Comintern = Mao.

January 17, 2007 at 03:48 PM · Ihnsouk you might be correct. For some strange reason I was assuming everything went right.

January 17, 2007 at 03:58 PM · given the poverty level in china, it is third world the last i checked. but, one can argue that china's influence in the world is picking up pace, possibly the fastest in the world.

i am not going to get into what usa or china has or has not. it is pretty clear the 2 powers are very closely related. if one does well, the other does well and vice versa.

it makes me chuckle every time i see people relate communism to the nowaday china. try talk about stalin and lenin or even mao to anyone who cares to listen, people will laugh their heads off. alright, that may be too much,,,they just chuckle.

January 17, 2007 at 04:09 PM · Ihnsouk, I thought I mentioned the similarity between Chinese current conditions and Industrial Revolution European conditions. Geez, just because it happened in Europe too doesn't make it right.

And Al Ku, referring to an earlier post, please do not dismiss my concerns about the conditions under which these people have to work as "ethnic prejudice", "pseudo geopolitical wisdom" or "adorable and sexy self-righteousness."

January 17, 2007 at 05:19 PM · Ihnsouk Guim,

You must realize that WWI & WWII played a big role in how Communism was viewed around the Globe, and how the USA had to deal with it.

A huge factor in geo-politics was the outcome of WWII, and who was backing whom etc. etc. etc.

January 18, 2007 at 01:57 AM · putting world politics, human rights issues, income/poverty levels etc aside...

i wonder how the chinese instruments play and sound?

i havent been violin hunting in a long time and have not paid attention to where these chinese instruments are ending up!

are they hard to play? do they sound decent? and lastly...are they visually appealing?

January 18, 2007 at 02:19 AM · Look, no matter what you think about China, they are the only people in the world who get to eat Chinese for breakfast.

January 18, 2007 at 04:04 AM · Do you suppose that, on late lazy nights in China when everybody is just sitting at home watching movies or whatever, they all order American take-out?

January 18, 2007 at 05:57 AM · As to "how they sound and play". They range from pretty darn good for $150 to pretty darn good for $5500! And of course there is the crappy violin shaped objects also. The workmanship is very good if the right factory/workshop is chosen.

I have noticed a good deal of consistency among "models" of instruments. That is to say, the back/side and front wood, varnish, graduation, archings are remarkably similar in each violin models that I get. The highest quality models are usually made from European tonewood. These are from the better "award wining makers" who set up a workshop, Zhu, Cao, X. Sun, and others for example. Easman comes to mind also.

By the way not all Chinese violins are made in a factory. Ming Jiang Zhu has a small workshop of about 20 workers who are highly skilled individuals.

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